Issue 118 |
Fall 2012

About Patricia Hampl

By the end of her thirties, Patricia Hampl had published two poetry collections and a critically acclaimed memoir. When a radio interviewer asked her what was next, she replied airily, “I have it in mind to work on fiction from now on.” What happened in the following years just goes to show that writers are no more adept than anyone else at predicting their futures.

Since her first memoir, A Romantic Education, Hampl has published four more works of nonfiction—three memoirs and an essay collection on memory and imagination—as well as a “fantasia” on the Czech composer Antonín Dvorák’s 1893 visit to Iowa. Although her work is widely read, Patricia Hampl is also a writer’s writer—lyric, cerebral, a boon companion at any stage of the writer’s journey. The arc of her career parallels the rise of personal writing in America in the past half-century. It may be that the genre most closely associated with memory—“that captivating mystery,” she calls it—chose her, not the other way around. Indeed, she uses the language of surrender to describe her writing process. “I conscripted myself to be the protagonist of these books,” she told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm in 2007. “As memoir began gaining ground, I realized I was riding this strange tiger.”

Because the life is inseparable from the work, it makes sense to begin there. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, shortly after the end of World War II, Hampl attended Catholic schools, then the University of Minnesota, where she is now Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished University Professor. She teaches in the creative writing program there—a program that didn’t exist when she was an undergraduate. Except for a two-year stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, St. Paul—city of romance, city of churches, city that F. Scott Fitzgerald fled—has always been her home. (To have lived always in the same place is not the same as being a homebody. Hampl travels often and to far-flung destinations. Most of her books could just as easily be shelved with travel books as with memoirs.)

It’s almost as if being tied to one place freed her mind to roam. A Romantic Education ranges between the geographic poles of her life, St. Paul and Prague. Her father’s family is Czech and her book takes her “behind the Iron Curtain.” The book records an interior journey too, the story of a mind seeking to connect the ordinary (“I come from people who have always been polite enough to feel that nothing has ever happened to them”) to the beautiful (“For the first time I recognized the truth of beauty: it is brokenness, it is on its knees”).

Virgin Time, Hampl’s second memoir, traces a physical pilgrimage to Assisi, with stops at Lourdes and at a Northern California monastery. The spiritual journey here is one of rediscovery: after turning away from Catholic dogma, she once again opens herself to the mysteries of faith, prayer, and contemplative life.

“Memoir” is an imprecise label for Hampl’s next book-length work. Like Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, and her own Spillville (her Dvorák book, which she did with the artist Steven Sorman), Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (2006), is sui generis. It revolves around the figure of the reclining female—the odalisque of Western imagination and, in particular, of Matisse’s paintings. Here the writing inhabits a liminal space between prose poem, personal essay, memoir, travel writing, and art criticism. In The New York Times, Kathryn Harrison calls Blue Arabesque “a paean to the act of seeing, celebrating our capacity to be transformed by the truths art holds, recognizing them as…holy.” (The ellipsis is Harrison’s, its effect to delay, then emphasize the word “holy.”)

Hampl’s most recent memoir is also the most traditional, formally speaking. The Florist’s Daughter is storytelling in the old-fashioned sense: people—mainly her tart-tongued mother, who worked as a library file clerk, and her gentle florist father—move through space and time. The title both complicates and comments on the book’s biggest revelation. “In a sense,” Hampl says, “the title is a gentle irony: I thought I was my father’s daughter, but in fact…”

When the book opens, Stan Hampl has been dead for several years, and Mary is dying. Ever dutiful, ever the writer, Patricia holds her mother’s unconscious hand with her own right hand while scribbling an obituary with her left. From that scene, she loops back to her parents’ courtship and marriage, then forward to their children (Patricia has an older brother, Peter), and their first home, an apartment on Banfil Street; then their second home, on Linwood, farther from the Old World of the Czech relatives and closer to the grandees of St. Paul society, who dwelt (where else?) on Summit Avenue. From an early age, Hampl’s ears were tuned to the frequency of the unspoken. “Terrible oddities abrade[d] our peaceful world,” Hampl writes. Among them, the bowdlerized version told to young Patricia of the girlhood rape of an aunt (It was an almost rape!); there was her mother’s epilepsy; there was the Czech grandmother who couldn’t write English; there was, finally, a marriage that, if not blissful, couldn’t be described as unhappy, though it grew vexed as her parents aged.

Mostly, though, The Florist’s Daughter concerns itself with the numinous ordinary, what Don DeLillo calls “the radiance of dailiness.” Hampl’s mother was a storyteller, hoarder of details, “a veritable Proust of the breakfast table,” possessed of a keen eye and a knack for “reading a scene from the gestures of minor characters.” Though Hampl’s father never thought of himself as an artist, his floral arrangements were perpetually in demand for weddings and funerals and society balls. After plying “his magic box of color and light,” Stan would stand with Mary in the anterooms of great twinkling houses, watching the wealthy at play. “She was tracking,” writes their daughter. “He was filled with wonder.”

Hailing The Florist’s Daughter as Hampl’s best memoir yet, Danielle Trussoni writes in The New York Times, “Her signature literary triangulations—the author analyzing herself as she explicates the world through artists she worships—dissolve in the emotional immediacy of her subject…[H]er own life takes front and center stage. The result is electric and alive.”

