Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My Friend Franklin

Today I got the bad news that my friend Franklin Chestnut had been taken ill last week and rushed to the hospital where, after various complications arising from previously undiagnosed diabetes, he died on Sunday.

It was good of Franklin's sister to get me the news, which couldn't have been easy given that we've never met. I'm grateful to her for letting me know, and for sending a link to the brief obit posted at the funeral home's site; beyond those bare facts you can get a better idea of what he was like, and why people liked him, by clicking on the "view all memories" link at the bottom of that page and seeing the memories of Franklin people posted there.

Given how rarely I saw Franklin -- only two get-togethers since we left Fayetteville in '81 -- it's really hit me hard that he's suddenly gone. There are some people you depend upon always being there, even if you're not in touch, and for me Franklin was one of those people. We'd been grad students together at Fayetteville in the Master's program there, and after I moved up to Milwaukee and he moved back to Russellville we kept in touch, exchanging letters --at first every few months, eventually about every other year or so. His were full of what he was reading, what new music he was listening to, and what he'd written lately; mine were full of my latest scholarly projects, recent record purchases, and any new authors I'd come across.

Early on he'd sent me his master's thesis, and later on some of his poems, but always on the condition that I not make any copy and sent them back after I'd read them: He was the shyest author I've ever known. So that now I find that aside from his letters I only have one poem ("The Blind Man Describes the Color Green"), my favorite of them all, though the details of why it was exempted I no longer remember.

I'm particularly sad that I don't have a copy of his master's thesis, which was an introduction to fantasy literature and survey of all the major authors. I enjoyed reading this v. much, and I learned a lot from the way he organized the material and put the authors in context to each other. I was pretty new to fantasy at the time, having just seriously expanded beyond re-reading Tolkien about two years before. I'll always be grateful to him for introducing me to the work of John Bellairs: I remember that the passage he excerpted from THE FACE IN THE FROST was the pumpkin coach episode. I learned a lot from Franklin, and remember sharing my enthusiasm for Thorne Smith and Lord Dunsany with him when I discovered their work in the summer and fall of 1981, respectively.*

But whereas the rest of us in the Master's program together there at Fayetteville all took the two extra classes to fulfill the degree requirements (30 hours of coursework, or 24 hours plus a master's thesis), Franklin opted to write the thesis, since he wasn't going on to a doctoral program afterwards (that is, since he already had a library science degree, his Masters in English wd be for him a terminal degree, like a M.F.A. for creative writing students). He was the only one of us to do this, and it turned out disastrously. When he submitted it to his committee, the department (for reasons unclear at the time or afterwards) added a fourth member to his committee, who disliked his simply having presented a lot of information in a clear and coherent manner (as was appropriate for a survey and overview) rather that trying to view the material through the lens of critical theory. She convinced the rest of the committee to demand he re-write it, which he did. Then she demanded a second rewrite, which he did. Then she demanded a third rewrite (that is, a fourth version of the entire thesis). Whereupon he put it in a drawer, never again to see the light of day. A pity, since it was good work and would have served as a really good introduction to the genre -- I certainly would have cited it in my own dissertation, had that been an option.

But while that convinced him to leave academia, it didn't sour him on fantasy or reading or scholarship. Sometimes I'd send him a piece I'd done to get the benefit of his response, and I always enjoyed his comments. I particularly prize the letter he sent after I sent him THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT; I keep it in my own copy of MR. BAGGINS.

There's so much more I could say -- about how we met (he and his father came to look at the apartment I was leaving and he was instantly drawn to my record collection and Tolkien shelf),** or our shared love for Tolkien and rock music (esp. the Beatles),*** and cats. About his love of sharing his enthusiasms. About the time he came over, sure he was experiencing audial hallucinations, to ask if I had been playing "L. S. Bumble Bee" on a clarinet (the answer was yes). Or my favorite story when he knocked on my window in some distress and asked if I cd help him find his glasses. He'd looked all over his apartment and they were nowhere to be found. Whereupon I reached out and moved them from his forehead, where he'd absent-mindedly pushed them up sometime earlier, to let them fall into place on his nose, and watched the most beafic expression spread across his face.

In the end, it's so many good memories that make the sudden absence so stark. The last I heard from him, he was reading the BOOK OF ENOCH and John Ashbery (who I know of and actually met once**** but haven't read) and Kennth Koch (who I'd never even heard of). He was delighted that Brian Wilson had finally released SMILE after all those years, and he'd finally gotten a bootleg of the very Beatles concert he'd actually attended, in Memphis during their final tour.***** So I think ending with a musical reference is thoroughly appropriate. If he'd chosen for himself, it wd probably have been something from his hero Dr. Demento. But this song's been running through my head since I heard the news, so I think I'll end with it:

Just yesterday morning
They let me know you were gone.
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning
And I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to.

Oh I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought wd never end
I've seen lonely times when I cd not find a friend
But I always thought I'd see you again.

--James Taylor, "Fire and Rain" [1970]

*actually, I'd read THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER the year before (circa Feb 1980) but not been all that impressed; it was only after I got to Marquette that I discovered Dunsany's short stories and plays and realized just how good, and how important, an author he was. Similarly, when Franklin had asked me if Thorne Smith was any good I'd said no, since at that time I'd only read TOPPER and been unimpressed; it was that summer's reading of THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS, TURNABOUT, and to a lesser extent THE RAIN IN THE DOORWAY that I was convinced and wrote to him saying Smith definitely deserved inclusion in his survey.
**we actually wound up next-door-neighbors, by a process too complicated to recap here, and for a year fed the same stray cats.
***I actually told him about The Record Exchange, the used vinyl store on Dickson Street (the student strip), on that very first encounter, thus speeding his discovery of the place he was to work at by perhaps a matter of days (or perhaps only hours?); he later ran a branch of the store in Jonesburo.
****Ashbery was notorious back then as the only living poet Harold Bloom had approved of in THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE. I asked him what he thought of Bloom's praise and whether it put him under any pressure, and he said no, you pretty much have to ignore what the critics say about you, good or bad, if you're going to be a poet and actually get on with it.
*****in 1966. I always envied him that he'd actually seen the Beatles; being a few years older than me he'd been just old enough to talk his parents into it.


Extollager said...

With his store and records and knowledge and the cats and all, he sounds like the kind of character you meet in a Philip K. Dick novel and love.

Phillip J. Birmingham said...

I remember Franklin from the Record Exchange very well -- that's where I went to buy my Dead kennedys records. He tried hard to get me interested in Husker Du, but I wasn't biting. I was a fool, what can I say?

Phillip J. Birmingham said...

My apologies, I'm Phillip Birmingham , and I am not sure why Blogger is not picking up my Google Account information.