THE COMPANY MAN
Askold Melnyczuk — poet, novelist, founding editor of AGNI and professor of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston — thinks of his adopted city as "a company town."
"The universities [here] have done a lot to define the way in which the literary life unfolds, for good and ill," he says. On the plus side, they bring writers together. Leslie Epstein, who runs the writing program at Boston University, has been particularly influential. "Out of his overcoat — the same way that Russian literature is said to have tumbled out of Gogol's overcoat — have come Sue Miller, Ha Jin, and Jhumpa Lahiri," Melnyczuk says. "They were all students of his, and they show you the range of experiences and geographies that a small city like Boston can contain." Equally influential is Emerson College's DeWitt Henry, editor of Ploughshares, who "established a pretty strong beachhead for a certain generation of fiction writers, like Tim O'Brien and Ann Beattie."
Of course, graduates of Boston universities face the problem of sky-high rents. "When I came here 35 years ago, it was possible to arrive in Cambridge with $500 in your pocket, not knowing anyone in town, and to find a job and set up a life," Melnyczuk says. "Now it's impossible for me to imagine my students doing anything similar. When I first moved to Boston, there were bars and bookstores on every corner. Now there are more banks than bookstores."
In fact, Melnyczuk thinks the city is pricing itself out of what he calls generative literary culture. "I love Boston," he says. "I've defended it against New Yorker friends for years. You can walk across it, appear to get to know it, and of course never exhaust it. It is a city of great institutions and neighborhoods. At the same time, I'm genuinely sorry to see the way it's been transformed by the money that came in the '90s." He's been telling his students to move to Detroit when they graduate.
But if they can hack it, they have the chance to join a great pantheon of great American writers with mixed feelings about the city: "Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, James — all these writers that came in and out of town 100 years ago — had their ups and their downs and their loves and their hates with Boston," he says. "You recognize that the range of your own responses is a constant across time."