Gerald Duff grew up in East Texas, in both the Gulf Coast petrochemical strip and the logged-out piney woods north of there. As he describes the area, it was hardly a hotbed of literary stimulation in the years during and after World War II. Nor was Duff’s family exceptional or especially nurturing of his talents. But wherever his gifts for reading and writing came from, they were clear to Duff from an early age; he knew what he was suited for. Except for the two years he spent struggling in an electrical-engineering curriculum, he pursued literature at every opportunity through college, graduate work at prestigious schools, and faculty appointments, including stints at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Rhodes College in Memphis. His memoir, Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory, takes him from his unlikely origins through a career as both an academic and a writer of poetry, short stories, and novels.
This is a likeable story, full of ordinary people in all their variety: relatives, most of them born, unlike Duff himself, with no genetic advantages; unsuitable girlfriends; a schizophrenic first wife; a second too driven to be a wife; a third and current wife who suits the role in every way; two successful children; and lots of colleagues, professors, and other academics, with various bees in their bonnets. Duff reveals how he borrowed from their lives and used many of their traits in his fiction.
Duff’s description of his six years at Vanderbilt focuses on its tensions, traditions, and prejudices, sparing no one—neither the imported Ivy League chairman who hired him nor the older members of the department who resented the new chairman and everyone he hired. “I did not belong at Vanderbilt,” Duff finally realized. Too low-born to make the expected social grade, he did nothing to improve his standing, drifting “into friendship with the closet homosexuals in the department and the one Jew.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Duff’s time at Vanderbilt ended in disaster: the loss of his job, his marriage, and his children and all of it topped off by bankruptcy.
Eight years at prestigious Kenyon College in Ohio were a great improvement: “The English Department was the largest and best at the college, attracting the best students who, for the most part, read what they were assigned, wrote well, and considered themselves to be where they belonged,” he writes. During these years, he managed to reclaim his children, but Duff’s second wife insisted they move to a big city, where she could pursue her own ambitions. Soon after he landed a deanship at Rhodes (then called Southwestern at Memphis) the marriage failed anyway. As a dean, he soon learned the value of dissembling: “The lie is the coin of the realm in higher education management.” His new position allowed plenty of time to write, however, and Memphis provided much grist for the writer’s mill.
Throughout the book, Duff develops a theme of creative and spontaneous lying. Manipulating the truth saved him from many a childhood switching, maintained his image among his peers, allowing him to succeed as a dean. “Sometimes a lie is the best friend you can have,” he writes. “I spent a lifetime depending on what not telling the truth will do to get me by.”
Gerald Duff will discuss Home Truths at the twenty-fourth annual Southern Festival of Books, held October 12-14 at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. All events are free and open to the public.