One Antiochian’s path of passion
In June of 1955, I graduated from Bennett High School, in Buffalo, New York. The school was named after one Louis J. Bennett, and you now know as much about the man as I ever did. One’s name on something enduring—a school, a bridge, a building—is thought to provide immortality of a sort, but if that’s immortality, well, I’m with Omar Khayyam. Take the cash and let the credit go, because what’s the big deal about having your name bandied about by people who haven’t got a clue who you were?
But I digress.
I graduated from Bennett, I spent the summer as a counselor-in-training at Camp Lakeland, and in September I arrived at Antioch College. My parents had both graduated from Cornell, as had both of my mother’s brothers, and it had been taken for granted that I would follow in their wake. But sometime in my junior year they’d heard about Antioch, where the son of a friend of a friend had gone, and decided it was just the thing for their son. Antioch’s most striking feature was its co-op plan, whereby students were placed for half of each year in jobs designed to give them genuine vocational experience. They liked that, and they also learned that Antioch was a refuge for the quirky and the unconventional, and that sounded about right for young Larry.
The summer before my senior year, we visited the campus on the way home from a Florida vacation. I seem to recall a student showing us around, pointing out buildings like a hunting dog pointing out game birds. Did it make an impression? Not that I recall. My parents thought I should apply there, so I did. They thought I should apply to Cornell as well, so I did that, too. I was a pretty suggestible kid, and inclined to do as I was told.
All of that changed, but never mind.
I was accepted at both schools, and I learned I’d get a nice scholarship to Cornell, having scored high on the New York State scholarship exam. My folks sent me to Antioch anyway, and not without financial sacrifice. They really thought it would be good for me, and, looking back, I guess it was.
I spent the whole of my freshman year on campus in Yellow Springs, as did a substantial percentage of entering students. I had known for a couple of years that I was going to become a writer, and I wrote some poems and short stories. I submitted them to magazines with no real hope of success and regarded the inevitable rejection slips as badges of honor, and ample compensation for my efforts. I displayed them with some pride on my dorm room wall.
The school year ran through June, and come August I was in New York, living in Greenwich Village and working in the mail room at Pines Publications, a diverse publisher of paperbacks and magazines. I returned to Antioch for the fall semester, spent the winter job period working in Buffalo at the Erie County Comptroller’s Office, went back to Antioch for the spring term, and then arranged that my next job would be Own Plans—I went home, bought an aging Buick, and drove it to Cape Cod, where I intended to get a subsistence job while writing stories. I’d almost sold a story that I’d written while living in the village, and figured I could rewrite it and sell it, and write other things, and sell them, too.
I got a room in an attic and wrote a batch of stories, but all in all the Cape didn’t work out too well, and I wound up in New York, where I went to an employment agency and took a blind test and landed a job as an editor at a literary agency. Every day I would read a batch of stories submitted, along with reading fees, by what the world had not yet learned to call wannabes. It was my task to write them lengthy letters assuring them that they were supremely talented (they were not), that it was the plot structure of their stories that was at fault (that was the least of it), and that we would welcome further submissions from them, with further fees. (That last, I must say, was the truth.)
It was purely wonderful experience, the best possible training for a writer, and I could see right away that this was not a job I wanted to abandon at the end of a three–month Antioch job period. Besides, I’d sold the story I revised on the Cape, and had every reason to assume I’d sell more, now that I was working for a literary agent. So I dropped out of Antioch and kept the job.
If it was too good to give up after three months, it wasn’t so great that I wanted to hang on to it for more than a year. I resigned at the end of the spring of 1958, went back to Buffalo, wrote a sensitive lesbian novel in a couple of weeks, sent it to my agent, went off to Mexico with my buddy Steve Schwerner, came back sooner than we’d planned, and, on the strength of that lesbian novel, got an assignment from my agent to do a book for Midwood Tower, a new firm under the aegis of one Harry Shorten, devoted to the publication of sexy paperbacks.
I wrote a book called Carla, and it was catnip to Harry Shorten. There was one scene in which the titular heroine (and that’s the right adjective, trust me) has it off with a gas pump jockey in the service station’s grease pit, and Harry thought that scene was the cat’s pajamas. It blew him away, so to speak, and he wanted more.
Meanwhile, I’d made arrangements to return to Antioch, where I’d spend the fall quarter taking classes, the winter quarter editing the school newspaper, and the spring back in class again.
Well, here’s the question: How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?
All I wanted to do, really, was write books and stories. And I’d sold upwards of a dozen stories to the crime fiction magazines, and some articles to men’s magazines, and a little of this and a little of that. And Harry Shorten wanted more books from me, and the first house that got a look at that lesbian novel, Fawcett/Crest, decided they wanted to publish it. So I could write books and stories and actually get paid for them, or I could read Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett and write papers on the eighteenth century English novel.
Well, what do you think happened?
I got through the year, but don’t ask me how. I did try to drop out during the fall, but was persuaded to change my mind. I edited the Antioch Record winter quarter, and that went OK, but during the two academic terms I did not exactly cover myself with glory.
