With the upcoming release of Down the Plymouth Road, we have graciously been given a little bonus to provide a more thorough background on the prodigious writing career of its author, Mr. Stanley Jenkins. Conducted by editor of Eclectia Magazine, Tom Dooley, we get a sneak peek inside Jenkins' process of writing Down the Plymouth Road and the ideas he expressed with it.
Stanley Jenkins first appeared in Eclectica Magazine in the spring of 1997. It was his first time being published on the Internet, which was the case for many authors at that time, the web as a venue for serious literature being a relatively new idea. We had only been online for seven months ourselves, and when we read Stanley’s submissions—three wildly different yet distinctly voiced pieces that somehow evoked Kerouac, Blake, and the Bible—we knew we’d stumbled upon yet another miraculous find. We didn’t know that over 20 years later, Eclectica would still be online, Stanley Jenkins would be our most prolific author, and his work would finally be getting the attention it deserves from the larger literary community, with his second book coming out this summer. We agreed to take this occasion as an excuse to talk about the new book and its predecessor and some of the many themes and ideas Stanley uniquely explores in his writing.
Tom Dooley: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Down the Plymouth Road. This is your second book, and it strikes me as both a continuation of and a departure from your first, A City on a Hill. Can you talk a little about that idea? To the degree that Road is a continuation of Hill—or a departure for that matter—how much of that was intentional, how much was something you were aware of as it happened, and how much have you discovered as you’ve reread and revised the pieces?
Stanley Jenkins: “Continuation and departure” is actually spot on. In fact, the last chapter of Hill is actually the first chapter of Road. I used the same piece for both.
A City on a Hill was a loose collection of writings pretty much starting from the mid-‘90s, with a couple from the late ‘80s, and continuing up to the point of publication in 2013 by a small publishing house, Outpost19. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear to me now that I was trying to make sense of an America I could no longer recognize. The sheer hard turn to the right, starting in the Reagan years, seemed to be an acceleration of the actual decoupling of history and myth. There was little daylight between dreams and lies. Our national myths seemed to have lost their roots in truth and reality (if they’d ever had any). I was writing about an identity crisis both personal and national.
By the end of the collection, after 9/11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the financial crisis in ’08, the mainstreaming of racism during the Obama years, etc., I had pretty much exhausted all of my own masks and was thrust back onto my faith. Up until this point, I had never really written about my faith outside of a church context, in spite of having been a Presbyterian Minister and Pastor for the last 30 years. These two worlds, literary and church, had been kept rigidly compartmentalized. I suddenly found myself writing explicitly in literary terms—for me, anyway—about God. So, I started writing Down the Plymouth Road, looking for a new America in my soul.
TD: Hmm. “Exhausted all of my own masks.” What do you mean by that phrase, exactly? Are you talking about an exasperation, an unwillingness to pretend things are at all okay, a desire to either leave all conversations or start shouting at people? Or are you talking about the kind of masks Tina Williamson wrote an article about on Huff Post: as things we wear over our true selves, that affect not just how others see us but how we view the world?
SJ: Specifically, literary masks. Hill was in many ways a kind of ventriloquist act. I was trying on different characters and throwing my voice. With these masks I could say things that I couldn’t normally—especially in my role as Pastor. It was incredibly liberating. The Pastoral role—people’s expectations of you—can become very restrictive. You can easily fall into the trap of being reduced to the role, and expressing only part of who you are as a full human being.
In any case, I was born at the tail end of the Boomer generation, young enough to absorb much of the idealism of the 60s, as well as the the gut-punch of its aftermath. I was born two months before JFK was killed, and I was six when we landed on the moon, eleven when Nixon resigned, and about 16 when I first heard The Sex Pistol’s Nevermind the Bollocks. Like so many white, middle-class people of my generation, the first to grow up taking TV for granted, I was the product of both the glamor and triumphalism of the American Dream, seen in color, and the self-evident truth that it was a lie. Hill allowed me to explore that dualism, and the characters were the “masks” that allowed me to do it. By the time of the writing of Road, as I mentioned, I had no more masks left. I was naked and exhausted. What remained for me was God, or more particularly, writing about God—that which remains (for me) after the dream and the lie. Which in the end, I suppose, is what I have always been writing about.
The irony, of course, is that what I discovered in writing, especially in writing about God, is you don’t really lose your masks, you just find other masks more appropriate to the task. I don’t have much faith in some sort of absolute authenticity or purity. We are finite, contingent beings. All expression is mediated, which isn’t to say that some forms of expression aren’t more honest, kind, or sincere than others, but it is to say that we really are contingent. We depend upon one another to speak and to be heard. Reading and writing—all of the Arts—are always communal on some level. Saying “I had no more masks,” I suppose, is really just another way of saying I had reached a level of vulnerability and needed to discover new, more appropriate masks to express what I needed to say, other masks so I could be in deeper communion with myself, others, and God.
