Reading the World With Charles Larson

Charles R. Larson. Photo: American University.

The dreadful news came this week of the death of Chuck Larson, longtime contributor and book reviewer for CounterPunch, after a prolonged struggle with prostate cancer. I got to know Chuck in 1978. He was a professor in the literature department at American University, where I studied literature and history. I had read Chuck’s writing before I met him. On my first week on campus, I prowled the aisles of the school bookstore looking for something to read before classes began, and picked up his crackling campus spoof Academia Nuts, which proved just the orientation I needed, though it’s implications took a few years to fully sink in.

Oddly, I never had him for a class, but I was the student rep on the rank-and-tenure committee for a year, which he chaired, and I’m pretty sure I was my normal pain-in-the-ass defending professors who had worn out their welcome and critiquing celebrated ones who seemed to be phoning it in. He never held my contrariness against me and I was very surprised (and very happy) 23 years later when Chuck started emailing me book reviews, usually reviews of novels, most of them international. His specialty was African literature, a field of study which he helped establish and develop in the US.

My classes from Larson started after I became his editor. His writing is sharpened to the essential elements. Perhaps only other writers realize how very difficult it is to write in a way that reads so fluidly and yet is capable of condensing complex thoughts about challenging novels into a mere 900 words. These little essays were object lessons in how to read a book, how to think and write about what you’d read, and how to evaluate whether it was worth reading. But they aren’t lectures or exercises in academic exegesis. He never lost his excite in discovering a great new book or writer and he wasn’t afraid to let excitement show in his writing. In a very non-obtrusive way, Chuck Larson was able to use his thoughts on a novel to open a portal onto the wider world, from Pamuk’s Turkey to Achebe’s Nigeria. In addition to being a teacher of literature, he was also a mentor of young writers, including his very talented daughter Vanessa, now an editor at the Washington Post. I know, because he sent many of them to CounterPunch and their writing showed all the hallmarks of Chuck’s light touch.

Chuck was very funny and also wrote sharp little satires, particularly during the Bush interregnum. Chuck was among the first recruits into the Peace Corps and remained a pacifist his entire life. He battled prostate cancer for the last 23 years and told morbidly funny descriptions of his treatments, which kept getting more and more involved and grotesque. The reviews kept coming, though, until a couple of years ago when he said he’d exhausted all he to say and was giving it up to devout his last years to re-reading the books that he’d enjoyed in his youth. Still, I’d be thrilled to open the inbox and find, every couple of months, a new Larson story or review. According to Roberta, the last six months had been very rough for him. The pain increasing in intensity, the drugs failing to numb it.

Chuck was one of the original CounterPunch regulars, writers whose columns would faithfully appear, week after week, and who helped animate and define what CounterPunch is. As I look back at the archives of from the early 2000s, so many of those writers and friends are gone now: Cockburn, Edward Said, Saul Landau, John Hess, Chris Reed, Uri Avery, Gabriel Kolko, John Ross, Bill Christison, Larry Tuttle, Franklin Lamb, Paul Krassner, Andy Levine, Robert Fisk, Jim Ridgeway, Clancy Sigal.

CounterPunch has always been a zone for the unexpected intersections of distant lives. Chuck was married to the literary scholar Roberta Rubenstein. Roberta also taught at AU (including a couple of Masters seminars taken by my wife, Kimberly) and trained many feminists critics in how to read and interpret modernist novels. Roberta is one of the world’s leading authorities on Doris Lessing. Clancy Sigal, who’d written for us for nearly as long as Chuck had, was Doris Lessing’s ex and the model for the Saul Green character in The Golden Notebooks. This strange collision of lives provided some of the background for an excellent book Roberta wrote, Literary Half Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal and Roman a Clef. 

And now Chuck is gone too. A couple of weeks ago, I’d started a letter to him, not having heard from him for a few months. I wrote about what I’d been reading, a little political gossip, which he tended to feast on, and wanted to know how he was progressing through Melville and Dickens. But then the missiles started hitting Gaza and I never pressed the send button. I feel ashamed now that I waited too long. But I can hear him laughing that the joke was on me….

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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