Writing Under Olson's Eye: Michael Rumaker's Black Mountain Days
Mark A. Roberts
Black Mountain Days.|
Black Mountain Press, 2003.
544 pages, $25 (paperback).
In Black Mountain Days, Michael Rumaker narrates his experiences while learning to write at one of America's truly experimental schools, Black Mountain College (BMC). His tale is peppered with humorous and interesting anecdotes of eccentrics who taught at and attended BMC—Lou Harrison, Robert Creeley, M. C. Richards, John Cage, and Jonathan Williams (among others)—and is salted with historical facts about the college's workings and its ultimate demise. These spices are skillfully rubbed onto Rumaker's main course: the tale of his own struggles to become a writer, a writer of whom his mentor, Charles Olson, could be proud.
What strikes me about Black Mountain Days is how Rumaker captures the character and tenor of that grand literary figure Charles Olson, while simultaneously painting the intricate emotional and intellectual ties Rumaker—the shy, young, aspiring artist—had with the dominant, authoritative Olson. Olson was not a lenient mentor. Brutally honest is perhaps the best description. Rumaker recalls, after turning in a particularly bad story, that Olson became "incensed" and tore into his work for not rendering a lived experienced. "What struck me most," Rumaker recalls, "was the impact on me of the vehemence of Charles' anger, but one phrase in particular cut deep: 'I'm not here to be psychologist to you!'" Rumaker, having been kicked out of his father's home for being "queer," was certainly going through some psychological stress. But despite this harsh disciplining, Rumaker clung to Olson, and by Rumaker's own accounts, Olson became "a father figure" to him.
Throughout the narrative, Olson is animated, towering over Rumaker, criticizing the young man's work, prodding him to take creative and intellectual risks, and praising him only when the green writer offered some sign of potential. In many ways, Black Mountain Days reads like an artist's coming-of-age story. And although the narrative begins sluggishly, Rumaker eventually pulls us in when he recounts the tense relationship he had with Olson.
Admirably, Rumaker eschews romanticizing his literary mentor and yet, at the same time, honors him with statements like these: "I loved Charles for his shifting sensibilities . . . the flashes of tenderness and strength." And: "Hard as Charles' fury was, his verbal slaps . . . awakened me to a new birth . . . his rage had been a cruel but necessary baptism." When Olson finally praises Rumaker's work—which takes at least one hundred pages—the tension, which Rumaker adeptly builds to a climax, opens like a flood gate. In fact, Rumaker's success in Black Mountain Days is his ability to make his memoir read like a novel of strained, familial relationships.
Because of its honest appraisal of Olson and the college in general, Rumaker's book will be useful to Black Mountain College and Olson scholars; it will be equally useful to literary critics interested in Rumaker's own development as a writer. And for those non-scholars who are simply enthralled with BMC history and lore, Black Mountain Days is essential reading.