Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

When All the World Was America

Tablet Original Fiction: Only one chapter to go, to close the book

Berel Lang
May 31, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

“It is a harmless vanity,” Robert told himself, comparing it to a number of less harmless ones he recognized in himself, even mentioning it on occasion, diffidently, to one or another of his friends. When he walked into a library he had not visited before, he would stop first at the now antiquated but still preserved card catalogue; in the series of curves between the last of the “M’s” and the beginning of the “N’s,” he would look for his own name and the books he had written. By now he was familiar with the neighboring writers on his two sides. There were almost always a number of “Muller’s,” some with umlauts, some without (this didn’t seem to count alphabetically); or, if he turned too far ahead in the cards, a number of “Na’s”—“Nabokov,” “Nachamkin,” “Narodnik”: his Russian Connection, he mused. Then, at the boundary between the “M’s” and the “N’s,” if he appeared at all, the “Mundheim, Robert Allan” that stared back at him familiarly, repeating the author’s name knowingly, informatively, even when the viewer was Mundheim himself.

There was, he had to admit, beyond the touch of familiarity, an ominous side to these encounters. For in the parentheses that followed his name and mentioned first the year of his birth (1938), a dash appeared and then a blank space that led to the end of the parentheses. So at least a librarian would return one time more to the card, to close the parentheses finally. The author’s eyes, Robert thought to himself, wondering also how long that would take and how the cataloguer would find out (was there a clipping service responsible for writers’ obituaries? Or was it some particular librarian’s job to read the newspapers? And which ones?).

But then he would quickly move on, to see whether the library had more than the one of his books—a less intractable question than the other, even if here, too, familiar anxieties pressed in. His books might have been expected to make their way naturally to the rural towns that were their subject, but in fact this almost never happened. Not that he blamed the libraries, with their small budgets and supervision; it was improbable that too many books of any kind could pass that combination of near-sightedness and detachment. And, then, too, readers in the small towns already knew what life there was like, how the streets and people arranged themselves in hierarchies that soon took on the looks of nature itself. Most readers came to the library to forget this, hoping for a moment’s walk in Paris or Copenhagen or the English Lake District. The lure of foreign cities or distant centuries was constant even when they weren’t aware of it; it was power and action at a distance that the cramped library shelves hinted at, a modest ecstasy. Even the growing number of how-to-do-it books, promising better automobile repairs or tennis or even love, served those same purposes—reassuring, suggesting that everything possible might be in the hands of the reader who need do no more to realize them than just to sit as he was, in the library’s narrow, scuffed chairs.

The scholarly libraries were hardly better. They almost always listed his first book on the New England village, but only a few even of those collections went on to the others. Robert assumed that this was not because the scholarly librarians had bought the book and not liked it. It rather sounded as if someone had decided that the New England motif, mixing quaintness and nostalgia, might lead a reader into pleasure, but not into city planning—and that the two later books with their attacks on the ideology of city planning came so close to sociology or philosophy that the books would be marginal, perhaps merely strident. (There was also the problem of classification; some of Robert’s predictions about the future of the city might ordinarily count as fiction.)

Robert had tried without success to describe to himself his feelings as he found the cards with his books listed on them and then read them off softly, almost always the book titles, sometimes his own name as well. It was not simply pleasure, because here, too, in the cards themselves, there was something sobering, distancing. Each of the cards, after all, was surrounded by a hundred others in the same tray; the tray of cards stood in a bureau with rows of others, and the bureau of trays itself was only one of 30 or 40 that stretched in lines sideways and forward. In a library of several hundred thousand books, it was unlikely that the three of his own would ever catch the attention of a reader wandering through the catalogue. And why should anyone take a single book seriously when two or three hundred thousand others stood side by side with it? How great could their differences be? And even if a reader did pick out a book of his, a reasonable response would be to move through the book quickly, skimming instead of reading, and then to return it to a place on the shelves among the others—its natural home, after all.

