A Father's Madness, A Daughter's Perseverance
Once in a while, parents are absolutely right to insist they have (or had) an unrecognized genius for a child. I'm thinking, for example, of Thelma Toole. Mighty good thing she took her dead son's smudgy manuscript to Walker Percy and demanded he read it. Otherwise we would not have "A Confederacy of Dunces."
Perhaps even rarer is the child who insists -- rightly -- that he or she had a neglected literary giant for a parent.
I first heard of Doc Humes in the seedy newsroom of The Harvard Crimson circa 1978. He was a legendary figure there, one of an assortment of accomplished and washed-out adults who -- for reasons we as college kids neither understood nor bothered to wonder about -- liked to perch on the broken springs of the newroom's naugahyde couch and tell us about the wider world.
As I later learned, H.L. "Doc" Humes was a literary phenom of the 1950s, a co-founder of the Paris Review and author of two novels, The Underground City (1957) and Men Die (1959). In those years, he was in the thick of the writing scene in Paris, London and New York, where his pals included Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and James Baldwin.
Both of his novels, his daughter says, "were enormously well received and then almost immediately forgotten." They remained out of print for nearly half a century until, at her prodding and in conjunction with her documentary, Random House re-issued them in paperback this year.
One reason why Doc Humes fell swiftly out of literary orbit, as the documentary unflinchingly makes clear, is that his talent went hand-in-hand with mental illness. His paranoia and mania flared in the early '60s as he was starting a third novel, The Memoirs of Dorsey Slade, which he never finished.
"It's a sort of magical realist autobiography about a writer who goes crazy," Immy Humes told me by telephone this week. "I found the fragments in his papers. He's going crazy and writing this book about going crazy. It's intense. . . because he was quite aware of what was happening to him, which I never knew." After many attempts at treatment, she added, "my mom scooped us all up, all four daughters, and left him in Christmas 1965."
For the next two decades, from 1969 until the late '80s, Doc Humes was a kind of peripatetic, self-appointed visiting scholar who hung around East Coast campuses -- not only Harvard but also MIT, B.U., Bennington, Columbia and others, dazzling students with his charm and erudition, talking about his friends Mailer and Matthiessen, Mingus and Monk. One minute he was raving about poetry. The next, paraquat. (For those too young to remember, paraquat was a deadly poison sprayed on Mexican marijuana fields in the '70s).
"He died as a novelist, but he didn't die," his daughter says. "He had this whole other life on campus, where he was, depending on where you stood culturally, either this visionary guru or this crackpot."
Doc Humes died for real in 1992, of prostate cancer. Immy Humes, who was already an accomplished filmmaker, realized only when he was in hospice care what a good film his life story might make. She began filming him on his deathbed and worked on the documentary, off and on, for 15 years. A 95-minute version was shown in film festivals earlier this year, and PBS will air a one-hour version.
Partly, she said, she felt compelled to make the film after "a lifetime of having this complicated father and never being able to explain him." But also, "there's definitely a memorializing instinct, a restorational instinct. Those books are really good. Really good. And I'm thrilled they're back in print. To me it's a huge miracle, because they belong in print, and almost no one has read them."
I must admit that "almost no one" includes me. I'm particularly looking forward to reading The Underground City, which I'm told is a tale of espionage, resistance and betrayal in Paris during and just after World War II. Until I have, I'll wonder whether Immy Humes is not just persistent, but right.
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