Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: The Importance of Being Milton

When the infant Milton Klonsky was given his name, his parents considered they were calling him after his grandmother Malke. But when, in 8B3 at P.S. 100, as editor of the Gossip and author of its column of general reflections, “World Events,” young Klonsky first tasted the intoxication of literature, he was apprised by a wise teacher of the responsibilities attached to the poet’s name he bore. Since then he has carefully cultivated “that one talent which is death to hide,” publishing poetry and essays in a number of our better periodicals.

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It’s no use trying to blame or to justify the mortal taste, so long ago, that passed over Morton and Mortimer, Marvin and Melvin, and fixed, irrevocably, on Milton as just right, a name which would become me. It was a bond, not a brand-for what became of me can be traced back to that one fatal choice. Whenever I hear it swelling under and rising above the choir of other names, I feel again identified with “the organ voice of England” (as Tennyson called him)-”Milton! a name to resound for ages!” Descend, Urania!

My mother must have heard the echoes in the boroughs of New York, without knowing their source. She had never read Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, Comus, or any other works of the poet; Milton seemed to her not only a nice name, but the closest to my deceased grandmother’s, Malke. No garland was intended for John Milton. Even among my friends on the block the great name was slanged around in a casual way, nicked and diminished to Milty or, more often, Milt.

Who cared? In those days, when the fruit of good and evil was still green, I would plunge frequently into a forest daydream “with native honor clad in naked majesty,” where I was known as Bomba the Jungle Boy. And what-the question is laughable- would Bomba have to do with poetry, a puling girl’s game no better than potsy or ropejumping? If I had been told then that I belonged to the same totem as John Milton, a poet in the 17th century who wore his hair in long curly locks, I would have laughed and plunged back into the forest.

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This primitive attitude was bound to change, and did, as my own voice lost its shrillness and took on some of the deep undernotes of the organ. During my last year at P. S. 100 in Brooklyn, I became the editor of the 8B3 Gossip. I was not only the editor but the production chief, editorial writer, and circulation manager of the Gossip, since it was my idea in the first place. In a sense, I was the Gossip. Of course, most of the creative writing was done by the rest of the class and there was an editorial board consisting mainly of girls but I set the style and policy of the Gossip from the start. Only the name was not my own. I would rather have called it the 8B3 Bugle, or something with more force, but the board decided otherwise.

With the special privileges granted the editor of the Gossip, I could escape the feeling of crib, the ennui, the routine of bells, the mill in the halls, and the endless perspectives of desks which I had endured for eight years. In the morning, while attendance was being taken, I’d sometimes saunter out past the monitors at the doors into the schoolyard, and watch the blackboard squad, trying to make their job last as long as possible, beating the chalk dust out of felt erasers until the air around them was white. Then, if in the mood, I would walk into the street-always somewhat unreal and romantic between 9 and 3-where, my lungs enlarged by the spirit of freedom, I would light up my cigarette and inhale the divine afflatus. What a lift it gave me! At such times, as though I had taken the food of the gods, I would look down from an enormous height while the blackboard squad picked up their erasers and reluctantly went inside, the monitors shut the doors, and, occasionally, someone late for class would come charging down the street in an open panic, unlaced and unbuttoned. I was above all that. Only the sound of bells ringing vaguely inside could bring me down a little, and I’d go back to my place with class 8B3 and dawdle through the day, still abstracted.

My real work began when school was over. For the sake of the Gossip, I might stay in the empty halls as late as 5 P. M. to accept and reject manuscripts, assign reporters, revise copy, set deadlines, and award by-lines. Whatever I said, went. When students from the 8B’s, as well as from the lower classes of P. S. 100, came to me with their ideas and compositions for the Gossip, I would attend patiently to them all and offer my criticisms. Even if a stickball or punchball game was taking place on the block, I chose to remain at my desk day after day. And yet, behind my back, there were some grudgers, bitches, and malcontents- especially Gloria Lockoff—who said that I, who started the Gossip in the first place, was getting to be bossy and conceited! I never bothered to answer them, though I knew who they were, letting my work speak for itself.

