A Private Chat with a Public Intellectual
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. A prolific writer, he has published seven critically acclaimed non-fiction books which have helped shape the national debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in politics and culture to that of integrity and civility in our daily lives.
Professor Carter was born in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1954, the second of five children, and attended public school there as well as in New York City and Ithaca, New York. He received his bachelor’s from Stanford University and his law degree from Yale before clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, briefly practicing law, and then finally joining the faculty at Yale.
One of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, he’s among the fifty leaders for the new millennium as picked by Time magazine. His writings have won praise from across the political spectrum. Furthermore, he is a member of the American Law Institute and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And he is also a trustee of the Aspen Institute, where he moderates seminars for executives on values-based leadership.
Among his half-dozen honorary degrees are doctorates from Notre Dame, Colgate, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. A frequent guest on TV talk shows, Carter has periodically appeared on Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and Face the Nation. Plus, he’s a regular contributor as a columnist to Christianity Today.
In 2002, he received a record $4.2 million advance from Knopf for his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, a murder mystery set on Martha’s Vineyard. Here, he talks about his sequel, New England White, another sophisticated suspense thriller set amidst the African-American elite.
KW: Your dad was a professor at Cornell when I was an undergrad there, and I was friends with your sister, Leslie. She brought me over to the house, and I remember meeting her parents, and playing chess against her genius brother who would beat me with painful regularity. Was that you?
SC: If you lost, that must have been my brother Eric. He was a very brilliant chess player.
KW: Well, I was a pretty serious player myself, having read several books and competed against some of the best on campus, so I was surprised when I couldn’t even hang with this gifted kid.
SC: He was a very, very highly-rated player pretty young, an expert on the U.S. Chess Federation scale. He could’ve done very well in chess, but he got bored and quit after a few years to pursue some other things.
KW: How are Leslie and your folks doing?
SC: My mom died a number of years ago, in 1989.
KW: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I remember her as such a warm, intelligent and beautiful woman.
SC: thanks. My father has since remarried and is in Virginia. And Leslie is doing well. She’s in Washington, where she works as an occupational therapist.
KW: Please give them my regards. Let’s talk about your novels. Do you consider yourself a member of the black elite you write about?
SC: It’s not the way I grew up. That is to say, although it is true that, when I was a little boy, we went to Martha’s Vineyard a couple of times, it wasn’t a regular feature of our lives. I didn’t write about this class somehow because I was fascinated by my family history. No, it’s really a group of people I became fascinated with when I lived in Washington, DC in the early 1980s, because I had never really understood the existence of the “older families,” although I’ve been told I really shouldn’t call them that, because all the families are old. But nevertheless, if I can use “older families” one more time, I’m talking about families who have had education and money, and a variety of these things that the culture counts as achievements, for a very long time. The notion that there have been such families in the African-American community for generations fascinated me. And it was that fascination, rather than anything about my own family’s history, that led me to think about setting fiction there.
KW: Are you familiar with Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham?
SC: Of course. That book intrigued me years ago when I read it.
KW: I remember it being an eye-opener for me, because I grew up in a bourgie black neighborhood. We were invited to join Jack and Jill, and we spent our summers in Sag Harbor. Yet, I was raised without any pretensions or conscious hint that we might part of any elite.
SC: It’s interesting that you mention Jack and Jill. That wasn’t something that ever came up in our family. We weren’t quite there, but on the other hand, my grandmother was a lawyer in New York, my father’s mother, so professionals go back in the family a long way. And that is not as unusual a story as it seems. One does not have to be completely a product of the almost assembly line aspects of that culture to have been touched by it, and to, in certain ways, for lack of a better word, “appreciate” it. I think there’s a tendency among us, among African-Americans, to mock the pretensions of that culture. But they were trying to build something for their kids. They were trying to create, in the face of segregation, a world in which achievement mattered, in which you worked to get ahead, where solid values were the key to success. They didn’t build it completely right, in a sense, and it didn’t look like the way it would if you or I would have built it, but they tried. And they tried at a time when a lot of people would have stopped trying. I think that is to be saluted.
