MOST of our friends aren't listed in directories that record eminence. When the loss is of a public figure, public attention is expected, and obituaries are published and read. But of course the pain is no less when the death is that of a personal and private friend. Then there is no catharsis, no public or semi-public mourning, no public tributes. The consolation, in this corner of NATIONAL REVIEW, is the accessibility of this page. I have treated it, over the years, most exploitatively -- as something akin to personal property; yet always aware that its longevity depends entirely on its capacity to engage your interest. From time to time I use my half-acre of space to recall a friendship purely personal, as I do now, on learning of the death of Charles Wallen Jr.
Three days after he died I had a letter from Bill Gillen, of Novato, California, whom I've never met. He wrote of his own grief and added, "I am writing to you because I know you were his best friend, and I know that because he told me so in his last letter."
It was so, I am honored to reflect. Charles died at 77 in San Mateo, just out from San Francisco; silver-haired, slightly stooped, quick to laugh and smile, engrossed in whatever book he was reading. When did we meet?
I was thinking this morning about one of your trips to San Francisco in 1971 . . . 26 years ago. I had joined you in your suite at the St. Francis Hotel and you had been engaged to speak before a meeting of Bank of America employees and there were several hundred of them there. . . . Then we went on to Trader Vic's and had a happy lunch. Memories -- memories -- you have provided me with so many happy memories over the years.
Charles Wallen was a purebred American whose interests were books, letters, and friends. He spent the great body of his time reading and rereading his books, which he stored in the huge cellar in his house in Millbrae, overlooking the airport at San Francisco and the surrounding hills and mountains. He was born in Tennessee, wandered about the country, and settled down for most of his professional life in San Francisco as a minor executive in a trucking company. His friends never knew what exactly he did for the DiSalvo Company, and we assumed, I'd guess correctly, that DiSalvo was not much more for him than the office where he worked to provide for his wife and three sons and to gain the leisure time to read his books and write his letters to his friends.
He wrote tenaciously, but I have to suppose that he wrote most often to me, as the laws of time & space make it unlikely that there are others who received two or three letters from Charles Wallen every week for 27 years. And this on top of the memoirs he began a few years ago. "The narrative goes on now way beyond the 1,214,000 words I mentioned to you last month . . ." That would be about three times the length of Gone with the Wind.
Who did he write to? Everyone who interested him or caught his attention.
I have just bought a copy of Father Patrick Samway's (S.J.) biography of Walker Percy. He mentions you on pages 302 and 303. I watched that Firing Line with Walker and Eudora Welty. I started writing to Walker in 1980 and we corresponded till his death in 1990. Once he sent me his privately published little book Bourbon, which is hilarious. What a blow he dealt to the 1960s with Love in the Ruins.
The Walker Percys of this world (as if they were a breed) don't maintain correspondence with listless minds or boring writers. It was so with others, some of whom I had introduced Charles to.
Got a note from Tom Wolfe last week. He said he was doing OK. Also am rereading David Niven's two autobiographical works and enjoying them. We corresponded from 1972 when I met him with you until his death. He called me on his last trip to SF . . .
[Again:] I carried on some correspondence with [Malcolm] Muggeridge in the '70s and '80s & I think I have all his books . . .
[A week or two later:] . . . Got a note from Tom Wolfe last week. He said he was doing OK.
He sometimes circulated answers elicited by his letter-writing, even when one such left him bloody. He was well and truly zonked by the fearful Hugh Kenner's reply to his complaint about my use of a word:
I looked in your Right Word book for solipsism first & found it on page 427. In April 1973 Hugh Kenner wrote me about this word. You had written me that if I could find a substitute you would stop using it. Part of Hugh's letter:
". . . But Bill's point is precisely that there is no substitute for 'solipsism.' If what pains you about it is simply the fact that you seldom hear it, then the fault is not in the man who grinds it against your ears, but in the millions of part-time and largely inadvertent solipsists who are so convinced the universe emanates from them that they feel no need of a word to designate such a condition. Fish, on the same principle, know nothing of water, and for aqueous terminology you should not apply to a fish."
Hugh Kenner, having gone this far, did not stop, and Charles, though presumably chastened, did not mute the full thunder of the closing lines:
"If on the other hand your ears are assaulted by its impacted sibilants (as the ears of Tennyson were aggrieved by the word 'scissors') then I can only fetch you the cold comfort that for a graceless condition the wisdom inherent in the language has afforded us a graceless word. And if, finally, your grievance is that Bill uses it too often, then I can only tax you with inconsistency, since you report that after one to two years of not hearing it from his lips you were wounded anew by a single occurrence -- perhaps, I will grant, on the principle of a man who has been sensitized to penicillin. Such a man's comfort should be that others need the remedy that inflames him, and that principle I commend to you. Hugh Kenner."
Charles loved it. Stylistic grace enlivened him, though his taste was not for the rococo, but for witty plainspokenness. His own literary opinions were emphatic.
In the [San Francisco] Chronicle this morning we had the story of the death of William Burroughs. Patricia Holt [the book editor] writes of it on the front page and mentions Allen Ginsberg, his former lover, as well as Richard Brautigan & Kurt Vonnegut. Happily I have only an embroidered recollection of them. I would not trade Jack London's The Sea Wolf for the whole lot. Will they be remembered? I doubt it . . . I am so shocked by some of the revelations of Pamela [Harriman] that I can scarcely lay the book down.
Charles's health problems were recurrent, but he was fatalistic. He had been an alcoholic, he once told me, but he had quit drinking before I met him and seemed entirely indifferent to the absence of wine. But he persevered with his small cigars, and was amused by medical proscriptions . . .
Bill: I noticed some other things the health freaks forbid: STEAK, EGGS, SALT-CURED COUNTRY HAM, SUGAR, TEA, COFFEE, COCA-COLA, BACON -- so watch out for these dangerous items. My cousin Joe Wallen of Johnson City, Tennessee, about every 3 months sends me a good supply of SALT-CURED COUNTRY HAM and several packages of GRITS. When I was growing up at Kyles Ford, Tennessee, my father raised Poland China hogs -- they were enormous . . . in the 600-pound bracket. Hog-killing was a day I dreaded but we had the year round plenty of SALT-CURED COUNTRY HAM.
Tom Wendel, a historian and friend, recently examined the subterranean library. Charles, he reported, had an ampler store of Mark Twain than anyone else this side of a public library. The Tennessee of the young Charles was Deep South country, where his cultural memories germinated.
Going through some of my old family papers I was reminded that my mother's family had slaves, and several of them (after they were freed in 1863) elected to stay on at my grandfather's farm and were still there when Mama was married in 1900. My paternal grandfather's family also owned slaves. One was sold in 1850 for $800.00. But I probably have told you this before. [He hadn't. But now his mind turned, as so often it did, to his endless thankfulness for all that went well.] . . . Not a day passes that I do not think of all the things you have done for me over the last 27 years. I am grateful.
Perhaps the Southern culture had something to do with his rooted devotion to his family, to the pleasures of literature, and the benefactions of his friends. I gave him a puppy years ago, a Cavalier King Charles whom he named Tres.
I sent them [his cousins] a picture of you, me, and Tres taken in January 1983 . . . only three months after you sent me Tres on 8 October 1982. This was the most precious gift of my life. Tres has been gone to Heaven 43 months and 9 days today.
His sadness over the dog's death ("the doggie's death," I'd have phrased it if talking to Charles) was severe. He had his melancholy moments, and I mentioned them once, in talking with him.