September 20, 2009

Deanna Hershiser

A Discovered Legacy

When I was thirty, my grandma pulled a file from her cabinet and handed me a yellowed card. "Here's something an author can appreciate," she said, knowing I toiled at learning to write.

The card, dated 1955, read, "Thank you for your interest in the New Yorker. Your submission does not meet our current needs."

I turned the card over. Addressed to Grandma Edna's place in Eugene, Oregon, it had been mailed, not to her, but to Richard Brautigan. I remembered his name. I'd heard it several times during my childhood.

Decades earlier, my dad had bought an odd book, explaining he was friends with the man who'd written it. That impressed me. The person on the cover was real, someone Dad grew up with.

Grandma Edna now told me she'd gotten to know Richard Brautigan the years he and Dad fished together. Richard helped Dad discover, after their shared 1953 high school graduation, a love of exploring nearby rivers. Back then their arrangement worked well: Dad had wheels—an ancient Ford he'd bought—and Richard always carried an extra fishing pole and gear.

Richard found solace penning poetry. He longed to escape Oregon for San Francisco, establish himself as a writer, and be discovered.

One night Dad entered his friend's room and saw wadded papers lining the far wall. When he asked what they were, Richard said they were rejected pieces, mostly poems. "I'm through with every one of them," Richard said.

Dad reached into the scattered pile and smoothed a page. "You can't get rid of these," he said. "I've never heard writing like yours. These are worth a lot now, but when you're famous they'll be worth so much more. Don't throw them away."

Richard kept the writings. Not long afterward, Portland's Oregonian published several of the poems in its Sunday editions.

Later he asked Grandma Edna to hold onto some of his manuscripts, including the one rejected by the New Yorker. Whether bravado overtook him that day, or he was being goofy or just grateful, I don't know, but Richard said to my grandma, "Keep these, Edna. Someday they'll be your social security." Then he wrote and signed a note, in effect bequeathing the works to her.

At the time she shared her stories with me, Grandma Edna was in her late seventies. She'd hung onto Richard's note for nearly forty years.

He'd made it to San Francisco and had found fame indeed, becoming a cult hero on college campuses. He died tragically in 1984.

Grandma Edna contacted a book dealer in the 1990s, around the time she showed me her file. She agreed to sell the original manuscripts, receiving a modest sum that she used to pay back taxes.

Grandma Edna and Dad flew to San Francisco in 1999 for a book-signing event. On a lovely autumn evening a crowd gathered to hear stories they both told about Richard Brautigan as a very young man. Dad remembers his mother, at 86, in great form answering questions. For over two hours they went on.

Today Dad recalls their trip together as her last hurrah. Grandma Edna died six months later. Her Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings remains in print. I appreciate seeing it on the shelf. It's our piece of legacy.


Deanna Hershiser lives in Oregon with her family and a small dog and large cat. Her essays have appeared in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression and Runner's World, among others. Her website is here.

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