Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer's JourneyDaniel Keyes
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1. My Writing Cellar
2. The White Mouse
3. Second Acting
4. Breaking Dishes
5. I Become Ship's Doctor
7. The Boy on Book Mountain
8. Silence of the Psychoanalysts
9. First Published Stories
10. Editing Pulps and Writing Comic Books
11. Looking for Charlie
12. Charlie Finds Me
13. Getting There
14. Rejection and Acceptance
15. Transformations: From Story to Teleplay to Novel
16. Rejected Again
17. Of Love and Endings
18. We Find a Home
19. "Don't Hide Your Light Under a Bushel"
20. When Are Writers Like Saints?
21. Charly Goes Hollywood
22. Broadway Bound
23. And Then What Happened?
Flowers for Algernon
Copyright © 1999 by Daniel Keyes
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be
mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First published by Challenge Press, 2000
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Algernon, Charlie, and I: a writer's journey/Daniel Keyes.—1st Harvest ed.
p. cm.—(A Harvest book)
1. Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon—Sources. 2. People with mental
disabilities in literature. 3. People with mental disabilities—Fiction.
4. Gifted persons—Fiction. 5. Brain—Surgery—Fiction. I. Title.
Text set in AGaramond
Designed by Cathy Riggs
Printed in the United States of America
First Harvest edition 2004
A C E G I K J H F D B
For my wife Aurea,
who tended the dream garden
so "Flowers" could grow.
PART ONE THE MAZE OF TIME
1 My Writing Cellar [>]
2 The White Mouse [>]
3 Second Acting [>]
4 Breaking Dishes [>]
5 I Become Ship's Doctor [>]
PART TWO FROM SHIP TO SHRINK
6 Inkblots [>]
7 The Boy on Book Mountain [>]
8 Silence of the Psychoanalysts [>]
9 First Published Stories [>]
10 Editing Pulps and Writing Comic Books [>]
PART THREE MIND OVER MATTER
11 Looking for Charlie [>]
12 Charlie Finds Me [>]
13 Getting There [>]
14 Rejection and Acceptance [>]
PART FOUR THE ALCHEMY OF WRITING
15 Transformations: From Story to Teleplay to Novel [>]
16 Rejected Again [>]
17 Of Love and Endings [>]
18 We Find a Home [>]
PART FIVE POST-PUBLICATION BLUES
19 "Don't Hide Your Light Under a Bushel" [>]
20 When Are Writers Like Saints? [>]
21 Charly Goes Hollywood [>]
22 Broadway Bound [>]
23 And Then What Happened? [>]
Afterword: My "What Would Happen If...?" Is Happening [>]
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
Complete original novelette version [>]
The Maze of Time
1. My Writing Cellar
I NEVER THOUGHT it would happen to me.
When I was very young and very nearsighted—20/400 vision, everything blurred without my eyeglasses—I believed that someday I'd go blind. So I planned ahead. I strove to be neat, a place for everything and everything in its place. I blindfolded myself and practiced retrieving things without seeing, and I was proud that I could find anything quickly in the dark.
I didn't go blind. In fact, with eyeglasses my vision is excellent.
I can still put my hands on most things I possess. Not because I remember where I put them, but because I take the time to put them away carefully, in logical places. I just have to remember where they belong. What's happening to me is something I never considered. I start out to do something, go somewhere, walk into another room to get something, but then I have to pause. What am I looking for? Then it quickly clicks into place. It's momentary but frightening. And I think of Charlie Gordon at the end of Flowers for Algernon, saying, "I remember I did something but I don't remember what."
Why am I thinking of the fictional character I created more than forty years ago? I try to put him out of my mind, but he wont let me.
Charlie is haunting me, and I've got to find out why.
I've decided the only way I can put him to rest is to go back through the maze of time, search for his origins, and exorcise the ghosts of memories past. Perhaps, along the way, I'll also learn when, how, and why I became a writer.
Getting started is the hardest thing. I tell myself, you've got the material. You don't have to make it up—just remember it, shape it. And you don't have to create a fictional narrator's voice the way you did for the story and then the novel. This is you, writing about writing, and remembering the secrets of your own life that became the life of Charlie Gordon.
The opening of the story echoes in my mind: "Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon..."
Although the original novelette begins with those words, that's not how it all started. Nor are his final words about putting "flowrs ... in the bak yard" the end of his story. I remember clearly where I was the day the ideas that sparked the story first occurred to me.