TD: Thanks for elaborating on that. One of the many things I appreciate about reading your work, but even more so about being able to discuss it with you, is how glad I am when I ask you what you mean about something. Speaking of meaning, on the most caveman, simplistic level, the title “A City on a Hill” implies a destination, while “Down the Plymouth Road” implies a journey. Armchair psychology tells us over and over that the latter is more important than the former. Road seems to agree, repeatedly exhorting the protagonist to just “keep walking.” Your thoughts?
SJ: I don’t really have anything to add. You nailed it.
TD: The title has some other obvious and maybe less obvious connotations, though. How did you come up with it?
SJ: I had gone to high school in Plymouth, Michigan, outside of Ann Arbor, where there was an actual Plymouth Road. It amused me to conflate that bit of personal history with the Pilgrims and Plymouth Plantation, which the Pilgrims, themselves, or at least the Puritans, quoting Scripture, explicitly referred to as “a city on a hill.”
TD: So, the “Plymouth Road” doesn’t just work on an allegorical and a literary and a historical level, but it’s also literally where you grew up? That’s a lot of levels. But then, you always seem to be thinking, writing, and I would argue, living on multiple levels. When you talk about “looking for a new America in (your) soul,” I take it you mean this spiritually but also intellectually. Given your vocation as a minister, I suppose the idea of a “soul” to go looking for is a little less abstract to you than it would be to a lay person, and yet you also seem very much aware of and invested in understanding America not just through a Biblical lens, but through historical and pop cultural ones as well.
SJ: Well, it’s not so much looking for my soul, as much as looking for America in my soul, the city on a hill, that ideal that I still believe in, beyond the constant betrayal of the dream. The distinction is important, I think. The soul in my faith tradition is associated with “the image of God” in all humanity. It is the common ground where, as some medieval Christian mystics imagined it, the abyss of the individual meets the abyss of the Divine. By the time of the writing of Road, I was ready—or perhaps just had no other choice—to accept the correspondence of the inner and the outer. I’m sorry, if this is starting to sound a little airy-fairy! But it’s kind of the nature of the beast.
Let me be frank. I think the soul of America is sick, cut off from its source. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about an exclusively Christian source. Our culture, once again, has become cut off from its source in Being-Itself. Trump with his lies and “fake news”—as well, as the rise of hate crimes and mainstreaming of racism, bigotry, hatred, and xenophobia—is symptomatic of this sickness. “Looking for America in my soul,” is another way of saying that if we are going to save our country, then our souls need to be healed as well, in whatever tradition or manner that presents itself for us. For me, it is Christianity. There are other faith traditions, of course, and forms of spirituality which do not require a belief in God. And if “spirituality” as a word has too much baggage, then call it what you will. Essentially, for me, it comes down to learning to be compassionate (which turns out to be exponentially more difficult than it sounds).
TD: I suspect I’ve kinda taken us down a side road. Diversions are hard to avoid, though, given all the things we could talk about in this book, and given the way the book itself, while it’s certainly going somewhere, isn’t afraid to take a few detours. You were explaining the context within which Road came to be written…
SJ: Sure—back to the story. In the midst of completing what would become the final chapter of my first book and the first chapter of this new book, we moved from NYC, where we had lived for 15 years, to Central New Jersey. It turned out to be a horrible move. It was a bad fit with the new church, and within two years we’d moved on. We ended up in Lansing, Michigan—about an hour or so west of Plymouth. It seemed fortuitous. Coming full-circle.
That’s when I started writing new installments of Road. It started with Series Two. These new installments became increasingly personal and disclosing—confessional—as I began grappling with the aftermath of a series of deaths in the family.
The Deaths. There were a lot of them. Though never explicitly addressed in the writing until the end, this is a death-haunted book, the death of loved ones, parishioners, the death of the old self, the death of cherished illusions. It’s a book that recounts a spiritual transformation, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the midst of all that death.
This all became increasingly clear to me as I continued writing, and the editing and arranging of pieces proceeded accordingly.