KW: Yeah, I grew up in the Fifties in a tight-knit black enclave where everybody was achievement oriented because it was full of role models, not only Jackie Robinson and other pro athletes, but entertainers like Count Basie, Coltrane, James Brown, the Ellingtons, Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday, plus plenty of professionals, too, doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants, stock brokers, dentists, etcetera.
SC: That’s just fascinating. But that’s more like what I’d read about, than what I’d lived in. For my next novel, much of which will take place in Harlem in the Fifties, I’ve had to do a lot of reading and a little bit of interviewing, too, to educate myself and to get more of a sense of that world.
KW: It’s very weird for me sometimes to have people challenge my blackness, and to suggest that I’m somehow not authentically black because of the way I speak, when I grew up in an all-black neighborhood where everybody spoke the way I speak.
SC: It’s a problem for young black people today to know so little of our history and to think about our history the way that white people do, that somehow our culture has always come from the streets, and that education is unusual. And they also tend to associate black wealth with being an entertainer or a sports star. Entertainer and athletes work very hard, I don’t begrudge them their money, but that is a very tiny corner of the history of success and hard work and achievement in our community.
KW: Are you familiar with Ellis Cose’s book about the black bourgeoisie called The Rage of a Privileged Class?
SC: Yes, I used to write a lot of book reviews in the Eighties and Nineties. I don’t remember all of them, but I think I might have reviewed it. I actually can’t recall right now.
KW: Well, I’m asking because I often think of that book in conjunction with one of yours, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, which was published just prior to that. How do you feel you were positioned because of that book?
SC: I don’t really think about it that much. I know that might sound like a peculiar thing to say, but I really don’t know. It’s funny, when I was out in the Midwest on book tour for The Emperor of Ocean Park a few years ago, a woman asked me, “Can you tell us how you got from Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby to The Emperor of Ocean Park?” It took me a while to understand what she was really asking, that she saw these books as fundamentally opposed to each other in some sense. I think that what she was getting at was that I had been out of the mainstream and had now rejoined it. But I never thought about it that way. I never thought of Reflections as being outside of the mainstream. I thought of it as a book that was trying to make a point, maybe with more heat than was needed, but it was still trying to make a book. Ellis Cose called it rage, but what you’ve seen in the semi-autobiographical, non-fiction writings of many black professionals from that period was really frustration, a sense that so many things were lined up in ways that made it awkward to be who we were.
KW: His book resonated with me, since I experienced my share of that rage How do you explain that phenomenon? Where do you place the blame for the widespread discontent of so many relatively-privileged blacks?
SC: It’s not a matter of ascribing fault. It’s a matter of trying to think of the dynamics that produced a lot of that writing by people who, by the world’s definition, had succeeded, and had really succeeded extremely well.
KW: Tell me a little about your new murder mystery, New England White. Are your main characters, Lemaster and Julia, based on your parents? After all your dad was a university president at one time, like Lemaster.
SC: [Laughs heartily] No, until you just mentioned that, it had never occurred to me. [Laughs some more]
KW: So, I guess, in that case that their daughter, Vanessa, wasn’t inspired by your sister Leslie either.
SC: No. Of course, fiction is inspired by life, but there’s never been an instance in my work thusfar where somebody’s meant to be just like someone real. I don’t do the kind of fiction where I sit around and ask myself, “Well, who shall I next use?”
KW: When I see words in the book like “sinecure” and “abstemious” which had me reaching for the dictionary, and “dandling” and “soteriology” which were completely new to me, I have to wonder who your intended audience is.
