The Baz: “So, what makes ‘you’ a writer?”
In the classroom, David Bazelon was the Man in Black, but we hipster college writers called him The Baz.
A few decades back, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I took a creative writing class with Bazelon, a Manhattan corporate lawyer-turned social critic who’d been lionized as one of post World War Two’s “New York intellectuals.”
He brought the gritty real world to the classroom.
A graduate of both Colombia University and Yale Law School, he was a Guggenheim fellow and social critic who kept regular correspondence with scholars James T. Farrell, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz.
The Baz was the real deal, and I recall the trepidation of walking into that first class, finding a gaggle of fledging writers who had filled all 35 seats, with the overflow lined up against the wall.
His classes were always packed; everybody wanted a piece of the Baz.
Bazelon loomed at his desk, like some intimidating litigator poised for a courtroom showdown. Everything about him suggested an imminent encounter — his long gray hair implying decades of experience, the way he sized you up through those scholarly spectacles. He wore black head-to-toe, as though he had dressed for your funeral.
Most imposing was the black glove he wore on a right hand that he moved about mechanically. Was it some war injury? He never said.
The Baz knew that 35 students were far too many for a creative writing class. He had to weed out the posers, so he went around the room like a literary drill sergeant, dressing down his busload of flaccid new recruits.
One by one, we took our turns, The Baz looming in our faces, invading our space.
“So what makes you a writer,” he demanded.
The question required an immediate and honest assessment of both your talent and deepest aspirations — all in front of your peers, no less.
It was horrifying.
And then, if you were still on your feet, he hit you again.
“Where have you been published?”
A young woman in blue jeans, frizzy hair and John Lennon specs took a direct hit. She couldn’t say why she was a writer. She was a poet, and she hadn’t been published anywhere.
She wrote for herself, she said.
“Then you’re not a writer,” Bazelon challenged.
She tensed up, near tears, doodling in her notebook, avoiding eye-contact.
Figuring he’d delivered the mortal wound, The Baz moved on. By the end of 45 minutes, students fled for the door.
The next session, there were perhaps ten of us left. The poet was gone. We spread out, as though to better reduce the blood spatter if one of us were called upon.
But no classroom beat-down was going to drive me away. I was an editor for the student newspaper, known as The Spectrum. The gig gave me a confidence. Still, my prose remained lazy and undisciplined.
Others wanted their piece, but I needed The whole Baz.
From that class on, this literary lion was decidedly more relaxed, like he’d finally let those grey locks down. He was still tough, and yet approachable.
“I hated to do that,” he said of the initial carnage. “But the class was too big.”
So it had all been an ambush, a firing squad, a sniper’s set-up.
And we were the lucky survivors.
There were other Spectrum staffers in Bazelon’s class that semester, including a self-satisfied columnist named Drew Reid Kerr, who’d been nicknamed “Few Read Kerr.”
But somehow, after a few exchanges in the classroom, The Baz labeled me with a nickname he used every time he called on me.
“Mr. Journalist,” he’d say. “What do you think about that?”
I couldn’t tell whether The Baz was poking fun at me, but it didn’t matter: I was 21 and looking for the shield of a public identity, like a crab in search of a shell.
It sounded pretty good to me.
Like my classmates, I was in awe of the Baz.
He was born in 1923 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago. In the 1950s, he’d worked as a corporate attorney in New York City before quitting his practice in 1958 — the year after I was born — to devote himself to writing.
Although Bazelon’s initial interest was fiction and poetry, his earliest success came from his essays and reviews as he established his reputation as a social critic, with book reviews and essays in The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review.
Yet he continued to write fiction, much of it autobiographical, as well as poetry, most of which remained unpublished.
He began teaching at UB in 1969, joining a staff that already included such literary lights as Leslie Fiedler, Raymond Federman, Robert Hass, Lionel Abel, John Barth, J.M. Coetzee and Robert Creeley.
American folklorist Bruce Jackson, who also taught there, wrote that UB was “the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism.”