Gradually, the shape of the Gossip began to emerge from the hodgepodge of contributions, and I saw it was going to be good. On the front page, of course, would be important items such as the Principal’s speech in the assembly on citizenship, the results of the intramural sports contests, a report on the P.T. A., and my editorial on “World Events.” Then there was an anonymous column called “School Bromides” which listed the boring refrains of the faculty under the subtitle “History Repeats Itself, So Do Teachers.” For this I contributed Mr. Stackenfeld’s “I remember when I was a boy . . .,” Miss Dinkel’s “Now this test doesn’t count,” Miss O’Leary’s “You’re dealing with Miss O’Leary,” and one or two others. Also we had reports on the Cooking Club called “Cook-Coos,” the Campers’ Club, which had recently hiked to Bear Mountain, the Stamp Club, and the Debating Society. A short story called “Triumph,” by David Goldstein, though obviously derived from Grayson in Garry Grayson His Speed, had a quality of its own and was accepted.

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Most of my trouble came from the book-review section, called “The Bookworm Turns,” by Gloria Lockoff. In my opinion, it didn’t satisfy the editorial standards of the Gossip. But since this Gloria Lockoff was the pet of the library teacher, Mrs. Kohn, and Mrs. Kohn was supposed to be the Gossip’s faculty adviser, I thought it more politic, in the end, to accept her contributions. Everybody agreed that the Gossip should do something for literature; but who, felt, would be interested in a review of II Pagliacci such as this:

Do actors while amusing a public forget that they are merely dramatizing what someone else’s pen has written? Why does Canio, the clown of a troupe of actors, tell Tonio, the head of the troupe, that his wife, Nedda, has made a secret tryst with Silvio, a peasant, when he knows that he is very hot-tempered? Tonio at first does not believe him for he knows that Canio has a lying tongue, but his doubts are soon confirmed for he sees Silvio in the front row of seats with eyes for Nedda alone who looks at him and blushes. Will anyone be able to disentangle this web of hearts? Why not read Il Pagliacci, this heart rendering opera and find out for yourself the outcome of this tragedy? The Tales of the Opera are to be found in the music shelf of our library.

We even had to take a second review by Gloria Lockoff on Richard Harding Davis’s “In the Fog,” which wasn’t much better.

What had happened to Lord Chetney? Nobody knew. Suddenly a report was received: “Lord Chetney found dead with Princess Zicky, in a house with furnishings of Russian origin, location unknown.” Reported by Lieut. Sears, an American, who was found in the vicinity of the police station wandering about apparently lost in the London fog. Who had committed this atrocious murder and then vanished, swallowed up in the fog, leaving only a trail of blood behind him? Was the Princess Zicky only an imposter who, preying upon rich men’s purses, suddenly met her fate, killed by one of her recent admirers, whom she had stripped of every vestige of honor, and now, seeing her entertaining someone else, had returned to commit this ghastly deed? Nobody knew. Who was the Queen’s messenger? Was it not queer that nobody had ever seen or heard of him before? I cannot answer these questions as skillfully as the author, so why not read “In the Fog” by Richard Harding Davis which you will find in the book called Fourteen Great Detective Stories.

I insisted, however, that we publish a report by our sports editor, Edwin Kanner, on the final game in the P. S. 100 baseball tournament between 8B2 and 8B3, even though we lost. It was a game in which I played right field.

