KB Editorial for Fall 2009 - Interview with William Bailey

AS SPRING WAS TOUCHING THE BLUE SPRUCE AND BIRCHES in the high mountains of New Mexico, one of KB’s old friends, William Bailey, died of a heart attack in the rarified atmosphere of the old artist’s colony at Cloudcroft. Bailey, outdoorsman, athlete, artist, philosopher and rhetorician spoke to me two weeks before his death in a brief interview about his relationship with Burke. With a continent between them, Bailey and Burke saw each other irregularly and at long intervals. “Yet when we did see each other we caught up quickly. We had what Red Warren called instant context. We were both immensely over-read and over fluent characters,” said Bailey.

King: I understand that you invited Burke to visit your place in Cloudcroft several times, but he never accepted your invitation?

Bailey: Burke almost accepted in 1976 when he did a sort of college tour. After that he always claimed he was too feeble. He was intrigued by the idea of living in an place so rolly-poly with eccentrics but felt the thin air and the vertical walking might do him in.

King: When did you first meet Burke?

Bailey: Marie Hochmuth Nichols introduced him to me when I was a student at Illinois. Years later as a doctoral student at Northwestern, Lee Griffin had me escort him around campus and get him to lectures.

King: What was your first impression of him?

Bailey: He was short and strongly made like me. He had done manual labor and one of his hands was bigger than the other just like mine.{Bailey showed me that his own right hand was somewhat larger than his left} And he had my nose and my shape of head and my Popeye forearms—He had lived on a small farm in Jersey and I had grown up on one in Southern Illinois. And we had both wanted to be fiction writers.

King: So you had met a surrogate father?

Bailey: Well, no, old son, you are stretching it. It is just that when we spoke together we always had instant context. He knew all the things I knew and felt them as deeply as I did.

King: What did you talk about mostly?

Bailey: Well, we were both wordsmiths but I was fascinated by images. We did talk a little about the art of the comic strip and how it had been influenced by the camera work of the film and how theatre and film were different platforms and altered the content of any piece of written fiction.

King: I understand you had long quarrels about McLuhan.

Bailey: Not really. He was never interested enough in McLuhan’s work to quarrel about his ideas.

King: I know you had debates. What were the issues that divided you?

Bailey: He used to quote Wittgenstein’s saying: “When a tree bends in the wind but grows stronger that is drama, but when it suddenly snaps we have tragedy.” He quoted that when we talked about my problem of trying to write serious fiction that was not mawkish or clownish. I think he worried about the same fault in his earlier attempts at literature. He told me that social criticism was the path I ought to take.

King: And did his attitude make you angry?

Bailey: Yes, he was telling me that he was ashamed of his poetic flights; he was afraid that he could never reach the sublime and so he satirized and laughed at serious and sublime matters. I refused to give up the struggle and become a mere critic and that bothered him. He felt I was making a judgment against him. He once told me that he wanted to act on the world rather than just reflect upon it as I did. He once read a poem of mine and then accused me of stirring up things that were buried deep in other people’s souls and then just playing with them for the exercise of my art.. He was afraid he couldn’t be tough minded and useful and be a real poet. Many Americans who grew up inthe20’s and 30’s of the last century had that attitude. O’Neill and Fitzgerald spent their lives trying to overcome it.

King: So you are telling me that Burke would rather have been a famous writer of fiction than a master rhetorician and social critic? Are you saying that?

Bailey: Yes, I think that is why he hit Faulkner so hard, calling him a social scientist and laughing at what he called his “ponderously slurred Southern voice.” He envied Faulkner as he envied Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and even Lefty Odets. He felt his talent was analytical and that he lacked that touch of madness that great Poets have. Of course I envied Faulkner at least as much as he did.

King: I don’t agree with that. His writings on Faulkner are laudatory.

Bailey: Maybe. I am talking about what he said to me on a couple of long city walks.

King: A little about your values as opposed to Burke—what things delight you most?

Bailey: Is this a rock star review? I didn’t know this interview was going to be about me. Are you going to ask me to give you a list of my ten favorite possessions?

King: Sorry, I’ll get back on track, Bill.

Bailey: I’ll answer anything if you keep to the subject of KB.

King: I understand that you abhor the extent to which scholars have used Burkean Method as a useful tool box instead of treating Burkeanism as a comprehensive statement on language and human relations.

Bailey: Yes, the crimson thread running through Burke’s fabric is that we are becoming ungrounded, too far from the sources of our being. He worried about the Abstract Society. His whole project was about the social codes of the community subverting the wisdom of the body.

King: Is that what he means in "The White Oxen" when he speaks about “the danger of Ecology overcoming Gallantry” and do you agree?

Bailey: Yes, he taught that language allows sheer animal lust to be masked as agape, phony altruism, social control, codes of etiquette and empire building.

King: You have also worried about the pomposity and grandiosity of language usage in the area of commerce and industry.

Bailey: Burke told us that the cruder and more brutally material the transaction, the more it was invested with a compensatory divinity. And anyone who has lived with artists knows that the more spiritual, the more stratospheric the aesthetic, the more ferocious is the commercial frenzy that is brought in the back door.

King: I am shocked. You found this among the gifted painters at Cloudcroft?

Bailey: Burke predicted there would be some farcically empty careerists among the aesthetes and selfless craftsman. He was right. The entrepreneurial types were a dominant majority. A few of the most famous artists there would sell their souls for a bit of hard currency—the most cretinous goons I’ve ever run across.

Bill told me he was suddenly getting very tired at this point in the interview and we wound it up quickly. Three weeks later David Hardy called me from Tucson to tell me that Bill had been rushed to the hospital complaining of severe chest pains and had died on the way. He told me he once said to Burke: “I hope we both go out game.” We will always think of him at our best. We shall miss him.