Katherine Dunham's Attic and William Inge's Dream

 The items on this blog are culled from the notes and journals compiled during the writing of Follies of God, which took place during the years 1990 to early 2006. The first draft of Follies numbered more than one thousand pages; the revised edition, to be published by Knopf, is roughly half that size. These notes did not find their way into the final text, but they might be of some interest.

     I ask, via letter, and later, by phone, why Katherine Dunham went into an attic in St. Louis, if, in fact, she ever did.

     Tennessee, raised and ruined--partially--in St. Louis, wanted to know where this attic had been--literally, metaphorically, metaphysically. "Is there an attic," he asked. "Is this an authentic place of escape?"

   Katherine Dunham said there had been an attic, and she had often repaired to it--to escape racist threats, boredom, familial anger. More often, however, it was where she could dream.  "All of us need a place where we can be alone," she said, "where we can dream, where we can be free of distraction. Once a person has a goal--a creative goal--very few people are anything but a distraction, a drain."

    Tenn had his private places. Bill Inge did as well: The two men grew closer to each other when they discovered this about their blighted childhoods. In the dark, alone, on the night before a feared or anticipated event, it was good to pray or think or fabricate.
    "What I dream of the most about death," Inge had told Tenn, "is that I will finally be alone: I will finally be left alone."

    "I disagree with that entirely," Dunham told me. "Life is a gift, as are our contributions to it. I do not welcome death, even as it beckons to me, and leads me to believe that I might enjoy its comforts. I am terrified of silence. I am saddened to think I cannot listen to music that changed my life, or look at art that taught me how to see properly. I don't want to think of being without those things. I never sought those experiences of suspension, or sensory deprivation: I thought of those exercises as hell on earth. Why would I--why would any human being--want to be deprived of what makes us human? Or an artist? Or sensual? Or all of the above?

    "I will fight death to the end, even as my body admits defeat, and my senses become weak. That attic you ask about--that Tennessee wanted to know about--still exists, and I can go to it at will, and I can see whatever I need to see, and I am again full of sensation and excitement. I want to work again. It is not enough to dream; it is not enough to hope: One has to work and to give and to fail and to get back to it.

    "Death is the ultimate failure, the absolute end. Of sensation. Of memory. Of worthiness. I always believed that we fought against death when we created something that celebrated what was available to the living."

Katherine Dunham and William Inge, pictured above.


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