The moving boxes are everywhere. A Charlie Parker CD is playing in the background; it is a broiling summer afternoon; and George Packer, tanned and still boyish-looking at 39, is dressed in shorts, a polo shirt and Reeboks. After living for 16 years in Cambridge, Mass., he has recently moved to New York and is settling into an apartment on the top floor of an old Brooklyn brownstone. Propped against one wall in the bedroom is an enlargement of the cover of Packer's first novel, The Half Man (Random House, 1991). A George Orwell poster that his mother found for him in France hangs above his writing desk. In one corner are the wood carvings he acquired during his travels in Africa and Haiti, and on the shelf below are some old family photographs--sweet, childhood pictures from the '60s of Packer when he was a boy growing up in California.
One of the photographs is especially beguiling. The small boy is turned upside down, held closely in the arms of his father, who had a stroke in 1969, when he was 43. He committed suicide three years later.
The tender picture is something of a touchstone for Packer's new book, Blood of the Liberals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a memoir that is at once the story of a son in search of a father and an examination of the meaning of modern American liberalism.
The book, Packer's fourth, is about the power of bloodlines and the lifeblood of politics. It is an ambitious family history that ranges across three generations: from his maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, a populist and progressive politician from Birmingham, Ala., who served in the United States Congress from 1915 to 1937 as a "Thomas Jefferson Democrat," championing 19th-century liberal individualism until it gave way to the New Deal; to his father, Herbert Packer, a liberal law professor, a secular Jew and an academic administrator at Stanford caught up in the punishing politics of the student upheavals in the '60s; to George Packer's own explorations into the entanglements of biography and history and the fate of the liberal political traditions into which he was born.
Packer says that for 20 years after his father's death, he knew little about him and remembered nothing. But like his father, he went to Yale. He majored in Renaissance studies and thought he would become a scholar. A last-minute decision when he graduated, to volunteer for the Peace Corps in Africa, changed that.
After a painfully solitary year and a half spent in Togo in West Africa, teaching English to children and reading Dante and Conrad by kerosene lamp late into the night, Packer came home in 1984 a lost boy, despairing, disillusioned and full of doubts about his place in society. He moved to Boston "looking for the comfort of discomfort," he writes, and "trying to sift through the ruins of liberalism." He worked on construction crews and in homeless shelters. He rebelled against expectation, his own and others'. He searched for beliefs and feelings to set against the failed liberal vocabulary he had inherited from his ancestors. He met the literary and social critic Irving Howe, "the nearest thing I've ever had to a mentor," he recalls. And he began to write.
The Village of Waiting (Vintage, 1988), a book about his time in Africa, was bought by his college friend, Becky Saletan, when she was an editor at Random House, and ever since its publication Packer has made his living from writing and teaching. "It all happened too easily," he says. "I scrambled to get an agent, knowing that I would need someone to represent me." Robert Lescher did that for a year or two, long enough to negotiate the publication of The Half Man ("young American journalist loses his humanistic illusions in a small, revolution-torn Third World country situated off the coast of Asia," as Kirkus summed up the novel's plot). Once again Saletan edited the book, "but she went over to Simon & Schuster before it came out," Packer explains, "so I was left at Random House without any reason for being there."
He moved to an agent at Andrew Wylie and then didn't publish another book for seven years. He finished a second novel, and wrote an essay that was the heart of the idea for Blood of the Liberals. That piece appeared in 1995 in DoubleTake and was called "Disorder and Early Sorrow," after a story by Thomas Mann. Packer wanted to sell the novel and the memoir together, and Saletan ("my compass to the New York literary world," he calls her) steered him to a new agent, Kathy Anderson, who told Packer exactly what he needed and wanted to hear: "I bank on relationships." She sold the novel, Central Square, to Graywolf Press, where it was edited by Fiona McRae and published in 1998. Packer, who confesses that he is more at ease writing nonfiction than fiction, describes the book as a novel "about Cambridge and social relationships and money and failure" that emerged from a period "when I felt my writing career was going down the tubes." The other manuscript, the memoir, went to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the new editorial home of--Becky Saletan.
But this time Jonathan Galassi would edit Packer's book. Although Saletan still g s over each line he writes, Packer says their relationship became too close and complicated for her to remain his editor. "We would have had three different relationships: friendship, real friendship, really deep friendship; editor-writer; and I co-own a cabin in western Massachusetts with her and her husband. Too many things could go wrong, and the friendship was the most important thing to both of us. That seemed essential to be preserved, so I think it's better this way.
"She read the manuscript. She edited the manuscript. I think she'll probably read everything I write. I can't afford not to have her read it. But over the years she has let me know how much pain is involved in the editor's side of the relationship. I've only thought about the writer's pain and disappointment and resentment. Becky's made me see that a good editor has almost as much invested in the book as the writer, and feels the triumph of it doing well and the guilt and the sorrow of it not doing well. To have that happen every time I wrote a book with her would be terrible--to have it so freighted. I think if she cared less we could do it together, but she cares too much to have it pass."