And then, of course, there were the research libraries with their millions, and the wonder of how his three books could matter to anyone, even to himself. This wasn’t true, furthermore, only of his own books: all the libraries’ books seemed to diminish as their “holdings” increased, as if the multiplying books became increasingly distant reflections perhaps even of a single book, imitating the original but from slightly different angles, like a set of mirrors reflecting each other out to an ever-thinner infinity. It was intriguing, this possibility of a library which would have only one real book in it, especially tempting to an author who as he wrote, always held before him the possibility of hope and the expectation of defeat. It was what Plato’s library would be, no doubt, where only one book was and could be real (which book, Robert wondered, would that one be?). Everything else, however close the resemblance, must be an imitation, a knockoff. What would Plato have said, Robert asked himself, about the printing press? The first copy of anything printed is no more an “original” than the hundredth or thousandth copy, suggesting at least the possibility that there could be copies with no original at all. Or what, on the other hand, if all the copies were to be considered equal as originals? That seemed a nightmare of democracy that even Plato, its ardent enemy, had not imagined.

Robert never understood why looking into a card catalogue stirred associations in him that were so remote. Perhaps the catalogue was also to be read as a text and these were its meanings? And what of the libraries themselves? The public proof of that was probably not far off. In a world where hamburger stands might be shaped like hamburgers, after all, there would yet—soon—be a library in the form of a book, with the stacks arranged as pages and the reading rooms and offices located in the binding. Even people who didn’t know how to read, or who knew how but didn’t do it, could recognize the building then, and perhaps this would be encouragement of a sort, at least a reminder.

Not all Robert’s associations were so impersonal. One whimsical movement in particular recurred: that someday, as he flipped through the cards at the place in the catalogue where his own name should be listed, he would find a book with his name attached but which he had not written. Perhaps it would be a book he had once thought about writing but never got around to; possibly it would be something he hadn’t yet thought of but might. Yet there it would be, with his name and then, too, the name of the publisher and date of publication, the number of pages and a listing of topics, perhaps even the chapter headings. “What would I do if that happened?” Robert asked himself, with an involuntary longing for the books he had not written. “Would I go searching for it in the stacks? Or should I go first to the librarian and explain that there must be some mistake, the library had a book that hadn’t actually been written. (That wouldn’t exactly be a mistake, though; but what other word would fit?) The librarian would probably start pushing all the buttons on her desk, trying to summon coworkers into the office to help out. Or suppose that I went and actually found the book in the stacks—what if I disagreed with it or if I couldn’t understand it? I suppose that I could always call the publisher’s office and ask them what they knew about the book, where they had gotten the manuscript. But how would I bring the question up? ‘There’s a book that you’ve published that’s supposed to be by me, but it’s not by me?’ ”

The numb pleasure in these speculations took Robert back again to Plato—also a city planner, after all—here, though, offering reassurance that if Robert’s musing was only fantasy, it was a fantasy that at least once before had led to a full metaphysical world. Everything that’s possible, Robert reminded himself, has a kind of existence, too—that is, as long as it is possible. So someplace there must be a library of possible books that haven’t actually been written. Some of them will yet be written, and that by itself would prove that they were possible. It’s more difficult to estimate the possibility of books that won’t ever get written, but it seems clear that not everything possible does become actual—and then it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this should apply to books as well as to anything else. Naturally, the library of possible books will be larger than any library of actual books; and then the possible books, no less than the actual ones, would preferably be arranged in some order—perhaps not very different from the one used for actual books: by subject or author or title and then including the publisher. Yes, of course, the publisher, too: Possible books have to be not only not-yet-written but also not-yet-published.) Furthermore, with so large a collection of books, accidents might well happen, and here he returned to thinking about the mysterious book with his name on it as author. It wouldn’t be so extraordinary, in other words, for a few books from the library of possible books to slip into a library of actual books. What would that take? A librarian whose mind had wandered to last night’s party? A reader who forgot which library he’d borrowed the book from? The physicists insist that there’s always some probability of nature’s irregular behavior—for example, that any particular stone might rise instead of fall, or that it had enough energy to keep moving when it should have stopped. Well, if that can happen to stones, why shouldn’t it also happen to books?