Spectators went wild with excitement, and dazzled by the form of the players, waited anxiously for the beginning of the 8B3-8B2 championship game. Mr. Stackenfeld, athletic director, called the captains of the two teams together. 8B2 luckily won the toss and chose to be last up at bat. In the first inning, 8B3 with bases loaded and one man out, realized that they had a chance to score. 8B2′s pitcher turned nervously around to see if his team was ready. With the shouts of encouragement ringing in his ears, in two successive pitches retired to the side. 8B2 was cheered lustily as they came to bat. By superb playing of 8B3, they were retired scoreless. The second and third innings were scoreless and the crowd murmured to the effect that it was a pitchers’ battle. After exceptionally good fielding, 8B2 retired 8B3 in the beginning of the 4th inning. 8B2 with determined thoughts now came to bat. Ben Krakowsky, one of 8B2′s star hitters, singled. Heavy hitters then sent Ben around to score 8B2′s lone tally. Filled with desperate determination, 8B3 came to bat. Their efforts were futile as 8B2 retired them scoreless and disheartened. The game was over and losers and victors joined lustily in a loud cheer.

When all the copy was in and approved, the Art Squad prepared an emblem for the masthead showing the silhouette of P. S. 100 with “8B3 GOSSIP” in a banner waving across the page. I then took the Gossip down to Mrs. Schwartz, the Principal’s secretary, who prepared it for mimeographing. Mrs. Schwartz worked all afternoon, typing page after page, while I turned the handle of the mimeograph machine. A poem in tribute to Mrs. Schwartz, written by Vivian Kuskin of 8B3, was printed in a box on the front sheet.

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A TRIBUTE

Mrs. Schwartz is the queen
Of the mimi-machine.
When our inspiration was ripe
She worked on the type.
As class 8B3
So thankful are we, We don’t have to be taught Mrs.
Schwartz is a sport!

For me that was a great day, bugled and spangled above all others, when the Gossip made its debut in P. S. 100. It was sold in stacks, it was read all over the neighborhood, I was named and acclaimed by everybody. At the school assembly that week, right after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, the Principal himself asked me to stand up again and be introduced. With all the classes in 8B there to witness, I rose- O Altitudo!- and walked down the aisle toward the platform, my legs a little stiff and shaky as though I were on stilts, my head in an aureole, looking straight ahead and not turning while friends on all sides whispered “Hey Milty! Hey Milty!” as I passed, until, after a long stretch, I reached the platform and shook hands with the Principal. It was the peak of my eminence.

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But within a week, only a few days, it began to crumble, the Gossip seemed nearly forgotten, and I found myself on a level with the rest, back at the mill. During lunch hour, I would sometimes see scattered pages of the Gossip blowing around the schoolyard, along with old exam papers, pieces of comic sections, and torn sandwich wrappings. I could no longer get outside the building in the morning, to smoke my cigarette, and no one came to me for advice in the afternoon. Yet what hurt almost as much was the indifferent response to my editorial, “World Events,” from those who should have known better. In my high days as editor, I had thought of “World Events” as a visionary down-look (so to speak) from the top of the masthead. But now, so far had I fallen, I was even told by my history teacher that it showed the bad influence of the editorial page of the Daily News!

Without the Gossip to sustain me, I would arrive late in the morning and leave as soon as the bell rang. The chafes, contumelies, and all the kid-stuff of school grew more intolerable. Each period the door that shut on the class stifled an open yawn of boredom, and the halls narrowed and narrowed so that I could hardly squeeze my way through to the end of the day. While I sat inside the classroom, my spirit flew out of the window. The teacher had to call my name two or three times before I could return in time to recollect myself. And then, in a daydream, the idea came to me.

“O for that warning voice!”-but no voice was heard. The toad came and squatted, hissing in my ear. From a mere speculative vagary, a speck, the idea bouldered in concreteness and importance until, in the end, it took up all the space in my mind. And one night, at the instigation of Auld Scratch himself, who “set himself in glory above his peers” and “thought to have equalled the most high,” I did it. I wrote the following letter to the Principal:

Dear Sir:

I’ve read the paper put out by the students of P. S. 100, and I’ve never read a paper as good as the Gossip. As a member of the P. T. A., I want to congratulate you. I especially liked the editorial “World Events,” which had a real understanding of history.