TD: I’d like to come back to “The Deaths” in a bit—it’s a topic with more than a little finality to it, so maybe it would be fitting if we delved into it at the end of this conversation. On the topic of editing and arranging, though, when we were talking about doing this interview, you described the book as a “bit of a collage,” as being comprised of discrete segments, “like Polaroids of a soul.” These segments were published over a seven-year period in the Salon section of Eclectica Magazine. Perhaps you’ve answered this question with regard to intention, but how aware were you as you wrote and put these pieces out into the world that they would someday be part of a greater whole? I’m reminded of the great Victorian serial novelists—Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Thackeray—who wrote and published their work in installments. Obviously, Road is not intended to be The Pickwick Papers, but I’m wondering if with online publishing we haven’t come full circle in terms of how technology enables process.
SJ: When I started writing Down the Plymouth Road, I was well into an ongoing writing experiment. I would put myself into as close to a trance state as I could, and just start writing, not quite automatic writing, but also not consciously plotted out. I got to the point where I could feel these moments, these opportunities to plug in coming on, and I would do my best to “honor” them, to trust what came out and to just write it down. Editing could come later. What mattered was what was transmitted, like the mysterious messages from the car radio in Cocteau’s quasi-Surrealist movie, Orphee. The convention of walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi was a convenient structure to engage in such activity.
The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung had a technique he called “Active Imagination” in which the analysand would consciously try and enter into their dreams and see what happens. That was pretty close to what I was trying to do, as silly as it might sound. Aesthetically, I was looking for that weird dream place where metaphors become literal and what is literal becomes metaphorical, that place where allegory is always a little bent like a blue note.
This time, however, I wasn’t just doing it for literary effect. I was trying to commune with God. I was trying to find the place where imagination and revelation meet. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Rabbi is a stand-in for, an approximation of, Jesus. Although, interestingly, “the Rabbi” first appeared in Hill, as the Jewish Kabbalistic Master Rabbi Isaac Luria. Go figure.
At a certain point, I took a leap of faith that these moments, these vignettes, though discrete and self-contained, were going somewhere. Like a Polaroid, or series of Polaroids, slowly developing, the image not immediately apparent until the end, until it’s dried.
Down the Plymouth Road might be a difficult book, because it doesn’t follow the usual structures of plot and narrative, but there is definitely a story that emerges. It’s not linear. It’s more like a spiral.
As for Victorian serial authors… in comparison, I’m a train wreck! LOL.
TD: I’m not sure I can allow your self-deprecation to go unchallenged. A train wreck, you are not, in comparison to Victorian or any other authors. The style and content of Down the Plymouth Road is certainly a long ways from what people were writing in the mid-1800s—one might argue its style and content actually hearkens back to the 1600s—but I’d argue it’s certainly as complex and rich and important as anything the Bronte sisters were doing. Tying back to the 1600s, John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is an obvious precursor to Down the Plymouth Road. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Progress and how it did or didn’t influence the way you wrote this book?
SJ: You’re right, in the background there is always A Pilgrim’s Progress, although not so much the book itself as the historical role it played in the formation of an American imagination and identity. The journey, the pilgrimage, the ever-pushing westward; chasing the frontier in pursuit of righteousness, freedom; seeking the Celestial City, the City on a Hill. Manifest Destiny. For at least a good chunk of us, historically in America, it has always on some level been about “getting right with God”—and/or covering our own full-bodied greed, lust, and pride in two-dimensional cartoons of righteousness and virtue.
But probably a more direct influence, although still obliquely, would be Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, his spiritual autobiography, which was a popular genre among the Puritans. The formula was fairly rigid. It traced an individual’s journey from youthful sinfulness to eventual assurance of “election”—after many years of struggle, doubt, backsliding, and repentance, over and over (rinse and repeat). It’s like A Pilgrim’s Progress without the allegory.
Similarly, the character Pilgrim in my book seems to be required to learn the same lessons over and over. Theophany and cowardice waltz together all down the road (not to mention the Devil). It ends with Pilgrim learning to choose, to make a choice, to take his freedom. If the Puritans were anxious for signs of their election, Pilgrim must face the truth that it is his own prideful refusal to accept love and mercy that keeps him from being at home.
In any case, the genre of Puritan spiritual autobiography provided a structure of sorts, that I could play with, riff on, depart from.
TD: A Pilgrim’s Progress is of course classified as a Christian allegory, regarded as one of the most significant works of religious English literature. If you were dictating which aisle Down the Plymouth Road would appear in Barnes and Nobles, how would you want it categorized? The same? Would you want to see it sitting next to the works of Bunyan, Dante, and… I’m not sure who else would be in that aisle, come to think of it. Hannah Hurnard? Along these lines, we’ve traveled a long way since 1678, and maybe we’re too far down “the road” culturally to have use for a new religious allegory, but maybe not?