One crisp April morning in 1945, I climbed the steps to the elevated platform of the Sutter Avenue BMT station in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I'd have a ten- or fifteen-minute wait for the train that would take me to Manhattan, where I would change for the local to the Washington Square branch of New York University.
I recall wondering where I would get the money for the fell semester. My freshman year had used up most of the savings I'd accumulated by working at several jobs, but there wouldn't be enough left to pay for three more years at NYU.
As I took the nickel fare out of my pocket and glanced at it, I remembered my father Willie once admitting to me that when he had been looking for work during the Great Depression, he would walk the ten miles from our two-room apartment, through Brooklyn, and across the Manhattan Bridge each morning and back home each night to save two nickels.
br /> Often, Dad would leave while it was still dark before I awoke, but sometimes I would be up early enough to catch a glimpse of him at the kitchen table, dipping a roll into his coffee. That was his breakfast. For me there was always hot cereal, and sometimes an egg.
Watching him stare into space, I assumed his mind was blank. Now, I realize he was trying to figure out ways to pay our debts. Then he would get up from the table, pat me on the head, tell me to be good in school and study hard. Back then, I thought he was going to his job. I didn't learn until much later that he was ashamed of being out of work.
Maybe this nickel in my hand was one of those he saved.
I dropped it into the slot and pushed through the turnstile. Someday, perhaps I'd retrace his footsteps, walking from Brownsville to Manhattan, to know what it had been like for him. I thought about it, but I never did it.
I think of experiences and images like these as being stored in the root cellar of my mind, hibernating in the dark until they are ready for stories.
Most writers have their own metaphors for stored-away scraps and memories. William Faulkner called his writing place a workshop and referred to his mental storage place as a lumber room, to which he'd go when he needed odds and ends for the fiction he was building.
My mental storage place was in a part of our landlord's cellar, near the coal bin, in the space under the stairs which he allowed my parents to use for storage. Once, when I was big enough to climb down the cellar stairs, I discovered that's where my parents hid my old toys.
I see my brown teddy bear and stuffed giraffe, and Tinkertoy, and Erector set, and tricycle, and roller skates and childhood books—some of them coloring books with line drawings still to fill in with crayons. For me it solved a mystery of toys that vanished when I'd grown tired of them, and others that reappeared in their place.
Even now, I can smell the dank air and the odor of coal in the nearby bin beside the furnace. I see the steel shaft from the coal truck inserted through the cellar window and then, almost immediately, I hear coal clattering down the slide into the coal bin. Our landlord, Mr. Pincus, opens the cast-iron door of the furnace, and stokes it with a poker. I smell wet coal as he shovels it in, and feel heat from the blaze.
Somewhere between the coal bin and the furnace—in the root cellar of my mind—ideas, images, scenes, and dreams wait in the dark until I need them.
Remembering my childhood toy hiding place, as I waited for the train, I thought of my mother and father. I mused over the coincidence that both of their parents—unknown to each other—had made their way across Europe to Canada to New York City. There, Betty and Willie met for the first time. They soon married and had me, their first child, in 1927: the year Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris, and Al Jolson played the Jazz Singer in the first talking movie.
During those years of hope and excess that later became known as the Jazz Age, my parents, like many other new Americans, went to parties, and danced the Charleston at speakeasies where they could be served illegal gin.
I often wonder what happened to the sepia photograph of my mother, with her bobbed hair and sad dark eyes. I loved to hear her sing popular songs from two-cent lyric sheets and, sometimes, I would sing along with her, our favorite, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
As a boy, in Quebec, Willie had worked for trappers, and learned to speak English, French, Russian, and enough Canadian Indian phrases to trade furs. Although he and my mother had little formal schooling, it became clear to me early in childhood that they respected education, and demanded that I excel in school.
Yet, in my adolescence, I discovered the more I read and learned, the less I could communicate with them. I was losing them—drifting away into my world of books and stories.
Ever since I was a child, they had decided I would become a doctor. When I asked why, my father answered, "Because a doctor is like God. He cures people and saves lives."
My mother added, "When you were a baby, you had an infected mastoid and double pneumonia. A wonderful doctor saved your life."
My father said, "We want you to cure people and save lives."
I accepted their reasons and their obligation. I would work hard, take part-time jobs to earn money, and go to college and medical school. I would become a doctor. Since I loved my parents, I buried my dream of becoming a writer. I declared premed as my major.
Secretly, I wondered if I could become both doctor and writer. I'd read that Somerset Maugham had been educated as a physician and went to sea as a ship's doctor. Chekhov had studied medicine and published his early stories and sketches in journals and papers under the pen name "The Doctor Without Patients." Conan Doyle, unable to support himself as an eye specialist, used his empty consulting room during visiting hours to write the stories of Sherlock Holmes.