Yours sincerely, Mrs. S. Falk

As soon as I had deposited this in the mail box, I felt in my bones the awful knowledge of Will and Fate. I wished I could have undone it, and yet I knew I would have done it again. It was knowledge bought dear, as it always is, by knowing ill. Of course, I considered it very unlikely that the letter would be traced to me-who’s Mrs. Falk?-but I was irritable with suspense. The next day in class, every time my name was called I heard it at once and winced, expecting to be summoned before the teacher, accused, judged, and sentenced. Only a small abyss separated my desk from the teacher’s. And though this day passed like any other, my anxiety remained. By the end of the week, just as I was beginning to feel secure again, an incident occurred during the gym period which was an omen of things to come.

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GYM was one class I really disliked. That afternoon it was 8B3′s turn to play basketball on the small basement court painted in a flat, peeling, municipal gray, a dim and stuffy place where echoes resounded from side to side like the ghosts of old balls, a place larded as it were with an ancient smell of sneakers and stale underwear. We used to keep the same uniforms in our lockers throughout the term; and the joke, as old as the school, stated that socks were to be changed twice a year-in summer, if they stuck when you threw them against the wall, and in winter, if they stood up by themselves and you had to pull them on like boots. The basketball court itself was hardly large enough for a regulation-sized game, yet thirty or more players would be crowded on the floor. You might sometimes rush around for a whole hour without ever touching the ball. Anyone who managed to get it in his grasp would defend it against anyone else, teammates as well as opponents, since they were all out to take it away.

As it happened, fate tipped the ball into my hands. I bounced it once, looking around for a possible shot at the basket, feinted, and then dribbled sideways down the court, jumped and placed a perfect layup right through the hoop. Then the whistle blew. Mr. Stackenfeld, the gym teacher, claimed that I was hacking, holding, and running with the ball! The decision was so unjust, and fell at such a triumphant moment when I had almost recovered my sense of glory, that I threw the ball away, cursed, and burst into tears. I was dismissed from the class.

It did not seem possible that Mr. Stackenfeld’s decision against me could have been influenced by the column “School Bromides” printed in the Gossip. Yet what other explanation was there? Furthermore, I had never had anything to do with those obscene glyphs and caricatures on the walls of the Boys’ Room showing Mr. Stackenfeld with Miss Dinkel, the science teacher, though it was a broad joke throughout P. S. 100. The thought of his ingratitude, and my own humiliation, made the Adam’s apple swell in my throat. My eyes blurred again, and I plunged into myself conjuring images of revenge and redemption.

By the time I reached the next class, Mrs. Kohn’s library period, I was already in such a deep mood that I could hardly emerge to hear her calling my name. But somebody nudged me, pointed, and I crossed the Bar and small abyss that separated us. Mrs. Kohn made me stand and wait while she looked at me steadily without saying a word. Then, turning, she put it on the table.

I took the letter and pretended to read my own unmistakable, Palmer-methodized handwriting, searching for a way out. “That’s a fine letter,” I told her.

Mrs. Kohn kept looking at me.

“Who’s Mrs. Folk?”I said. And felt the jab of a pitchfork in my conscience.

Finally, the teacher spoke. “All right, Milton, that’s enough.” And then, a little sadly: “You know, I once thought of promoting you to the T class.”

She was referring to an occasion, the year before, when I had almost been elevated to 8B1, the select class in P.S. 100 for those with the highest grades and the best conduct, instead of being stuck in the catch-all 8B3. But that was a light-year ago. Standing there, with my head down, I wished to be neither in the “1” nor the “3” but in a null class by myself, and nameless if possible, a nonentity conceived by a sin of omission, X and nowhere. It was all over.

After a conference of the Dean, Mrs. Kohn, and Mr. Stackenfeld-who had already reported the incident in the gym- a note was sent to my mother. She arrived solidly in school with me the next morning, prepared to fight it out as usual. My mother had been to such sessions before, over minor issues of unsigned report cards, ink fights, etc., and had always managed to prove me right. But all the testimony against me this time, capped by the fatal letter of Mrs. Falk, was too much even for her, and she subsided in silence.