SJ: No, again, I think you’re right. That ship has sailed. Allegory, in our current context, with its moralism, its certainty, its unambiguous correspondence between signs and what is signified, doesn’t really address the spiritual questions of the age.
But actually, that’s not true, either. Allegory does address the spiritual questions of the age, but only as some kind of demonic reduction of questioning itself: an erasing of the Enlightenment, a shutting down of what can be thought and what can be communicated, as right-wing authoritarianism and the unfettered anomie of multinational corporations are set loose across America and Europe.
Allegory can easily become a tool of oppression. Suppressing voices out of key. In certain contexts, it can become the tyranny of reduction. Co-option. Absorption. In our own time, Divinity, quite literally is being monetized in the so-called Prosperity Gospel. Evangelical Christianity has been wholly absorbed into the Republican Party, with its donor lists, loyalty oaths, xenophobia, white nationalism, and “tax reform.” Corporations are co-opting “Mindfulness” as a matter of productivity. The other day, I read about a firm that specialized in creating customized “rituals” for sales teams, meant to motivate and team-build.
Allegory made sense in the context of English (and American) Puritanism. It made sense in its opposition to what they experienced as the tyranny of the Church of England and corruption of the Catholic church. Their resistance was their clarity, their de-mystification, although it also led to their bigotry, intolerance and violence.
But times are different. On some level, Down the Plymouth Road is an anti-allegory. Everything is a little bit off, askew, bent. Correspondences between figures are ambiguous. Things are never what they seem, and besides, are constantly turning into their opposites and back. Pilgrim, the narrator, isn’t so much a voice as a collection of voices, writing in a variety of different styles and even genres. There’s the Beat poet hipster voice, the wise-guy voice, the confessional voice; there are memoirs and noirs, a promiscuous mixing of Christian, Buddhist and Jewish references. New Testament Scripture mixes with post-Talmudic midrash, 16th century Christian mystical poetry, and quotes from 20th century Marxists. And Bob Dylan.
I am struck by just how transgressive a figure Jesus is in the Gospels (I mean that in a King Jamesy kind of way, as opposed to postmodern literary criticism). He’s constantly breaking taboos, violating social norms, eating with the socially unclean, tax collectors (who were collaborators with the hated Roman occupying force) and prostitutes. A radical compassion and world-shattering. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. He was iconoclastic and slippery as hell, his enemies could never pin him down (until they did). He was Freedom. I wanted to bring some of that resurrection energy into the form of the book.
This anti-allegorical approach, of course, has its own dangers and temptations. Gotta stay awake when you dream. That’s part of the “keep walking” refrain throughout the book.
TD: I’m not the most well-read person, but even I was aware there were a lot of things going on in terms of influences, allusions, references. You just mentioned a number of them. What are some other specific literary ancestors to Down the Plymouth Road?
SJ: I don’t know about ancestors, but there were a whole bunch of touchstones or influences (and folks I shamelessly ripped off). The Kabbalistic folk tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, William Blake, early Batman comics. The Shadow radio drama from the 30’s and 40’s. The Tales of the Baal Shem Tov. Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio Theater on the Air.
There’s a whole lot of Kafka’s parables, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Waiting for Godot. Laurel and Hardy. And Herman Melville, including several direct allusions to Moby Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener. Chaplin’s little Tramp. The face of Buster Keaton. The terror of Poe. The whole Jewish and Christian mystical traditions surrounding the biblical and erotic Song of Songs. The Via Negativa. The Cloud of Unknowing, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Tao Te Ching. Andre Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism. Athanasius’ Life of Abba Antony. And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Yeah. There’s a lot of Hawthorne. And Nathaniel West.
It’s really a bit of a swamp or a stew. As I indicated, in the writing I focused on specific moments when I was able to plug in, or as it sometimes felt, open a spigot, and just let whatever would come flow. Editing, beyond typos, grammar, etc. was more like pruning fruit trees at night to increase the yield, digging better irrigation ditches in the dark. I didn’t know what was going to come out, I just did my best to keep it from overflowing its ditches and trusted that it was getting to where it needed to be.
But perhaps this time, more than with any of my other writing, so far, there was a kind of bottom line, rubber-hits-the-pavement, existential-now, writing. The Deaths raised the ante. Mary’s passing and my own close encounter raised it even higher. It’s like that Neil Young song: “Ain’t it funny how you feel / When you’re finding out it’s real?” Which isn’t to say it wasn’t real before. But there’s reality, and then there’s reality. Not all realities are created equal.