Galassi, says Packer, understood the personal and political questions at the core of the memoir, which recalls at its most intimate moments James Agee's A Death in the Family. And Galassi asked him questions he hadn't thought to ask himself. "He has a real feel for the book's driving forces," says Packer appreciatively. "My mother, for example." Packer writes: "if anything connects the three generations of this story, she d s: daughter, wife, mother"--and it was Galassi who pointed out that "she was somewhat absent from the manuscript originally. It's a better book for her being a big presence in it." (A writer herself, Packer's mother directed Stanford's freshman English program, and at home she was "a hugely informative influence on my learning to write," he says.)
It was Galassi, too, who helped Packer to think about the meaning of the title. Packer's father's faith in abstract reason as "the universal solvent of differences" naturally made him suspicious of what could happen "when people start thinking with their blood," as they did in the '60s. It was a liberalism, Packer laments, that "told no stories." It "rejects blood in favor of mind." Yet when Packer finds a speech that his father gave at the height of the campus convulsions at Stanford, he imagines that "the muscle of [my father's] mind is clenching again and again to squeeze reason out of rage. All the blood in his head is concentrated in the precision and force of language. Reading, I can almost feel the strain thinning the weak place in his cerebral artery."
Blood meant blood ties, too. "I had been thinking rigidly about father-son," he recounts, "and suddenly there was my mother's father. The more research I did, the more I realized that the two stories were deeply connected by a century of political history and the fate of this idea--liberalism. That's when I began to think about bloodlines. What made me? What came together to shape me? It was two lines of ancestry, but the word 'blood' is for me more evocative, not just of lineage, but of struggle and passion. It's the blood of defeat, the blood of a stroke. Jonathan said to me, 'Liberals are supposed to be bloodless.' Yeah, that's true, but look at the stories in my own family. Look how much ideas mattered to these people. They were not at all bloodless." Packer teaches in Bennington's nonresident writing program, and this fall he will begin teaching at Sarah Lawrence, too. In Cambridge, he taught expository writing at Harvard for four years with his friend Gordon Harvey. "You'll see his name in the acknowledgments or dedication of everything I've written," Packer says. "His opinion means the world to me."
Together they created a course on the modern essay that included the work of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin and Orwell. Packer says it was "a shaping force for my nonfiction." He had Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" in mind, he says, when he wrote the original essay that led to Blood of the Liberals. Even more important was his original discovery of Orwell in a Barcelona bookstore, when he picked up Homage to Catalonia to read on the plane home from Africa. "It was immensely important to find Orwell at that moment," Packer says. "I needed some clear-eyed and sane writer, because I felt anything but clear-eyed and sane. For the next two or three years I pretty much read everything of his. It was my M.F.A. I saw how he crafted sentences and approached life. I took him as a bit of a father." With Orwell, he says, "you just feel this power coming off the page that comes from 'I was there, this is how it was, and here is why it matters.'"
Packer says he's read a few contemporary memoirs, but it's the old-fashioned essay that speaks more intensely to him. "I recognize the power you get from sticking to a very close, handheld-camera point of view, creating long scenes of rich detail and dialogue. It has a kind of mesmerizing power. But you also lose the longer-lasting power that comes from a retrospective insight in which the ground between the self that had the experience and the self that's looking back on it is part of the drama, the change, the discovery. That's what the essayists did, and that's more relevant to my writing than the novelistic memoir. They're like dreams. They have the power of a dream, but sometimes they don't last in your mind much longer than a dream d s."
When he's not writing books, Packer is a regular contributor to Dissent, and he's written as well for Harper's, Salon and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But he says he finds book writing "infinitely more satisfying." A magazine piece "is not your piece as much as a book is your book," he maintains. For the moment, however, Packer is at a bit of a loss about what to work on next. "I want to write about Africa again," he says, "but I want to connect it to the United States, and I don't know what story I'll follow to do that." It may be a piece about the diamond trade, and he has been reading Stefan Kanfer's The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World with that in mind. But that thought is "just a little gleam. I just have an impulse to go back."
As for the political, Packer says that anyone looking to Blood of the Liberals for a blueprint for the future of liberalism will be disappointed. "The sense of its weakness is so tied into a weakening of belief in collective human agency that it would be dishonest to say what liberalism needs in order to revive itself. Its crisis is more personal than that. It's in people's imaginations and their ability to believe. There's no solution for that." As he writes at the end of the book, "we will have a more just society as soon as we want one."
And as for the personal, Packer says his parents gave him as much love and security as they could "until my father's stroke blew it all apart. But they didn't and they couldn't give me a map to my own life and time. Each of us has to find that ourselves.
"I am never going to be able to rest easy in having established a posthumous connection to my father. I'll always be groping for what I can't have."
But there is another connection Packer has established, the one that E.M. Forster urged and that Packer cites in his memoir: "Only connect the prose and the passion." Perhaps it is in his blood.
Missy Daniel is an editor and writer based in Washington, D.C.