The Dean proposed that my mother take me to see a certain professor of child psychology at Hunter College who specialized in “hard” cases. Since that seemed the easiest way out for me, and, besides, would offer a day’s surcease from school, I agreed. Accordingly, an appointment was made with the professor, and that same week Mr. Stackenfeld himself drove us to Hunter College in his car. My mother sat beside me in the back seat looking as resigned and mournful as possible. To distract myself on the long ride to Manhattan from Brooklyn, I took along a book which had never failed before, Through Space to Mars, but somehow the weight and gravity of the situation held me down. I was even more depressed by the time we arrived.

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Hunter College was the largest school I had ever seen, and it swarmed with women. Mr. Stackenfeld guided us through a wide corridor where women smiled and gurgled with pleasure when they saw me, as though they knew who I was, until, around a bend, we found the professor’s office. Here Mr. Stackenfeld and my mother both left me, and I sat down waiting for the ordeal.

In a little while, someone called me by name and led me across the hall into a room where the professor held his classes. It was a seminar or laboratory in advanced child psychology, and I was the advanced case. The room was a sort of pit-like, sloping auditorium and at the bottom, behind a desk, was an old man with a tuft of gray beard who smiled and glowed and pointed with a pencil to a high chair for me to sit down. The light reflecting upon his glasses hid his eyes, and was triangulated by a gold disk that hung upon a chain around his waist like a little sun. The scene was weird. On the high chair, “by merit raised to this bad eminence,” I looked around and saw that the class was filled with women all beaming at me and taking notes.

The first question the professor asked turned me deeply into myself: “Which do you like better, Milton, your father or your mother?”

As a man playing basketball suddenly receives the center tap, and swerves, looking for an opening to, pass or shoot or dribble down the court, while, on all sides, he sees nothing but milling and confusing arms, the shouts of his own teammates wrangling with those of his opponents, some crying here and some crying there, until the ball swells in his hands and the hoop contracts to a little far-off ring, and, at last, the umpire blows his whistle to end the play-so I sat baffled and uncertain of what to do. Who could answer a question like that? When he saw that I was confused and holding, the professor quickly changed the subject.

He poked his long finger into my past and put words in my mouth I never knew were there. In the presence of the girls in the class he asked me a highly personal question. I felt reduced and exposed. And all the while, I kept trying to penetrate the glare on his glasses, to see what he was seeing. But it was as though the light came from behind.

When I turned my head away, I succeeded in recovering my poise. After a few stammers, I began to anticipate and then parry his questions, asked him one in return, made a few asides to the audience, even cracked a joke and was beatified when all the smilers burst into a loud laugh. The oppressive atmosphere of the class lifted. Since the professor wanted to hear about the Gossip, I outlined its history from the start- my work as editor, its contents, the trouble with Gloria Lockoff, described the policy of the paper, and expanded some of the ideas in my editorial “World Events” – omitting nothing but the letter from Mrs. Falk, which he knew about anyway. By the time the class bell rang, with the same angry finality as at P. S. 100, I was in a high state of self-esteem.

What a fool I was! A minute later, I realized how he had deliberately duped and tempted me to expose myself, exalted me only to make my fall more abject, and I felt, in the pit of my stomach, the vertigo of descending in an elevator very rapidly. As the class emptied, I saw him saying something to my mother at the door; and, from the way his beard jerked in my direction from time to time, I was sure the news was evil. We left together in a lingering mood, with the world all before us. “What’s going to become of you, Milton?” she told me. My mother had often said that, even in small things like liver or soft-boiled eggs, I didn’t know what good was. And as we sat in the back of the car going home, she repeated again and again that the professor thought I was too wild, spoiled, conceited, and unaware of the difference between right and wrong. That was his opinion.