TD: The Deaths. It’s probably time to talk about them. Anyone who achieves some degree of self-awareness and thoughtfulness in this life understands the basics of the human condition, including the chief basic, which is that we are all going to “meet our maker” at some point. Whether we choose to believe an afterlife of eternal joy is “obvious” and irrefutable, as I heard Franklin Graham assert on the radio two days ago, or whether we believe as the songwriter Dan Reeder sings, “When they’re gone, they’re gone,” we all understand on a cognitive level what death is. Certainly, an ordained minister who has spent his life administering funerals and helping others to confront their own mortality and the loss of their loved ones, and who has also spent his life thinking and writing about all the heaviest philosophical and spiritual topics, would have a very deep understanding—again, on a cognitive level—of what death is. And all of us have experienced death in a way that gives us some kind of emotional understanding of it as well. Here again, you had no shortage of personal experience with human mortality before and as you were writing Road. However, something happened recently in your life that is powerfully reflected in the book, that changed both your writing and as a reader my apprehension of what you’re writing about, from something of an academic approach—albeit an already piercing and poetic and extremely accessible one—to something more visceral. I don’t imagine it’s easy, but can you talk a little bit about your wife Mary’s passing and how that affected you, your writing, and this book?
SJ: I alluded earlier to a series of deaths in the family. I started Down the Plymouth Road after a five-year period in which my wife lost her entire family to cancer: father, mother, and sister. We had been back and forth across the country taking care of them. It was a time also in which we had become empty-nesters, with our son Elias away at college. Throw in a couple of moves and we were a couple of traumatized kids.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Pretty much since the deaths of her family members, Mary’s health had begun to fail. It was one thing after another.
Finally, last summer, she was diagnosed with diverticulitis and scheduled for routine surgery. Everything went well, but she contracted an infection, and was in a chemically induced coma for about two and a half weeks. She was intubated.
It came to a point a decision needed to be made concerning her continuing care. I knew well that she would not have wanted to have a tracheotomy, be put on a feeding tube, etc. Over the course of “the Deaths,” as we called them, Mary and I had had plenty of conversations about what we would want in those situations. But Elias and Mary’s best friend, Karen, who was like a sister to her, weren’t quite there yet.
At that point sedation was removed and Mary became conscious enough to let everybody know what her wishes were. She couldn’t speak, but she could blink her eyes in response. She needed a tube to breath. She left no doubt as to what she wanted.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. But I should also tell you that when she came back, when she gained consciousness, there was a lightness about her that I hadn’t seen for years. She was playful, dancing in bed to music we brought for her. Her face glowed and her eyes were so alive and at peace. She rolled them playfully whenever she thought one of us was saying something stupid.
She died peacefully and full of light. It did something to me.
Yeah. It affected me and the writing. I wrote about that experience in the “Interlude” section of the book. But I didn’t write anymore after that for a while. I was in shock. By November, four months later, I found myself in the emergency room with double pneumonia.
The doctor told me later that if I had waited much longer to come in, my internal organs would have started to shut down. Apparently, I came very close to death. It came very close to me. I was in the hospital for a week and a half—and felt the rising of the sap in the tree in the fall. Death came very close to me and I came back.
The last two pieces of the book, “Fiery Angels and Hungry Ghosts” and “Abundantly," come from that period of my pole-axed convalescence. God-smacked, stunned, and clear-eyed.
The point is, I’m not the same man I was. I’ve been transformed. I can say with a clear eye and without irony, that I have been loved back to life. I don’t say that lightly. I say it with awe.
In any case, in time, I hope I’ll be able to write that part of the ongoing journey—the life after the Deaths—whether it’s on the Plymouth Road, or some other convention. Either way, Mary is close.
TD: Beautifully said, and in Mary’s memory, this is, I think, as good a place to wrap up our discussion as any. Stan, I count as one of the good fortunes of my life the fact that I’ve had the pleasure of making both yours and Mary’s acquaintances, and I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to enjoy your work firsthand all these years and to occasionally have these opportunities to talk. I hope this won’t be the last.
SJ: I want to thank you for this conversation and opportunity to reflect on Down the Plymouth Road. After one series appeared in Eclectica, a friend of mine told me she really liked it, but she didn’t think she understood all of it. I told her, that was okay, because I didn’t understand all of it either—still don’t. LOL. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tease it out a bit. I’m also grateful for the good work you and all the editors do year after year over at Eclectica. I really do believe that in the Arts, souls heal and find healing. So, yeah, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
For those with a rising curiosity in Mr. Jenkins' new piece, copies are now available for pre-order on our website! Follow the link below to snag your copy now!