One day, with one or another of these fancies floating around him as he stood in the chapel-like catalogue room of a university library that he had visited only once before, seven or eight years previously, Robert discovered that the drawer he was sifting through in order to find his own name wasn’t the correct one. The many drawers before his were closely spaced, and he had pulled out the one that went from NU to OA rather than from MU to MY. He was about to push the drawer back into its pigeonhole and move sideways a step when his eyes caught a title that first startled him and then intrigued him: The Accidental City, he read, and then took in the author’s name—Nuffield, Richard—typed neatly by its side. What startled Robert was that this title was identical to the one that, a few days earlier, he had placed on a manuscript of his own. He’d been working on that manuscript for more than two years, and only a single chapter remained to be written of the five he had outlined. That was far enough along, he told himself, to risk the danger of naming the book. (He once gave a title to a manuscript after writing the first chapter, and those were the last words of the ‘book’ that he wrote.) But the germination here had been long; the title had ripened and pushed itself forward spontaneously, not something he had been trying to think of at all: The Accidental City. But now the name itself was the victim of an accident. “Well, tough luck,” Robert told himself, still looking intently at the card in front of him. “There’s no copyright on titles, of course, I could still use it; but there would be confusion, and it might seem as if I didn’t know about the other book or as if I didn’t care. I’ll have to find a different one. I suppose I should be glad I saw this when I did.”

And then a momentary uneasiness caused Robert to jot down the call number of Nuffield’s book on a piece of paper. Perhaps I ought to look at it, to see how the title fits, he thought. It would be nice if it were only a novel or a mystery story; then I could still use the title. That’s probably it, he guessed—a mystery story, set in one of the big cities, New York or Paris, with the pun on “accident” hinting at foul play. Mystery writers often do that: The Widow’s Pique, Dead on a Rival. Was it that puns themselves hint at murder, one word pushing another out of the way but not quite concealing the body, not really wanting to?

But the library call number, as he looked at it again, interrupted this association before it went any further. Robert saw that the letters in the prefix belonged to books in the section on architecture, and in that section, to the books on city planning. He recalled, even with the twinge that this recognition brought with it, how pleased he had been with his title when it was still his; the name of his book would challenge its own category in the library catalogues: accidental cities to go under the heading of City Planning. Perhaps there would eventually be an entire section under the heading he had thought up, standing (or seated) next to the older, better known one. But then, no doubt, other subversive authors would try to capitalize on it, adding other sections elsewhere in the library: “Skepticism” next to “Religion,” what would it be—“Sobriety?”—next to “Humor.” It would quickly get to be too much, of course, in their numbers and mindless consistency: the sins as well as the virtues of democracy. And the new additions would probably not get very far even if they did get started: Logic was nobody’s special friend, and this was increasingly evident in this quarrelsome, often litigious time. Writers were almost as eager to prevent anyone else from getting what they wanted as they were to obtain what they wanted for themselves.

Robert walked into the stacks and made his way carefully down the rows of books with HT call numbers for communities, turning on and off the light switches as he went until the numbers closed in on the one scribbled on his scrap paper. Then he saw the name “Nuffield” stamped in dark print on a light blue spine. Cautiously, Robert pulled the book out of the tightly packed shelf. He looked first at the title page to make certain; then he turned to the Table of Contents, assuring himself that he wouldn’t have to go further. He was superstitious anyway about reading books that seemed to come close to what he was writing; he certainly did not like to talk about his own writing while he was still doing it, worried partly that the light of day would impose on it somebody else’s shadow, or that his ideas (he believed they existed even before he expressed them, that they were there, waiting to be let out) might be affronted or hide themselves at the sight of a double.

“I can always put the other books in a footnote after I decide what I want to say,” he excused himself. And usually this was what he did, lingering afterward on the other books only for reassurance that whatever the similarities, the differences from his own books were substantial. It was not, in any event, for scholarly sources or references that readers would think of his work. But the Table of Contents in Nuffield’s book left him no alternative. Like the title, the chapter headings were also the headings of Robert’s own chapters, the four he had written and then also the last one that existed only (or so he had thought) in the pile of index cards stacked neatly, under their title, on his desk at home. There they were, quite exact, concise and firm: Chapter 1: “The Unnatural City and Natural Man;” Chapter 2: “City Planning as the Will to Power;” Chapter 3: “Deviant Cities: A History of Perversion;” Chapter 4: “Socializing the City: Repression Made Pleasure;” Chapter 5: “Accidents Do Happen.”

