Harvey Pekar, 1939-2010

The first profile I ever wrote -- this would have been 1992, give or take, and I didn't actually think of it as a "profile" so much as an essay where I'd done some interviewing -- was about Harvey Pekar, whose anthology of American Splendor cartoons I had discovered in Austin a few years earlier while shelving books at the Undergraduate Library. I interviewed him by phone and laboriously transcribed the tape recording, then worked it up into a piece of two or three thousand words.

The tape is long lost, and it woud take some digging to unearth the article, which appeared in a small magazine and was later reprinted by one in England. We stayed in touch for a short time after that. One of the things stressed on in the piece (if memory serves) was Harvey's penchant for immersing himself in a given author -- systematically reading everything he could find. He was similarly thoroughgoing, not to say obsessive, about jazz. At one point, I photocopied a scarce book by Lewis Lewisohn for him from the Library of Congress (where I was working at the time) and also persuaded him to give an article about John Zorn he had written to the little magazine that had published my profile. Someone should consider issuing a collection of his essays and critical writings.

At some point we fell out of touch -- though of course it was always possible to find out about his life by catching up with his work from time to time.

He was, in all his cantankerousness and independence of spirit, an inspiration to me. Perhaps more so now than 18 years ago, actually. His political radicalism was deep and stubborn and very, very American. You can't picture him joining a Marxist party, by any means, but he had the courage of his convictions, and an indifference to seeming any better than he was. He was not a friend, by any means, but I do think of him as a comrade.

Harvey Pekar, Presente!

UPDATE:  Piece by Jeet Heer    
July 13, 2010 3:52 PM | | Comments (3)

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3 Comments

I'm sorry he's gone.

Do I remember right that he had a thing about James Joyce? My memory is of several strips (which must have appeared in the Bay Guardian or equivalent) trying to tear Joyce down, on the premise that his only claim to fame was the invention of the stream of consciousness.

I didn't see them and don't otherwise recall him saying anything about James Joyce -- but yeah, it sounds like him.

He wasn't a knee-jerk contrarian but there was that edge. He was pretty brutal about Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, and insisted that his brother was a much better writer. I like Singer well enough but didn't argue the point, and have never gotten around to reading his brother.

Something else that just came to mind: Harvey was very interested in 19th century American dialect writers. He insisted George Ade was great. I tried to read Ade and can only assume his work is an acquired taste that I was not able to stick it out long enough to get.

Here's my tiny, affectionate comment about HP from another site:

"Christ, I can still remember Dave [Letterman] pulling the wings off the fly of Harvey’s soul, right there on TV. Same thing he'd do to 'Brother Theodore', another 'oddball', a cabaret artist who came to Letterman straight from frigging Dachau, only to have Dave make fun of his hairdo! I'm ashamed that I used to laugh at sadisto-provincialist Dave going after 'little guys' like Harvey as a moistening prelude to schlurrpping Donald Trump's matted, ginger, robber-baron ass. Well I guess that's the beauty of growing up. Decay with grace, Harve."

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