- End with a QuestionReflections on Judith Kitchen’s Aesthetic and Achievement
1. A Lifework Still in Progress
Judith was an innovator, a gifted experimenter. She started as a poet and moved to the essay because it challenged her, gave her the space to achieve a structural complexity that could afford her mind free play and allow her subject matter to resonate beyond her own life. Her adventurous essays are layered with concentric circles (her own image) of history—or histories—personal within familial within cultural within our larger human fate. Time was her great subject; war was never far below the surface.
Judith wouldn’t settle for the obvious or the easy. I can’t count the times she had me read a work in progress and, when I responded with enthusiasm, as I so often did, she replied that a given word, or phrase, or passage I admired was to be stricken as “purple.” Although an influential and admired lyricist, she never let pass an effect for its own sake, a mere performance. Her gorgeous writing was wedded to her exploration of truth, her desire to discover the human meaning of things.
She sought to devise new structures capable of lucid complexity. She was a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer, in the now fashionable genre of interactive or “creative” criticism. She was always a dialogist, with the reader, with photographs, with history, with literature, with herself. In essays such as “O’Brien and O’Brien,” her personal voice weaves in and around the novels of Edna and Tim, linking their separate wars to each other and to her own history. It was characteristic of Judith to mold difference into something new and rich [End Page 35] without effacing individuality. Her posthumously published essay, “Tenors” (Harvard Review 46), deals with Elvis, Pavarotti, and the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. These are not casual linkages but deep, surprising, and personal. They have to do with art and mortality.
The work in which she felt she had at last achieved the “new level” she’d been striving for was The Circus Train, originally featured as a long essay in the Georgia Review (Vol. 67, No. 2, Summer 2013) and reprinted as a book by her own Ovenbird Press. In it, her voice plays against Samuel Beckett’s deconstruction of self in Company, a fictional memoir of dying. (Beckett was, with Edna O’Brien, Faulkner, and Joyce, a favorite.) Judith counters Beckett’s bleakness with a skein of vivid moments and repeated images gathered across various times and places of her life. She wrote this with obsessive energy—early mornings and late nights—while unflinchingly facing her own impending death. In the too-few last readings we were able to have together, she would tell audiences that these sections could be read, like mini-essays, in any order. To me, and I think to many, the way they shine in place seems inevitable and inexplicable. Her memory was comprehensive, exact, and demanding, her work ethic extraordinary. She did not wait for cure or applause or honors. She worked steadily against the darkness.
2. Toward the Redefinition of a Genre
Judith’s driving purpose was to elevate creative/lyrical/experimental non-fiction to the status of an independent literary art, one as worthy of attention for its structure, craft, and techniques as for its content. Throughout her career, she worked to help us to understand what she saw as the possibilities of this art. “To Memoir or to Essay,” a review of nonfiction published in Water-Stone (Vol. 8, 2006), opens with a fundamental distinction: “At some point in the writing process, a writer of autobiographical nonfiction comes to a fork in the road. Will this stuff of life become memoir, or essay? My suspicion is that this usually happens fairly early in the process.” Choice leads to consequences that shape both the work and the writer’s responsibility to it: [End Page 36]
The memoirist is interested in the essence of the experience on its own terms: the sensory details, the flavor of the conversation, the scene reenacted. The trajectory of memoir is...