By this time, Robert had seen enough. What would he gain by looking at the chapters themselves? Of course, there was still a chance—even a probability, Robert tried to convince himself, considering the improbability of what had happened so far—that Nuffield’s chapters would be quite different from what he had written himself. For one thing, “Nuffield” sounded like an English name (this could explain why Robert had not heard of him), and then Nuffield’s examples were likely to come from England, or perhaps the continent. But Robert’s attack on city planning was based on American cities, from colonial times on. Admittedly, his first chapter began by considering how English conceptions of the city had affected the first American settlements. But after that, the examples came from the colonies and later the United States, the settlements and cities discussed there standing as evidence for his general theory. America, after all, had meant a new start for anyone who moved there, a place where the past could be put aside, where memory was difficult to keep alive even when people tried to (which most of them didn’t). There were constraints of nature, of course, often a hard nature, but that was the one limit on imagination in the New World, a limit that itself provided a springboard for ideas to leap from. Anything else the newcomers to the New World turned to—in body or mind—would be only what they genuinely wanted. And that, Robert had concluded, pointed at the erotic beginning, the will for cities, that only later, repressed by planning and the fear of freedom, turned desire against itself. So the Tower of Babel—was it New York? L.A.?—replaced the Garden of Eden, not as a matter of chance but inevitably. Slums on this account were also inevitable, testimony first to passion, then to repression, like fever on a wound.

To introduce this long history, Robert had begun his first chapter with an epigraph—a quotation from John Locke that would, he hoped, charm the reader into his theme. “In the beginning,” Locke carefully circled the biblical echo, “All the world was America.” Simple, neat; even an ardent patriot would have to read it twice, with that strange mingling of origins and authority running forward to challenge the reach of later claims of uniqueness. Robert then went on to argue that this was only the beginning of cities, not their middle, and—unless his readers failed to listen to him, for he was pessimistic about the future—not their end either.

These thoughts which had come to Robert slowly, accumulating and then spreading outwards, passed now in quick review as Robert asked himself what more he ought to read in Nuffield’s book. Perhaps he shouldn’t do anything else, just try to find something out about the author and how such a coincidence could have happened. It would be easy enough to call Nuffield’s publisher and ask to be put in touch with him, at least to get his address or to have a letter forwarded. But it was hard to know how to start out: “Dear Mr. Nuffield, I was surprised in reading your recent book: (should it be “most recent book”? He would have to check) “to see. …” What? Even to finish the sentence, to know how close the similarities were, Robert would have to read more. Perhaps in fact the two books disagreed sharply even with the same chapter headings; possibly Nuffield was attacking the accidental city with the same urgency that Robert felt in defending it. There wouldn’t have to be many differences in Nuffield’s text except for a number of “not’s” where Robert had not had them—or their absence as they appeared in his writing. In that case, the letter would be easy: “Dear Mr. Nuffield, In reading your most recent book, I discovered a strange irony, in likeness and difference, to a book by the same title and with the same chapter headings that I had myself been writing. …”

Robert thumbed quickly through the index. Many familiar names appeared there, ones that he had relied on himself: Mumford, Pirenne, Soleri. There was Robert’s own name, too, with one reference, although none to Nuffield himself. Perhaps he hadn’t published anything else? Could he have written this book the first time out? Then there were several names that Robert had not referred to but that he quickly saw, from the hint of the names themselves, fitted neatly into the line of his argument. Marx, for example, whose battle against class differences extended also to the line between life in the city and life in the country. That difference too would wither away with the cunning of history—but always in favor of the cities, Robert recalled, which Marx, tossing restlessly from one of them to another, still preferred to their alternative. Perhaps a little of the rural idiocy Marx scorned might have calmed him a bit?

But this was getting him nowhere, Robert reminded himself, his arm cramping as he held Nuffield’s book propped up against the shelf in order to turn the pages. There was, at any rate, one certain test, direct and ready, which would free him from the stacks and the book. After that he’d go outside, have a beer in the cafe down the street, and think about what to do next. There was that first line of his first chapter—with the unlikely quotation from Locke, the fragment shaken loose long ago from a casual reading of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Nuffield might have similar ideas to his and he might use much the same vocabulary; he and Nuffield were contemporaries, after all, they had a common language, looked out at pretty much the same world. And if one of them invented a theory, why shouldn’t the other come upon it as well? But that would not apply to pieces chipped from the past, the occasional echoes spotted by chance in history’s nooks and crannies. Only God could keep track of everything that had been said, and even He might be more interested in things that were happening for the first time than in repetitions from the past. But then, too, even quotations could in their own way be original, perhaps more original when they were quoted than when they were first uttered. The opening line of Nuffield’s book should be enough, then, to establish a difference, and after that Robert might come back to read the rest of the book as he chose to or not; perhaps he wouldn’t have to get in touch with Nuffield at all. He could include a reference to Nuffield with a bunch of other authors in a long footnote; this would show that he’d been aware of the book but that it didn’t really change anything for him. For now, at any rate, he’d go on to finish his own book and then decide what else to do.

