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from George Quasha, in memory of Spencer Holst:

To the Editor:

Spencer Holst died on Thanksgiving at St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center in lower Manhattan. The cause of death was complications of emphysema and apparent stroke. He was 75.

His unique writings — his inventions, “Spencer Holst stories” — have influenced and been praised by two generations of writers. His books include On Demons [1970, with Beate Wheeler], The Language of Cats & Other Stories [1971], Spencer Holst Stories [1976, a New York Times “notable book”], Something to Read to Someone & Sixteen Drawings [1980, with Beate Wheeler], Prose for Dancing [1983], The Zebra Storyteller [1993] and Brilliant Silence [2000], the latter four still available from Station Hill / Barrytown, Ltd. Audiographics has published tapes of his readings and plans CD collections in the future.

Spencer Holst was also an extraordinary and prolific painter in later years and exhibited regularly with the painter Beate Wheeler, his wife. (A painting is currently on exhibit at the Westbeth Gallery in Manhattan.)

Spencer Holst’s work gained a reputation first from the animated readings he gave during four decades in New York cafés, and since the 1960s he has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. He curiously straddled very different audiences and literary milieus, mostly published by small magazines and independent publishers but also appearing in the popular press (e.g., The Language of Cats was a mass market paperback). His many devoted readers regarded him as under-recognized, yet he received a number of awards, including, for Spencer Holst Stories, the Hilda and Richard Rosenthal Foundation Award in 1977 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He also received an award from the Foundation for Performing Arts. His work has been translated into other languages, including Swedish, Japanese, Spanish, and French. The charm and imaginative accessibility of his work made one wish that his stories become universally known — it would have to be good for the world.

He once said of himself: “In the geography of literature I have always felt my work to be equidistant between two writers, each born in Ohio — Hart Crane and James Thurber, but my wife says don’t be silly, your stories are halfway between Hans Christian Andersen and Franz Kafka.” Or Borges, greatly admired by Spencer and with whom he had a long correspondence. Yet, according to his sister, Mary-Ella Holst, in the 1950s he identified with the Beats.

Spencer Holst’s work was not obviously “experimental” yet he was a storyteller who challenged narrative in many ways, sometimes reducing story to a single sentence, as if the drama of unfolding syntax embodied a secret of story itself. “The bubbling Babylonian tablet came clean in the bath of acid.” He made an art in which language has consequences, both in ways we prefer to ignore and on levels we have yet to acknowledge or understand. “When she raises one eyebrow, and one nostril rises into half a sneer, and one eye closes to a slit — watch it!.” He felt he had invented a new kind of “very, very short story”; others felt the art he cultivated was liminal to performance and magic, in all of its senses. “My Reader, if you should suddenly discover that you have this very vase in your hands, handle it with care and a certain circumspection.” One never heard him refer to himself as a poet, but that non-view would be hard to sustain. “I am stuck in this chair in front of my typewriter like a fly on flypaper.”

Quite different poets/writers have praised his work, including John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Francine Prose, Muriel Rukeyser, John Hollander, Diane Wakoski, Donald Newlove, W.S. Merwin, Allen Ginsberg and Jerome Rothenberg. A New York Times reviewer called him “the most skilled fairy-tale artificer of our times.” In one edition of The Norton Anthology of the Short Story, his stories were the first and the last entries. His work is increasingly taught in schools and universities.

Born July 7th, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up in Rossford and Toledo, Ohio, where his father, Lawrence Spencer “Doc” Holst, was for many years a reporter and sports columnist (specializing in the Detroit Tigers) for The Toledo Blade and the former Toledo Times.

At 16 he dropped out of Scott High School and ran to New York to be a poet. He returned to Toledo but never finished school. He served in the army at the end of World War II, remaining stateside, and worked a short stint in the library of The Toledo Blade. Then, in 1957, he returned to New York, determined to be a writer. He married Beate Wheeler, an artist as impecunious as he, and in 1970 they became charter tenants of Westbeth, the artists’ residence on the lower West Side, where rents are charged according to a resident’s ability to pay. There, where he lived until his death, he played chess (frequently with John Cage during the years he too lived there), wrote his short stories, gave readings, painted and regularly exhibited, often with Beate Wheeler.