The professor’s solicitude did not end with my ordeal at Hunter College. For weeks afterwards students from his class would drop in to see me at home and chat with my mother, still smiling at us and taking notes. From a special case I had become a project. But, in time, these visitations became less frequent, and even the memory of the Gossip faded to a distant blue. I fitted myself into the cramp of school again.

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Then the warm weather of spring and the approaching day of graduation brought a carnival excitement to class 8B3. As though we were all celebrities, everybody was signing everybody else’s autograph album. David Goldstein wrote in mine: “In the golden chain of friendship, regard me as a link”; Helen Lavoy: “Roses are red, violets are blue, a face like yours belongs in a zoo”- but she really liked me; Rubin Bayliss: “Take the local, take the express, but don’t get off till you reach success”; that jerk, Albert Moscowitz: “Consideration, tolerance, and a fatalist’s perspective, and you cannot help but make your work”; and Gloria Lockoff, without rhyme: “I wish you all the success in the world and if you ever become a newspaper editor let me know or rather Mrs. Kohn. She’d love to see what you turned out to be. If anything.” This was typical of her.

I had always imagined the end of school as a day of absolute freedom and revelation when I would see the other side of the moon. For years I had longed for it. Yet as the time came closer, I began to feel sentimental about good old P. S. 100. I visited my earliest teachers from the lower grades, carved my initials deeply and finally on my desk, and sang the school anthem in a loud voice at assemblies. One morning in the auditorium, during a dress rehearsal for the great day, while I was marching up and down the aisle in my “graduation suit”-with long trousers instead of knickers-a note came that the Principal wanted to see me.

When I entered his office, the Principal was sitting ensphered behind a wide round desk, in a white office, with an American flag on the wall over his head. What a difference from the gloomy pit where I had been tormented by the professor! I had seen the Principal at assemblies and heard his name whispered in awe ever since I was first enrolled at P. S. 100, but we had never exchanged more than a few solemn and stilted words. Now he beckoned me to sit down. He began by asking me the serious question that has bored generation after generation-what did I want to be when I grew up? And I answered, as I always did, that I didn’t know for sure. While he talked, my attention wandered over the school plaques and trophies in his office, to the walls smiling with photographs, through the window looking out over the schoolyard – arrested occasionally by the sound of the words “Gossip” and “World Events”-and returned to find him standing enormously above me. At this cue, I too stood up and we shook hands as we had once before on the stage of the auditorium.

“Milton,” he said, “Milton, you know you’re named after John Milton.” No I wasn’t. “He was a Puritan and a great poet.” And there it was.

A large picture hung in the assembly hall showing a group of Puritans on their way to church on the first Thanksgiving Day. And though I had heard vaguely of John Milton by then, it was difficult to think of a poet as one of those grim characters dressed in black knickers, stiff collars, and what looked like firemen’s hats. Nevertheless, I was impressed.

I went to the library that day, and for the first time opened Paradise Lost. The “organ voice” thundered at me: Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death. . ..-and all the words seemed to be sounding at once. What was he talking about? I read the lines again, and again they gibbered in my mind like words without meaning. Was this poetry? It was nothing like those easy poems printed in the back of the Eighth-Grade Speller which we had been forced to memorize and recite in class. But even without understanding why, I couldn’t forget that great blind voice with its oceanic range, broad and powerful enough to be heard across three centuries of time.

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Ah Well, Urania-“the meaning, not the name, I call”-you know what I’m going to say. Whether we make our choices or our choices are made for us, like our names, it all comes to the same thing in the end. What thing? There is a ring where name and image join. As I was deaf to my own name and its meaning, so at last I was identified with Milton, blind to his own image by a kind of visual amnesia. But I don’t have to justify myself before you. Only by accident can we ever find an Eternal Providence in our lives, although, to come down to earth, for our ways to have crossed that way in Brooklyn was a revelation of poetic justice-as if there were any other kind.

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