Captain Midnight, Part Two

In the previous installment [Issue 12], Gordon Lish, age 26, arrived in California in 1959 with his wife and young daughter. There he started a literary magazine and was hired and fired as a high school English teacher. His firing, for insubordination, attracted some press attention.

He was losing track of how to save himself. He needed someone to commit an act of mercy. Instead a man named Allen Calvin called, said he admired how Lish had handled the school board case, and offered him a job as a textbook writer. This was not the work Lish dreamed of, but he was without options. He tried to imagine himself as a young professional and hoped a stable family situation would follow.

Allen Calvin was a sharp, impulsive man, about a decade older than Lish, with several short careers behind him. He had trained as a psychologist and caught on quickly to the new theory of radical behaviorism, which proposed that personality could be rebuilt from the ground up. He became interested in the behaviorist method of programmed instruction, which used textbooks to deliver small increments of information and reinforcement, and produced training manuals for the army. Now he was trying to break into the education market with a new company, Behavioral Research Laboratories, that would use programmed instruction to make classroom teachers redundant. His textbooks would take care of the teaching.

Lish started driving an hour north each day, in the fall of 1963, to a low office building on the edge of the Stanford campus. It was across the street from the hospital, and the hallways were lined with medical practices and research outfits. Calvin’s office was filled with sales and marketing specialists and his own engineers and technicians. They were former teachers and recent graduate students who translated their fields into mechanized instruction. The situation was absurd, but Lish was determined to make it work. As soon as he found a piece of letterhead, he wrote Hayden Carruth, “I am now employed at the above as their Director of Linguistic Studies. I am also learning how to behave. The pay is better than I deserve and the duties quite beyond my capacity. But our leader believes, and that’s good enough for present.”

Lish sat with his feet on his desk and a Dictaphone strapped to his belt, rattling off grammatical rules and examples. For better or worse, he was good at this work, and within two months he was promoted. Being encouraged by a company he distrusted made him feel real resistance. He wrote Carruth, “First time something like this has happened to me, and I must confess I don’t like it. Makes you feel more owned than usual, not rewarded.” But he and Frances still were struggling to pay their bills, and their landlord was forcing them to buy their house. Soon Lish was working harder than ever.

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