Authors: Paul Auster
Once the table was cleared, the people who hadn’t helped with the dinner were assigned to wash-up duty in the kitchen. There were just four of us: Sachs and his mother, Fanny and myself. It was a big job, with mess and crockery jammed onto every counter, and as we took turns scraping and sudsing and rinsing and drying, we chatted about this and that, drifting aimlessly from one topic to another. After a while, we found ourselves talking about Thanksgiving, which led to a discussion of other American holidays, which in turn led to some glancing remarks about national symbols. The Statue of Liberty was mentioned, and then, almost as if the memory had returned to both of them at the same time, Sachs and his mother started reminiscing
about a trip they had made to Bedloes Island back in the early fifties. Fanny had never heard the story before, so she and I became the audience, standing there with dish towels in our hands as the two of them performed their little act.
“Do you remember that day, Benjy?” Mrs. Sachs began.
“Of course I remember,” Sachs said. “It was one of the turning points of my childhood.”
“You were just a wee little man back then. No more than six or seven.”
“It was the summer I turned six. Nineteen fifty-one.”
“I was a few years older than that, but I’d never been to the Statue of Liberty. I figured it was about time, so one day I hustled you into the car, and off we went to New York. I don’t remember where the girls were that morning, but I’m pretty sure it was just the two of us.”
“Just the two of us. And Mrs. Something-stein and her two sons. We met them when we got down there.”
“Doris Saperstein, my old friend from the Bronx. She had two boys about your age. Regular little ragamuffins they were, a couple of wild Indians.”
“Just normal kids. They were the ones who caused the whole dispute.”
“You don’t remember that part, do you?”
“No, I only remember what happened later. That wiped out everything else.”
“You made me wear those terrible short pants with the white knee socks. You always dressed me up when we went out, and I hated it. I felt like a sissy in those clothes, a Fauntleroy in full regalia. It was bad enough on family outings, but the thought of turning up like that in front of Mrs. Saperstein’s sons was intolerable to me. I
knew they’d be wearing T-shirts, dungarees, and sneakers, and I didn’t know how I was going to face them.”
“But you looked like an angel in that outfit,” his mother said.
“Maybe so, but I didn’t want to look like an angel. I wanted to look like a regular American boy. I begged to wear something else, but you refused to budge. ‘Visiting the Statue of Liberty isn’t like playing in the backyard,’ you said. ‘It’s the symbol of our country, and we have to show it the proper respect.’ Even then, the irony of the situation didn’t escape me. There we were, about to pay homage to the concept of freedom, and I myself was in chains. I lived in an absolute dictatorship, and for as long as I could remember my rights had been trampled underfoot. I tried to explain about the other boys, but you wouldn’t listen to me. Nonsense, you said, they’ll be wearing their dress-up clothes, too. You were so damned sure of yourself, I finally plucked up my courage and offered to make a bargain with you. All right, I said, I’ll wear the clothes today. But if the other boys are wearing dungarees and sneakers, then it’s the last time I ever have to do it. From then on, you’ll give me permission to wear whatever I want.”
“And I agreed to that? I allowed myself to bargain with a six-year-old?”
“You were just humoring me. The possibility of losing the bet didn’t even occur to you. But lo and behold, when Mrs. Saperstein arrived at the Statue of Liberty with her two sons, the boys were dressed exactly as I had predicted. And just like that, I became the master of my own wardrobe. It was the first major victory of my life. I felt as if I’d struck a blow for democracy, as if I’d risen up in the name of oppressed peoples all over the world.”
“Now I know why you’re so partial to blue jeans,” Fanny said. “You discovered the principle of self-determination, and at that point you determined to be a bad dresser for the rest of your life.”
“Precisely,” Sachs said. “I won the right to be a slob, and I’ve been carrying the banner proudly ever since.”
“And then,” Mrs. Sachs continued, impatient to get on with the story, “we started to climb.”
“The spiral staircase,” her son added. “We found the steps and started to go up.”
