In this exclusive essay, Jaimy Gordon explains how her family background influenced the writing of her National Book Award-winning novel, Lord of Misrule.
More than I was allowed to know when I was a girl, I am the product of two usually warring ways of looking at the world—and so, I think, is my novel, Lord of Misrule.
Both my parents were Jewish, the children of immigrants who arrived in America shortly before the turn of the century, but my father was prep school, military school and Ivy educated. His mother, having made a fortune from two elegant hat shops by the time she was thirty, left filthy trade behind her and never worked again, went to lectures and concerts and museums and so at least mimicked the life of the cultured upper class in New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life. She obliterated all trace of a Yiddish accent, if she ever had one. She was literary (in accordance with her will, her funeral consisted of a reading of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”), indomitably formal, a kind of nun of aesthetic aspiration and a Germanophile. She got rid of her husband early.
My mother’s mother was a garment worker who, like my father’s mother, made hats, but on the factory end, not management. She too parted from her husband early. (She later remarried an alcoholic with a flourishing window-washing business that landed many contracts with the city—a sure sign of corruption, though that never occurred to me when I was young.) My mother was raised by her grandparents on Patterson Park Avenue in East Baltimore, among seven aunts and uncles, none of whom, as far as I know, ever read a book, in a horseplaying household where shabbos ended in a poker game and a number of shady enterprises were tolerated, so that two uncles went to jail and one was eventually murdered. My mother put all this behind her and graduated from Goucher College in 1941, already married to my father who had gone to Hopkins and then Columbia Law. We didn’t see much of her family, except at an occasional seder or bar mitzvah.
I had an excellent education, and never wanted to be anything but a writer. All the same, I was drawn to a wild-eyed horsetrainer and the racetrack where he ran his horses, in Charles Town, West Virginia, in my twenties. Lord of Misrule is a novel about the seediest possible racetrack, created by a writer (me) who has the highest possible literary aspirations, and my language surely shows it. The characters in Lord of Misrule (especially the loan shark Two Tie) talk like my Baltimore uncles, except for the ancient groom Medicine Ed, who, being from South Carolina like most poor black folk I knew in Baltimore when I was growing up, talks like my great grandparents’ neighbors on Patterson Park Avenue in the fifties, after most white families had departed.
And that’s the consummately hybrid world of Lord of Misrule.