Then summer came, and I couldn’t find a co-op job that I liked, and don’t suppose I looked very hard for one. I arranged to go Own Plans again, and moved to New York, where I took a room at the Hotel Rio on West 47th Street and began writing books.
The first was Campus Tramp.
You were probably wondering if I’d ever get to it, and so was I. But here we are, in July of 1959, and there I was, in my room at the Rio, typing furiously. By this time I’d written and sold four books—Strange Are the Ways of Love, by Lesley Evans, published by Crest, and three novels published by Midwood under the name Sheldon Lord—Carla (which I mentioned having written in Buffalo) and two books I knocked off during that year at Antioch, A Strange Kind of Love and Born to be Bad.
Now my agent informed me that a new publisher, one Bill Hamling, was starting a company to be called Nightstand Books, and that I’d been chosen to write for them. Midwood had been paying me $600 a book, and Hamling would pay $750.
I decided a college novel might be just the ticket. I’d been trying to figure out what to try for Fawcett/Crest—they, after all, had paid me $2,000 for that lesbian novel. But on some level I didn’t really believe I was good enough to write for that good a house, and that kept me from trying. I’d been thinking my second book for Crest might be set on a campus, and when Nightstand came along I took that idea and aimed it at them.
And wrote Campus Tramp in a couple of weeks.
The only college with which I was familiar was Antioch, so it was an easy decision to set the book there—or at its fictional equivalent, which I called Clifton. And, to amuse myself and any other Antiochian who might read the thing, I gave every character in the book the name of an actual Antioch dormitory as a surname. Since most of the dorms were named after people, guaranteeing them the immortality of, say, Louis J. Bennett, it wasn’t a stretch to fasten their names to human beings, albeit fictional ones.
And, while I was at it, I named the buildings on Clifton’s campus after some Antioch people.
I finished the book, walked a block and a half to Fifth Avenue, and turned in the manuscript to my agent, who dutifully sent it to Hamling, who thought it was just fine, even if it didn’t have anybody screwing in a grease pit. I was invited to pick a new pen name, and chose Andrew Shaw. And Mr. Shaw now had an assignment to produce regularly for Nightstand, even as Mr. Lord was still very much in demand at Midwood. The only place that didn’t want me, it turned out, was Antioch.
It was not long after I turned in Campus Tramp and started writing something else that a letter from Antioch’s Student Personnel Committee reached me at the Rio, informing me that a review of my performance the preceding year left them with the sense that I might be happier elsewhere.
I thought that was damned perceptive of them. I would indeed be happier elsewhere, no question about it, and wasn’t it considerate of them to point that out to me? I’d already tried to drop out once, had been talked out of it by my parents, but now I had the perfect excuse. I’d been, as the British say, sent down. (It sounds much nicer than expelled, doesn’t it?) And, having been sent down, I could stay down. I was free.
I think—and thought at the time—that I could have talked my way back in. The tone of the letter suggested as much. But why would I want to do that? I had books to write.
And then a curious thing happened. Campus Tramp was published, and word got around Yellow Springs that it was my revenge on the school, that I’d savaged the place as a way of getting even.
Getting even for what, for God’s sake?
For expelling me? That was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. For schooling me for several years? I can’t think where I might have more enjoyably or profitably spent those particular years. I had no quarrel with the place, and if it was anything vis-à-vis Antioch, the book was a wink and a nod, a veritable homage.
Besides, when I wrote it I still fully expected to return to Yellow Springs in the fall. I had a year to go, and then I was scheduled to graduate. I didn’t much want to go back, but I’d planned to do it anyway, so I certainly didn’t think of myself as burning any bridges with Campus Tramp.
Over the years, the story of Linda Shepard became a part of campus folklore. I’ve heard of copies commanding unlikely prices at Senior Sales. A young woman I know—she’s since become a Facebook friend—has been known to give dramatic readings at alumni gatherings.
Nightstand reissued the book a few times over the years, in one instance doing the curious task of un-Bowdlerizing it—i.e., some poor schnook of an editor went through it and added dirty words, in recognition of looser standards in the industry. Consider this schlepper whenever you start to think you have the worst job in the world.
I never thought Campus Tramp would be around in the present century, and never thought I’d want to allow it to happen—or to put my own name on it. But when Creeping Hemlock Press proposed a handsome new edition, how could I say no?
After all, I wrote it. And I’m never going to have my name on a high school, or a bridge, or even a public toilet, so I have to take my Louis J. Bennett-style immortality where I find it. Remarkably, I find I’m out-and-out delighted that it’s now available as an e-book. An old friend from—yes, Bennett High—recently e-mailed me to say he’d read and enjoyed Campus Tramp, and somehow found elements to praise therein. And praise, like immortality, I’ll take where I find it. Why not?
Campus Tramp has been reissued by Creeping Hemlock Press and can be purchased at creepinghemlock.com. This essay comes from Lawrence Block’s collection Afterthoughts and can be purchased for the Kindle at www.amazon.com.