“It wasn’t so bad at first,” Mrs. Sachs said. “Doris and I let the boys go on ahead, and we took the stairs nice and easy, holding onto the rail. We got as far as the crown, looked out at the harbor for a couple of minutes, and everything was more or less okay. I thought that was it, that we’d start back down then and go for an ice cream somewhere. But they still let you into the torch in those days, which meant climbing up another staircase—right through Miss Battle-Axe’s arm. The boys were crazy to go up there. They kept hollering and whining about how they wanted to see everything, and so Doris and I gave in to them. As it turned out, this staircase didn’t have a railing like the other one. It was the narrowest, twistingest little set of iron rungs you ever saw, a fire pole with bumps on it, and when you looked down through the arm, you felt like you were three hundred miles up in the air. It was pure nothingness all around, the great void of heaven. The boys scampered up into the torch by themselves, but by the time I was two-thirds of the way up, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I’d always thought of myself as a pretty tough cookie. I wasn’t one of those hysterical women who screamed when she saw a mouse. I was a hefty, down-to-earth broad who’d been around the block a few times, but standing on those stairs that day, I got all weak inside, I had the cold sweats, I thought I was going to throw up. By then, Doris wasn’t in such good shape herself, and so we each sat down on one of the steps, hoping that might steady our nerves. It helped a little, but not much, and even with my backside planted on something solid, I still felt I was about to
fall, that any second I’d find myself hurtling head-first to the bottom. It was the worst panic I ever felt in my life. I was completely rearranged. My heart was in my throat, my head was in my hands, my stomach was in my feet. I got so scared thinking about Benjamin that I started screaming for him to come down. It was hideous. My voice echoing through the Statue of Liberty like the howls of some tormented spirit. The boys finally left the torch, and then we all went down the stairs sitting, one step at a time. Doris and I tried to make a game out of it for the boys, pretending that this was the fun way to travel. But nothing was going to make me stand up on those stairs again. I’d have sooner jumped off than allow myself to do that. It must have taken us half an hour to get to the bottom again, and by then I was a wreck, a blob of flesh and bone. Benjy and I stayed with the Sapersteins on the Grand Concourse that night, and since then I’ve had a mortal fear of high places. I’d rather be dead than set foot in an airplane, and once I get above the third or fourth story of a building, I turn to jello inside. How do you like that? And it all started that day when Benjamin was a little boy, climbing into the torch of the Statue of Liberty.”
“It was my first lesson in political theory,” Sachs said, turning his eyes away from his mother to look at Fanny and me. “I learned that freedom can be dangerous. If you don’t watch out, it can kill you.”
I don’t want to make too much of this story, but at the same time I don’t think it should be entirely neglected. In itself, it was no more than a trivial episode, a bit of family folklore, and Mrs. Sachs told it with enough humor and self-mockery to sweep aside its rather terrifying implications. We all laughed when she was finished, and then the conversation moved on to something else. If not for Sachs’s novel (the same book he carried through the snow to our aborted reading in 1975), I might have forgotten all about it. But
since that book is filled with references to the Statue of Liberty, it’s hard to ignore the possibility of a connection—as if the childhood experience of witnessing his mother’s panic somehow lay at the heart of what he wrote as a grown man twenty years later. I asked him about it as we were driving back to the city that night, but Sachs only laughed at my question. He hadn’t even remembered that part of the story, he said. Then, dismissing the subject once and for all, he launched into a comic diatribe against the pitfalls of psychoanalysis. In the end, none of that matters. Just because Sachs denied the connection doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. No one can say where a book comes from, least of all the person who writes it. Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it’s only to the degree that they cannot be understood.
The New Colossus
was the one novel Sachs ever published. It was also the first piece of writing I read by him, and there’s no doubt that it played a significant role in getting our friendship off the ground. It was one thing to have liked Sachs in person, but when I learned that I could admire his work as well, I became that much more eager to know him, that much more willing to see him and talk to him again. That instantly set him apart from all the other people I had met since moving back to America. He was more than just a potential drinking companion, I discovered, more than just another acquaintance. An hour after cracking open Sachs’s book fifteen years ago, I understood that it would be possible for us to become friends.
