"Dancing Past the Ultimate Arrow": An Overview of William Eastlake's Life and Works

By Malphrus, P. Ellen | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

"Dancing Past the Ultimate Arrow": An Overview of William Eastlake's Life and Works


Malphrus, P. Ellen, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Biography

Home for William Eastlake was the high desert Southwest, first of New Mexico, then of the Old Mexico borderland in Arizona, the "undiscovered country" he made his own. Why? Here's how he told it (in 1975):

   My original reason for coming to New Mexico was that the American
   West has never been written about. A great many illiterates,
   beginning with the dime novelists in the 1840s, then the pulps,
   then the slick writers have tried it, but never any artists.... so
   I have moved in and staked it out. Our great West, the American
   promise, has been waiting for two hundred years to be discovered,
   and that has been my dedication and delight, my Seven Cities of
   Cibola.

      I live here too because New Mexico is the last silent sanctuary
   where I can enjoy the splendid isolation that is the imperative of
   art, where you can contemplate eons of time in the violent riot of
   the varicolored mesas ... (Wakeman 420).

It was back East, however, where Eastlake spent his youth. His parents were British, both newly arrived from England when they met in New York. Soon after Eastlake's birth the family moved from Brooklyn to Caldwell, New Jersey, and while Eastlake was still an infant, his mother was confined to a mental institution. The outcome was that as young boys he and his older brother Gordon were sent to Bonnie Brae, an Episcopal boarding school in nearby Liberty Corners, New Jersey. The school operated a farm and the boys there were taught that useful work should be learned early; all the students had chores aplenty. Evidently Eastlake was not so busy, however, that he couldn't memorize Hamlet in its entirety as a boy--simply because he wanted to.

"Prettyfields" is the fictional name Eastlake gave to Bonnie Brae, a setting he grappled with for many years. "Little Joe"--his first fiction piece published in the United States--is a Prettyfields story, and in 1987 several chapters of a novel called Prettyfields were published as a work in progress. The school also plays a part in his novel The Bamboo Bed (1969). An event that Eastlake recalled vividly all his life took place at Bonnie Brae, when a teacher decided to read an essay of Eastlake's to the class. Unfortunately, "his penmanship and spelling were so bad" that as she read it, "she finally became so incensed that she tore it up. Bill was deeply humiliated and actually attributes to this traumatic experience part of the drive that finally did make him a successful writer" (Angell 205). Eastlake's penmanship was indeed a challenge to read, yet he persisted in writing all his fiction longhand. Both his then-wife Martha and later his long-time mate Marilyn learned to read his difficult script, and it was they who transcribed his handwritten drafts to type, after he had read through them aloud. Eastlake would then look at the typed drafts and mark them for revision. Handwriting was always a problem for him, and he was never comfortable with book signings--even private ones (Hill).

Not all of Eastlake's childhood was tainted by memories of Bonnie Brae, however. As a youngster, he and his brother spent happy summers and holidays with their father; much of the time they were outdoors fishing and hunting, and Eastlake credits his father with inspiring in him a love for open spaces. As an adult he maintained good relationships with his father and brother, but they were never a close family, and never spent a great deal of time in each other's company.

After high school Eastlake took to the road and worked his way across the country. "One of his more exalted jobs for a short while was as a radio announcer for station WSUN in St. Petersburg, Florida. The jobs scaled from that eminence down to picking beans as a harvest hand in Old Mexico" (Angell 204). He landed in Los Angeles in the early 1940s working as a bookstore clerk for Stanley Rose, whose shop was something of a literary hangout for writers such as Nathanael West, Clifford Odets, Theodore Dreiser, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck. …

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