An Englishman, a Russian, and a Scotsman had started as physicians and then crossed over into the writing life. By following in their footsteps, perhaps I would be able to fulfill my parents' dream as well as my own.
Almost immediately, I saw the flaw in my solution. Before they became successful authors, all three had failed as doctors.
The crowded train pulled into the station, and I got on, not bothering to look for a seat. It was rush hour, and I would have to stand during the half-hour trip to Union Square. I reached through the crush of work-bound commuters for the white enamel pole in the center of the aisle to steady myself in the lurching train. Most people stared up to avoid eye contact. Feeling depressed, I did the same.
My first year at NYU was nearing an end, and I thought: My education is driving a wedge between me and the people I love. And then I wondered: What would happen if it were possible to increase a persons intelligence?
That morning, as the train clackety-clacked through the tunnel to Manhattan, I stored away those two ideas: education could force a wedge between people, and the storyteller's "What would happen if...?"
Later that day, the white mouse happened.
2. The White Mouse
THE TRAIN PULLED INTO the Eighth Street station, a short walk from Broadway to the Washington Square branch of New York University.
I stopped at a doughnut and coffee shop across from the entrance to the Main Building, and saw a friend at the counter. He waved me to an empty stool beside him. We had been at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn together but had little to do with each other. He was over six feet tall. I was five-feet-five.
It was only after we discovered we were both premed and found each other in the same biology course at NYU that we became friends. We studied together, testing each other to prepare for exams. Because of the difference in our height, people who saw us called us "Mutt and Jeff" like the characters in a comic strip popular at the time. I called him "Stretch."
I was dunking my doughnut when Stretch said, "Hey, you see the notice? If you volunteer for the military you get exempt from finals."
"In Fridays paper," he said. "Any student signing up for duty at least three months before he turns eighteen can enter the service of his choice. After that, it's the Infantry. I'm gonna join the Navy."
"I'll be eighteen on August 9th," I said, "just three months from now. But with my bad eyes, I don't think the Army will draft me."
"You want to take the chance? Lots of guys have been killed. They'll take anyone who breathes."
We paid our checks and headed across the street to the main entrance of NYU.
I knew Stretch would be accepted into the Navy, and I envied him. I loved the sea, or at least the idea of the seafaring life. At sixteen, during my last year in high school, I'd joined the Sea Scouts of America. Our scout ship, the'S. S. S. Flying Dutchman III, was an old liberty boat converted into a cabin cruiser. During the spring break, we scraped and primed and painted her hull, and the following summer we cruised up and down the East River.
At meetings during which new sea scouts were sworn in, the captain would tell the story of the legendary vessel after whom
we were named. The'S. S. S. Flying Dutchman had carried a cargo of gold, and there had been a brutal murder aboard. After that, a plague broke out among the crew, and no port would allow the ship to enter. According to seamen's stories, the spectral ship still drifts sea-tossed, its men never to return home. It is said that, to this day, the ship can be seen in stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope, an eternal omen of bad luck.
The captain embellished the story each time he told it, and I'd become curious and looked it up on my own. What he didn't tell us were some of the other legends, like the one that says the curse can be lifted if the captain finds a woman willing to sacrifice everything for his sake.
I told that version to some of the other sea scouts, and it became our quest when we cruised for girls in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. We were looking for what were then called "Victory Girls," young women willing to sacrifice everything for young men going off" to war.
We pretended to be sailors. There were only two differences between our uniforms and the Navy's: the anchors on the back corners of our collars instead of stars, and over the front left pocket the letters B.S.A. to identify us as Boy Scouts of America. When some of the girls questioned our lack of height, we explained that we were sub-mariners, and when they asked what B.S.A. referred to, we told them, "Battle Squadron A."
None of them ever questioned the anchors.
We picked up lots of patriotic V-Girls in Prospect Park, but unlike some of the more experienced and handsome sea scouts, I couldn't find one willing to sacrifice everything for my sake.
"I wish I could join the Navy too," I said to Stretch, as we took the elevator up to our lockers that morning at NYU, "but with my bad vision, I guess it's the infantry for me."
"You can always join the Maritime Service. They don't have high physical requirements, and Merchant Marine duty would exempt you from the draft."
"I guess that way I'd still be serving my country."
"Sure. Considering the mines and torpedoes, it's hazardous duty. I read somewhere that more merchant seamen were killed on the Murmansk run than Navy sailors."