I have just spent the morning scanning through it again (there are several copies here in the cabin), and am astonished by how little my feelings for it have changed. I don’t think I have to say much more than that. The book continues to exist, it’s available in bookstores
and libraries, and anyone who cares to read it can do so without difficulty. It was issued in paperback a couple of months after Sachs and I first met, and since then it has stayed mostly in print, living a quiet but healthy life in the margins of recent literature, a crazy hodgepodge of a book that has kept its own small spot on the shelf. The first time I read it, however, I walked into it cold. After listening to Sachs in the bar, I assumed that he had written a conventional first novel, one of those thinly veiled attempts to fictionalize the story of his own life. I wasn’t planning to hold that against him, but he had talked so disparagingly about the book that I felt I had to brace myself for some kind of letdown. He autographed a copy for me that day in the bar, but the only thing I noticed at the time was that it was big, a book that ran to more than four hundred pages. I started reading it the next afternoon, sprawled out in bed after drinking six cups of coffee to kill the hangover from Saturday’s binge. As Sachs had warned me, it was a young man’s book—but not in any of the ways I was expecting it to be.
The New Colossus
had nothing to do with the sixties, nothing to do with Vietnam or the antiwar movement, nothing to do with the seventeen months he had served in prison. That I had been looking for all that stemmed from a failure of imagination on my part. The idea of prison was so terrible to me, I couldn’t imagine how anyone who had been there could not write about it.
As every reader knows,
The New Colossus
is a historical novel, a meticulously researched book set in America between 1876 and 1890, and based on documented, verifiable facts. Most of the characters are people who actually lived at the time, and even when the characters are imaginary, they are not inventions so much as borrowings, figures stolen from the pages of other novels. Otherwise, all the events are true—true in the sense that they follow the historical record—and in those places where the record is unclear, there is no tampering
with the laws of probability. Everything is made to seem plausible, matter-of-fact, even banal in the accuracy of its depiction. And yet Sachs continually throws the reader off guard, mixing so many genres and styles to tell his story that the book begins to resemble a pinball machine, a fabulous contraption with blinking lights and ninety-eight different sound effects. From chapter to chapter, he jumps from traditional third-person narrative to first-person diary entries and letters, from chronological charts to small anecdotes, from newspaper articles to essays to dramatic dialogues. It’s a whirlwind performance, a marathon sprint from the first line to the last, and whatever you might think of the book as a whole, it’s impossible not to respect the author’s energy, the sheer gutsiness of his ambitions.
Among the characters who appear in the novel are Emma Lazarus, Sitting Bull, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Pulitzer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Auguste Bartholdi, Catherine Weldon, Rose Hawthorne (Nathaniel’s daughter), Ellery Channing, Walt Whitman, and William Tecumseh Sherman. But Raskalnikov is also there (straight from the epilogue of
Crime and Punishment
—released from prison and newly arrived as an immigrant in the United States, where his name is anglicized to Ruskin), as is Huckleberry Finn (a middle-aged drifter who befriends Ruskin), and Ishmael from
(who has a brief walk-on role as a bartender in New York).
The New Colossus
begins in the year of America’s centennial and works its way through the major events of the next decade and a half: Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, the building of the Statue of Liberty, the general strike of 1877, the exodus of Russian Jews to America in 1881, the invention of the telephone, the Haymarket riots in Chicago, the spread of the Ghost Dance religion among the Sioux, the massacre at Wounded Knee. But small events are also recorded, and these are finally what give the book its texture, what turn it into something more than a jigsaw puzzle of historical facts. The opening chapter is
a good case in point. Emma Lazarus goes to Concord, Massachusetts, to stay as a guest in Emerson’s house. While there, she is introduced to Ellery Channing, who accompanies her on a visit to Walden Pond and talks about his friendship with Thoreau (dead now for fourteen years). The two are drawn to each other and become friends, another of those odd juxtapositions that Sachs was so fond of: the white-haired New Englander and the young Jewish poet from Millionaire’s Row in New York. At their last meeting, Channing hands her a gift, which he tells her not to open until she is on the train heading back home. When she unwraps the parcel, she finds a copy of Channing’s book on Thoreau, along with one of the relics the old man has been hoarding since his friend’s death: Thoreau’s pocket compass. It’s a beautiful moment, very sensitively handled by Sachs, and it plants an important image in the reader’s head that will recur in any number of guises throughout the book. Although it isn’t said in so many words, the message couldn’t be clearer. America has lost its way. Thoreau was the one man who could read the compass for us, and now that he is gone, we have no hope of finding ourselves again.