Bazelon’s essays observed such cultural phenomena as the 1950s television quiz scandal and Jim Jones and mass suicides of the People’s Temple congregation. He was particularly interested in the social unrest of the 1960s, student demonstrations that had touched our own campus, sometimes called “the Berkeley of the East.”
So, when The Baz called on you, for either an opinion or a reading of your work, you gulped before you opened your mouth.
Sometimes, it was even hard to breathe.
Over the months, I read a few things in class.
Like an account of my marijuana bust in Fort Lauderdale, where I’d spent a fearful night in jail, with an older cellmate whispering in my ear, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the crime.”
I called it the Heartbreak Hotel and it was amateurish stuff.
I read aloud a piece of fiction about an old man who dies on a park bench on Christmas Eve in Chicago. I’d never even been to Chicago, so I replaced the street names with those from Syracuse, N.Y., where I’d grown up.
The Baz glowered. He’d lived in Chicago and knew I was plugging in phony street names. For him, it destroyed my credibility as a narrator.
He had advice for other young scribes as well: About the patience needed for constant rewrites, dealing with rejection and the isolation of being a working writer.
“In his courses, David Bazelon gave his students a healthy dose of all that because he knew what the real world would look like beyond the classroom,” said New York writer Harold Goldberg, a Spectrum staffer who also took his class.
Near the end of the semester, Bazelon summoned me to his desk.
He reached into a tattered leather pouch and pulled out a few pages of typed copy.
The title of the autobiographical piece was, “The Very Glaring Sun.”
“Give it a read,” he said.
The story was about a boy with a deformed hand, about his travels on busses and trains, how people stared, how their eyes became that very glaring sun, how the silent judgment of strangers had made him hard and combative.
It said so much about this complicated man whom I both feared and respected.
The Baz stayed prickly to the end.
He hated being confused with his uncle, David L. Bazelon, a federal appeals judge who wrote landmark opinions expanding the rights of criminal defendants.
A young Bazelon had once worked for his uncle. When UB colleague Bruce Jackson later mentioned one of Judge Bazelon’s popular opinions, The Baz had at him.
“I wrote that,”he snapped. “He signed it.”
Before Bazelon retired in 1985, Jackson told me, he’d alienated colleagues. “David was on arguing terms with almost everyone in the Department, at least the few he was talking to,” Jackson said.
“We’d been friendly for a while, then I became a target, too. I have no memory of what I might have done or said that triggered his enmity.”
But the old Baz wit remained sharp, like when he ran into Jackson years later at a New York party for Guggenheim Fellows. “David hung close much of the time and kept bring up new things to talk about. It was pleasant and friendly,” Jackson recalled.
“After a while, I said, “David: you don’t like me. Why are you talking to me?”
“He waved his arm at the crowd in the room: ‘I don’t like them more.’”
That was The Baz. But he always made time for his students.
Harold Goldberg told how Bazelon’s girlfriend once threw him a party in New York, inviting his longtime radical critic friends to a small Manhattan apartment for wine and cheese.
“They did all get along that day, and I hoped that the collegiality would continue,” he said. “There, I met his girlfriend’s daughter and we struck up a passionate relationship.”
The Baz was against it — insisting it wouldn’t last.
“It didn’t,” Goldberg said, “and he had to hear about the remnants of love and war from me.” One night, he listened as Goldberg drowned his sorrows at a Chinese restaurant.
Then the tough old Baz emerged, like Charles Bukowski without the booze.
“Look. You had a little bird, and she had to fly away. You have to her go,’” he said. Goldberg knew he was right.
“He was always right,” he said. “That could be maddening when emotion got in the way. But it was true. David Bazelon was true.”
I read a recent New Yorker piece about the genre of hardboiled detectives, that mentioned a 1949 Bazelon essay about the moral dilemmas faced by Dashiell Hammett.
Seventy years later, The Baz was still part of the discussion. Since his death in 2005, his papers have been housed at the University of Delaware.
Back in that classroom in the late 1970s, The Baz taught one aspiring young writer about integrity, how to think through his work.
How to be true.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.