SC: Here’s the thing. I want to, of course, have as many readers as I can get. So, I’m not aiming for a demographic which knows all of the words I use. In fact, many of these words were not a part of my own vocabulary. “Soteriology,” I didn’t even know what it was, until I had to learn the lingo of a divinity school for part of this book. So, I discovered new words in the course of my research. When I’m writing, I try to think about the people I’m writing about how they talk and think and see the world, more than how I or my readers view it. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
KW: Who’s your favorite murder mystery writer? Mine is Gore Vidal who wrote several excellent thrillers in the Fifties under the pseudonym Edgar Box.
SC: That’s interesting. I’ve read a lot of Gore Vidal over the years, but I have not read his mysteries.
KW: Has any writer served as your source of inspiration?
SC: The question of inspiration is one I’ve always tried to be very cagey about, partly because it’s difficult to say who one’s inspirations are. But the other reason is that there’s always the risk of slighting someone. You wouldn’t believe the angry notes I got, saying “How could you leave out so-and-so” after I’d once listed in an article some of the people who’d inspired me. I’m serious. So, I prefer not to talk about that.
KW: Well, can you at least tell me which mystery writers you enjoy reading?
SC: I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. And I almost never read fiction that is related even tangentially to what I may write. But there was once a period in my life when I read a lot of the classic, Agatha Christie-type mysteries and the potboilers from the Thirties and Forties.
KW: Then why don’t you write in a more compact style, instead of producing such densely-developed, multi-layered crime capers.
SC: They didn’t necessarily teach me how I write mysteries. They just piqued my interest in mysteries, which goes back a long way. It’s not so much that I’m trying to write in the style of mystery writers whose style I admire, it’s more that those are some writers whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed, and they help explain my interest in writing mysteries.
KW: Why are yours over 500 pages long, which appears to be a trademark of your novels?
SC: I hope they’re not too long, but I like reading long books. If I’m really enjoying a book, I generally hate to see it end. I also care about character and scene. Further, I like to give background, and had to, in a sense, I believe, for the reader to establish the bona fides of the class of people I’m talking about. Otherwise, many people wouldn’t believe it exists, as if it’s a kind of interesting and cute fantasy, almost.
KW: Yes, your devotion to character development prevents readers from easily dismissing the African-American upper class as some popular bourgie black archetypes, ala George Jefferson.
SC: Naturally, as a writer, I’m glad to achieve that. I don’t principally write novels to spread ideas. But if people still find them provocative, worth wondering and thinking about, and arguing and reflecting about, so much the better.
KW: There’s a passage on page 33 of your book which reminded me of Invisible Man, which I thought of because a friend of mine just published a biography of Ralph Ellison.
SC: Arnold Rampersad?
SC: I read his biography of Langston Hughes, which I enjoyed immensely. The Ellison book is on my summer reading list, and I’m looking forward to it.
KW: Anyway, in New England White you describe how black males are barely noticed on Ivy League campuses and how black females are invisible there
SC: Yes, that is a little homage to Ralph Ellison. There are hidden in the book in different places a series of homages to various writers, black and white. Little lines here and there… Turns of a phrase woven into the text. It’s interesting that you picked up on that one. In another instance, a character is inspired by a character from another novel, though I’m not going to say who that is.
KW: What do you want your readers to come away with after reading the book?
SC: Here, I’m going to sound like a hack, I suppose. The most important thing for me is that they enjoy it and feel entertained. I cannot emphasize that enough. First and foremost, I really think of it as entertainment. I want people to relax, get away from their problems, and have a good time. And most importantly, when they’re done, feel that it was worth their while, and maybe feel a little bit sad that it’s over. Beyond that, it’s fine with me if the reader is provoked by some of the ideas expressed in the book. But that’s not my main reason for writing it.
KW: Thanks for the time Stephen and good luck with it. Will you be coming through Princeton on your book tour?
SC: No, but I’ll be in Philadelphia, that’s the closest I’ll get. Over the years, there have been a number of times when I’ve been invited to speak a Princeton, but I’ve never actually gotten down there. Well, this has been a great conversation.
KW: Absolutely, I loved it, and I hope I can make it to Philly.
SC: That’d be great, bye.