For money, which always was short, he did readings in bars, churches, cafés and other paying venues across New York, as well as colleges and universities. “He was a wonderful reader and storyteller,” his sister Mary-Ella said. “He could mesmerize an audience.” And in an interesting bit of cultural speculation, the Washington Post wrote in an article about him in 1975: “In New York City, as in other great and expensive cities of the world, there is a secret network of friends who conspire to live just the way they want, quietly and gently on practically nothing, without the system ever knowing.”

Perhaps his best-know short-story collection is The Language of Cats (incorporated in The Zebra Storyteller), in which, according to The Saturday Review, “he creates brief but startling visions of men who are maimed, lost, and lonely, unwarmed by the cold comforts of a scientific age.” Muriel Ruyekser offered a corrective to this view many would agree with: “At first I thought The Language of Cats was just a book of wry, marvelous fables. But as I went further and began to feel entirely different, I saw that what we have here is a matter of ecstasy.”

Surviving are his wife, Beate, and sister, Mary-Ella Holst, of Manhattan, and son, Sebastian, daughter-in-law, Dawn, and grandchildren Spencer Robert and Adrianna Beate of Chevy Chase, Maryland.

No funeral was held; his ashes were sent to a family grave site in Ohio. But there will be a memorial at Westbeth, probably early January, the date to be announced.

Those wishing to participate actively in the memorial can contact me [via e-mail].

George Quasha <gquasha@stationhill.org>.

Spencer Holst’s “The Zebra Storyteller” appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 3, No. 1.


On the work of writers in the present world:

To the Editor:

Thank you for the richness of Archipelago. Reading it has helped me see that there are so many people who share my concerns. The problem is that we are isolated. Writers are not in the mindset of conglomerates, which makes it easy for the last to act by “Divide and Rule.”

What we can do as individuals is still a lot, and can make a difference. As teachers and professors we can teach how to discern, maybe create a new form of Comparative Literature, that will compare real books to the nonbooks polluting our culture.

As reviewers we can create this kind of review, in which a new book of value is presented along with a nonbook from among the “best sellers.” Compare a “how-to” book to passages in literature which deal with human dilemmas in lasting and forceful ways.

Those among us who are successful literary writers can pressure the houses that publish them to devote a percentage of their budget to literary works chosen for their literary value alone, and to invest in their publication the same resources invested in the selling of a commercial book.

We can also demand from the newspapers that, along with and on the same page as, their list of the weekly “best sellers,” they publish a list of “best books.” Even if many newspapers belong to the same owner-publisher, they cannot exist without their journalists’ co-operation.

We can patronize independent bookstores and consider the slight difference in price as our individual contribution to the sustenance of culture. Being creative by nature, we can devise innumerable ways to have our concerns voiced and heard, create change. And since writing is our common language, we should strive to make it the real global language, by opening up to the rich diversity of the international spectrum. This applies especially to the insularity of the U.S.A.

As for the nature of change we’re witnessing – the second law of thermodynamics applies only to Time, not to what we do in time. Of course the past cannot be changed, but our actions as a society or as individuals can be changed at present and in the future. I am encouraged by the model of the Green Movement. It has built awareness and brought about a reversal of actions: threatened with the possibility that people won’t invest in or patronize companies that do harm to our environment, conglomerates as well as small businesses go out of their way to manifest that they are acting ecologically. Maybe we should enlist the Green Movement’s support. After all, pollution is pollution, be it intellectual or physical.

I was also thinking that, left to their own ways, big businesses do not find it in their interest to support independent thinking. An intelligent and culturally well-informed reader is not the type of consumer or laborer easy to manipulate. Therefore, I think it is in the interest of our society and democracy, not only in that of the writer, to reverse the tide.

With best wishes for the holiday season,

Corinna Hasofferet <mydream@barak-online.net>

Corinna Hasofferet lives in Tel Aviv; her literary fiction and non-fiction narratives have been published in Hebrew and in translation.





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