Sven Birkerts was already well established as a literary critic and essayist when he secured his lasting reputation with the critically acclaimed The Gutenberg Elegies (1995), an impassioned defense of reading and literature in an age which, he contends, celebrates the technological at the expense of the literary. Though detractors have called him a Luddite, the author’s many admirers awaited the publication of this memoir in the hope of learning more about the development of his passion for language and literature. The title of this book, My Sky Blue Trades, makes immediate sense. The phrase comes from “Fern Hill,” a lyrical reflection on the loss of childhood joys by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), but the reference is more than a nod to one of the many great literary figures whom Birkerts reveres. In his new book, Birkerts takes his readers on a journey through the pains of his own childhood and the various frustrations of adolescence and young adulthood until, at the age of twenty-seven, this self-described late bloomer found his first success as a man of letters, a writer of literary essays.
The subtitle, Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time, is somewhat more cryptic. As Birkerts’s story traces an arc not entirely unfamiliar for a middle-class child of the baby-boom era, it is not always easy for a reader to see what exactly is “counter” about the author’s life or “contrary” about his times. Certainly, the dreaminess and literary ambitions of his youth would mark Birkerts out as a somewhat unusual child and adolescent, and he did enjoy a brief, if rather deep, immersion in the hippie counterculture of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and suffer bouts of fairly deep, nearly debilitating depression. However, what is perhaps most remarkable, most “counter” about Birkerts’s life (at least the portion of it described in this volume) is his unfailing intellectualism in a world devoted to decidedly less lofty pleasures and his struggles against the “contrary” pressures of a society (and, closer to home, a stern and practical father) with little patience for either indecision or high-minded bookish dabbling.
Birkerts was raised by Latvian immigrants who kept some Old World traditions alive in their suburban Detroit household and, to their son’s unending embarrassment, spoke their native language at home and occasionally even in public. His father did not work in the auto trade or any of the region’s other large industries but was an architect, a man with a passion for the spare lines of modernity, which to young Sven (known as “Pete” to his friends and family) marked his clan as additionally strange. The young boy’s most passionate desire was simply to be a “normal” American kid. The irony is that he was, in most respects, a normal American kid, no less so because he, like so many children, longed for the bland, inconspicuous safety of the sit-com childhood that he assumed, almost certainly incorrectly, all the other children in the neighborhood possessed. Exploring his neighborhood in ever- growing circles as he got older, visiting his grandparents, finding his place in the shifting but strict hierarchies of the schoolyard, discovering the first stirrings of romantic and sexual longing—these are the most ordinary of memories, yet they are experienced anew by each generation and each individual, and with his crystalline powers of recall, Birkerts recreates this sense of newness.
As an adolescent, Birkerts was still not quite ordinary in the ways he wanted: He attended a private boys’ school where he helped to found a short-lived literary magazine, and his private, largely internal, battle with the traditional ideals of his father grew with his nascent awareness of the changing social order of the late 1960’s. Like many young people of his generation, his college days (at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) were more about experimenting with drugs and gently dabbling in radical politics than about his studies. The middle chapters of My Sky Blue Trades include illuminating, occasionally amusing, and frequently poignant passages recalling the author’s experience of dormitory parties hazy with marijuana smoke, of spending the two weeks before the Woodstock rock festival living with “Wavy Gravy” and other icons of the counter culture, and of falling into and out of love for the first time. He himself admits that he was too young, too inexperienced, and still too self-absorbed to be a true political rebel. He was simply another young man trying to find his way in a...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)