So he began to turn the pages backwards, admiring the clear Fournier type along the way, until he found the title page again, and then, patiently starting forward once again, came to the opening of the first chapter: “In the beginning,” he read slowly, painfully, and grudgingly, “All the world was America … .” The lines immediately after that dissolved in Robert’s gaze. Some accidents, as he had often said to himself in thinking about the history of cities, just don’t happen. What point was there in reading further? The pages he had seen would not get any better, those he might yet see could only get worse.

Robert picked up his briefcase, fumbling with the handle. He would have to find out who this Nufffield was, where he worked, what the rest of his life was like. How had the two of them come so close to each other without being aware of it? Or perhaps Nuffield was aware of it? For a moment a sense of comradeship almost overtook Robert’s dismay; here after all, was a mind that would not quarrel with him or even doubt. But then, quickly, Robert came back to his anxiety. Perhaps he should get Susan, Marian’s college friend who worked in publishing, to ask around discreetly, to find out where the book manuscript had come from, what its history was. But no, that wouldn’t work; once Susan started, there were no secrets with her or from her. Or perhaps he should go to look up the reviews of the book, to see what they said about the author. But here again Robert winced. The reviewers would be criticizing him, only under a different name. Even for the chapters he’d already written, he had not settled finally on everything in them; he still wanted to do some tinkering. Should he be responsible for what had already appeared? Unless, of course, Nuffield had himself made changes that might yet come out in a second edition.

And what about the one chapter that Robert had not yet written except in outline? Would there be objections or counterarguments in the reviews to what he had not said yet, to things he was still only thinking about? “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”—the biblical command that would then evolve into a long list of dietary prohibitions brought him back to its moral origins, as his thoughts, detaching themselves, moved ahead to the role of the critic. In one sense, it wasn’t so outlandish to think of critics publishing their objections while the authors they criticized were still considering what they would say and how to go about it, or even whether they would say it at all. It might be easier, in fact, for critics to predict what an author might say than for the author himself to write it, since the author had to invent it, not just consider what was possible or probable. But no, he wouldn’t go along with that, not if he could help it. At that rate, history would be over before it got started, would already be complete; a single author could have written all the lines.

Quite deliberately, then, he moved down the corridor that led out of the stacks and followed it to the phone booths near the library entrance. He first called Information in New York City to get the publisher’s number; then he punched in that number, together with that of his credit card. He asked the secretary who answered the telephone if he could speak to the editor who had worked on Nuffield’s Accidental City.

“That’s Elinor Sawyer,” the secretary said. “I’ll ring her for you. Could I say who is calling and in reference to what?”

Robert stumbled over the second part of the question: “Uh, I’d like some information about…” Then he thought it would be easier to start with the first part. “My name is Robert Mundheim, and uh, I’ve read…”

But then, unexpectedly, the secretary interrupted him.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Mundheim, Miss Sawyer told me several weeks ago to expect your call. I’ll put you through.”

“Mr. Mundheim?” a new voice came on the line. “This is Elinor Sawyer, Richard Nuffield’s editor here. He didn’t know how to reach you, but he’d hoped you would call. He’s been a great admirer of your work and keeps saying how important it has been for his own writing. He’d very much like to meet you—and now that I think of it, he and I were scheduled to meet for lunch two days from now, on Thursday. Perhaps you could take my place? I’m sure that would be fine with him, and he and I could meet next week instead. It’s close to our offices, the Yale Club, at about 1 o’clock. Do you think you’d be able to do that?”

Things were moving too quickly for Robert to keep up. He paused, stuttered, and then, “Er, well that sounds OK. I mean, nice. Thoughtful of you. The Yale Club, at 1, on Thursday?” And then in quick afterthought, “But how would I recognize him?”

“Oh, that shouldn’t be hard. He’s short, stocky, glasses, brown hair beginning to gray.”

Robert, standing with the phone in his hand, glanced up, and as if for the first time, he saw his own reflection in the glass of the phone booth. And he sighed.

Berel Lang, Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Letters at Wesleyan University, is the author of, among other books, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence, andPrimo Levi: The Matter of a Life.

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