Today's Reading

John D. MacDonald was a prolific writer of hard-boiled detective thrillers and the creator of Travis McGee, the emotionally callused but philosophically articulate "salvage consultant" who lived on a houseboat in Florida and hired himself out to recover items that had been lost by victims of larceny, swindle, or assorted other unscrupulousnesses. These stolen things could be as concrete as a car or as abstract as a reputation. I'd read some Travis McGee and liked it.

MacDonald's death in a Milwaukee hospital on December 28, 1986, was not eventful, as ends of lives go. He'd uttered no dramatic last words—indeed, no last words at all. Three months before, at seventy, he'd walked into that hospital on his own steam for scheduled heart bypass surgery, but afterward, things quickly went bad. His lungs filled with fluid faster than a dipso broad at an open bar. By December 1, he was in a coma, and two weeks later his brain was cheese. Death sucker-punched John D. MacDonald, sapped him from behind like the gutless punk it is.

Actually, MacDonald wrote nothing like that. His tough talk was graceful and his insights profound. In the thirty years before his death, he had almost single-handedly rescued the hard-boiled detective novel from a generation of Raymond Chandler imitators. MacDonald had taken the manhandled genre, shook off the cliché, reinstated the intelligence, and added a social conscience.

By the time of his death on December 28, 1986, his novels were widely accepted as literature, but there was a time when this hardly seemed likely. In the 1950s, he was essentially a pulp writer, cerebrally experimenting with the form, but very much a part of it.

MacDonald had become an adjunct member of a small literary colony in Sarasota, Florida, mostly men like MacDonald in reverent orbit around the dean of Florida writers, the dapper master of historical novels and short stories, MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor had turned his formidable skills as a storyteller into great fame, and for a time, considerable fortune. He won a Pulitzer for his masterwork, Andersonville. Drove a big brassy yellow Lincoln. Visited his friend Hemingway in Cuba.

Kantor would become a deeply influential force in MacDonald's life.

But like many of Kantor's protégés, the ones he really cared about, MacDonald would pay a price for the older man's attention. Filled with himself, Kantor was disdainful of MacDonald's hard-boiled oeuvre and would turn that screw whenever it pleased him.

I am holding in my hand a letter from John D. MacDonald to MacKinlay Kantor. It is dated Monday, December 12, 1960, the night that MacDonald decided he would take it no more. It begins:

Dear Mack—Here in a windy sobriety of midnight I foist upon you a windy letter, partly as an explanation of myself to you, and partly as a therapeutic self-analysis...

The letter goes on for three dense pages, at times deferential, at other times acrid and scolding. MacDonald did not yet know exactly who he was as a writer, nor precisely where he was going, but he knew he was not the unambitious hack in training that Kantor apparently saw. The letter shows the anarchy of spacing and variations in boldness typical of the old Remingtons and Smith Coronas, when you could slam or caress the keyboard according to your mood, and you'd see it on the page. On this night, clearly, the machine took a beating.

It has been your habit (over the years I have known you) to make snide remarks about the work I do which is of importance to me. They have stung. I have been unable to laugh. You speak of "that mystery stuff" with a slurring indifference...

Kantor had evidently poked fun at the jaundiced, misanthropic tone that is at the heart of hard-boil—tales narrated by emotionally closeted private ops who live in a seamy world of compromised morals. To this, MacDonald launches a fierce but nuanced defense of the genre not as a lesser form of literature but as a fully worthy form, a vessel into which a gifted writer can pour his heart, can seek truth, expose duplicity, skewer sanctimony, and develop characters of no less complexity than those in Kantor's works.

I believe the appraisals I make are more severe, more uncompromising, than yours. Yet we are both, in essence, moralists. We are both prying, searching, scrabbling for The Good. I seem to see it in the human animal less often than you do, but that does not mean the quest is less pressing, nor does it mean that I bleed less when I don't find it, or feel less glory when I do.

At forty-four, MacDonald was an angry, brilliant, insecure, largely unknown writer, and the letter crackles with amusing arrogance; he dismisses some of the most acclaimed writers of the day—James Michener, John Hersey, Leon Uris—as tiresome. John O'Hara is a diarist "of upper income fornication." He calls his own magazine stories—written for quick money—"meretricious." But he unequivocally defends the integrity of his books, into which, he says, he has poured everything he has.

Kantor had made his fame by writing of the past and had urged MacDonald in the same direction, because he felt historical novels confer gravitas to a writer. MacDonald explains how he would not—could not—do that and remain true to his conscience:

Damn it, I have to put my people against a current tapestry—one which I feel to be monolithic, onanistic, escapist and, in large degree, shameful. This IS a new time, unparalleled. These are the days when the world is filling up, and the significance of the individual is being muted by the hard logic of there being so many of him. We are all keeping our heads down, more than we should. And the greatest evil in the world is the sin of non-involvement...

This indignant letter from protégé to mentor is as eloquent a defense of any artistic genre as you are likely to encounter anywhere, delivered by a master of the form so early in his career that it is essentially a passionate mission statement. I did not find it in any book or scholarly work or in the papers of John D. MacDonald. It was given to me by Tom Shroder, who had it in a file cabinet.

MacKinlay Kantor was Tom Shroder's grandfather.

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