Like Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Hampl’s memoirs tell the story of a writer in the making. What are the particular, peculiar forces that shaped her? For one, the sense that she was never quite at the center but always on the outside looking in—feeling, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did, poor (or at least middle class) in a rich man’s town. And she was shaped by an early hunch that the ordinary was a worthy subject for literature. (In this respect, she’s given courage and direction to a generation of memoirists cursed with happy childhoods.) In her dual roles as scribe and troublemaker, Hampl found a way to reconcile her mother’s hungry eye for detail with her father’s capacity for awe. The memoirist tracks, she is filled with wonder.

Along with personal narrative, Hampl writes stories and poems and even spoken-word presentations, which she has performed to musical accompaniment by Dan Chouinard, her partner in these “staged essays” produced by Minnesota Public Radio and available on its Web site. Her work—including essays and journalism—has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Essays. The New York Times Book Review has named four of Hampl’s titles to its “Notable Books” of the year lists. I Could Tell You Stories was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction in 2000. The Florist’s Daughter won the 2008 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Hampl is coeditor, with the eminent American cultural historian Elaine Tyler May, of Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, a collection of essays by memoirists, including Hampl and May. The recipient of a MacArthur fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”), Hampl has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Bush Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts (twice, once in poetry, and once in prose), Ingram Merrill Foundation, and Djerassi Foundation. She was a Fulbright Fellow to Prague shortly after the end of the Cold War. Along with other distinguished alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has her name and a fragment of her writing in concrete on an Iowa City sidewalk: “Maybe being oneself is always an acquired taste.”

Hampl’s essay collection, I Could Tell You Stories, marked her arrival as one of the most eloquent and elegant theorists of the memoir, which she calls “the quest literature of our times.” What a strange and paradoxical form memoir is, a creature neither of earth nor air, inhabiting, as Hampl writes, “the indeterminate narrative space between fiction and documentary.” The memoir does not merely transcribe events but shapes them as well. It grants itself permission to show and tell. Like lyric poetry, memoir cavorts through time and space, trailing its long ribbon of associations. Above all, memoir converts the personal self, that ostensible subject, into nothing more (or less) than a tool of perception. The memoirist’s quarry is always larger, more durable, and more multifaceted than what it seems initially to be. “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world,” writes Hampl. The pleasures of memoir writing, one senses from reading her, are not the superficial, fleeting pleasures of self-indulgence. They are the deep, enduring joys of transcending the self, of creating a world out of words. “To write one’s life is to live it twice,” says Hampl, “and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form and it also grasps the life-of-the-times as no political analysis can.”

Hampl’s writing often springs from a detail or image, what she calls “the spongy thinginess of life.” The metaphor brings to mind those brightly colored capsules that children love. Dropped in a bowl of warm water, each one blossoms into a surprise creature: a purple elephant, a blue brontosaurus, an orange snow leopard. Hampl might begin, say, with an image of a young woman—her former self—captivated by a Matisse painting, or with a scene glimpsed through the blurry window of a Greyhound bus taking that same young woman to visit her boyfriend in prison, where he is serving a sentence for draft resistance. Under the fierce light of the memoirist’s gaze, the image accordions out into a form capacious enough to hold everything—art, politics, religion, travel, photography, reading, writing, inspiration (“the one bit of God we haven’t managed to kill off”)—on which her supple mind alights. Hampl’s writing surprises with lightning shifts in texture or in tone, with sly or wry asides enclosed in parentheses or dashes. The architecture she likes best is an eclectic, electric mix of high and low, swerves and lines, past and present, political and personal; things she read in a book (“What gives value to travel is fear”: Camus) and a tossed-off response from a former boyfriend’s mother: “That is the sort of observation Katherine Mansfield made.”

Hampl’s impulses are essayistic in the Montaignian sense. She is always making a run at something, peeling back the layers of her defenses, seeking the nimbleness of mind needed to get her over one hurdle or another, to see the connection between seemingly disparate things. Hampl, like all essayists, keeps trying in the face of strong odds and only the faintest whiff of success. As T. S. Eliot says, in the end, “there is only the trying.”

The world often strikes her as simultaneously serious and absurd. (The Florist’s Daughter could just as easily have been titled The Daughter of Retail Sales, she joked to Diane Rehm.) It seems deeply mysterious. It knocks her off her pins, throws her for a loop, unmoors her occasionally. Most of the time, she dwells comfortably in uncertainty (which is not to say the writing is ever less than sure-footed). The voice speaking from her pages is smart but never show-offy. It is rigorously unsentimental. (“You can’t be a writer and believe everything,” she told Rehm. “You have to have that little ice chip in your heart.”) She is full of Midwestern modesty but not self-deprecation—or, heaven forbid, the buffoonery of the writer who thinks the only way to woo readers is by making them laugh at him. (“To say less of yourself than is true is stupidity, not modesty,” writes Montaigne.) The voice whispering in our ear is that of a clear-eyed, sympathetic, and above all wise friend who craves not our laughter or applause (though she wins both) but our conversation.

Is one ever tempted to ask what became of the young woman who once predicted she would write fiction “from now on”? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps the answer is obvious: She simply acquired a taste for being herself.

—Jennifer Brice is the author of Unlearning to Fly and The Last Settlers. Her writing has appeared The Gettysburg Review, River Teeth, Manoa, Under the Sun, The Dolphin Reader, and American Nature Writing, among others. She teaches at Colgate University.