Academia and Opera Give Way to the Pen

By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 08, 2003

Jim Schevill was born in 1920, in a woodsy hillside Berkeley home that barely survived the great fire of 1923. His father was creator and chair of the romance languages department at UC, his mother an artist and a scholar of Navaho culture and mythology. Despite the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, Jim might have been expected to live a quiet life, like his father and his neighbors, in the security of academia, or, at most, deviating from that path to a career in opera. (“A dream. I had a light baritone, and asthma.”) In either case, a fortunate birth, a comfortable, if not wealthy future.   

According to Jim, three experiences took him forever off the smooth path that seemed laid out for him. 

The first exploded on him when he was 17, visiting Europe with his mother. He went to Freiburg, Germany, to hook up with his friend Jack Kent (later UC City Planning Department, Berkeley City Council). That night their sleep was broken by strange street noises, fires, cries, the shattering of glass. It was what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the nationwide riots against the Jews, opening shot in the Holocaust. The next morning, sick with horror and disgust, Jim wrote his first poem (“a bad one, too angry”) and suddenly knew who he was. Since then he has written hundreds of poems, 30-odd plays, a novel, two biographies, scores of essays and lectures, and has edited several books. 

The second crisis came during World War II, after Jim had already survived two years in the army. In 1944, he was assigned to a German prisoner of war camp in Colorado. After learning that the prisoners in the camp were dominated, indeed terrorized, by the fervent Nazis among them, Eleanor Roosevelt proposed a secret “Nazi re-education” program, and Jim (at 24) was one of the officers assigned to design and implement the program. For Jim, this became another horrifying lesson in the persistence of evil in the minds of men. His one novel “The Arena of Ants” (1976) came out of this experience. 

The third experience took place when he was home again, five years later, and had just landed his first teaching job, at UC Extension. It was the time of the infamous Loyalty Oath—the stakes were high, a lifetime career perhaps—and the Oath destroyed relationships, cut deep wounds into the university a decade before the Civil Rights and FSM movements. Jim says, “How could I sign, after what I’d seen in Germany, and in that POW camp?” He refused, with a curt, blistering letter, and was promptly fired, effectively black-balled from public institutions indefinitely. “Best thing that ever happened to me. I was hired to teach humanities at California College of Arts and Crafts [1951-1957], met Diebenkorn, all those great artists.” Jim’s Loyalty Oath experience shines in his most widely produced play, “The Bloody Tenet,” (1957) about the trial of Roger Williams, also banished for “disloyalty.” 

As McCarthyism loosened its hold, Jim was hired at SF State (where he served on my MA orals committee, and I became one of the many people to whom he offered his loyal friendship—which might include advice on manuscripts, references for a job, housing—you name it). Until 1968 he wrote plays for the distinguished Actors Workshop (1955-1967, founded by SF State colleagues Jules Irving and Herbert Blau), and ran the SF State Poetry Center, which played a central role in what is now called the San Francisco Renaissance. “The important—and rare—thing we did was to make sure all kinds of poets were included in our public readings.” 

The Actors Workshop produced the first reading of the “Stalingrad Elegies” on KPFA (1965), a series of poems based on actual letters written by German soldiers dying in the snow under Hitler’s insane orders to attack Stalingrad in winter. These award-winning poems, which continue to move audiences, “came out of my concern about our country entering a new bloody conflict—Vietnam.”  

In 1968 Jim went to teach at Brown University, continuing to write poems that critically probed his country’s soul, many of them collected in “Ambiguous Dancers of Fame” (1987) and “The American Fantasies” (1983). Many more plays, short and long, were produced, including “Lovecraft’s Follies,” a dark satire on the scientific-military-industrial complex. “That was a high point, an excellent production in Providence, Rhode Island.” (1970) 

In 1988 Jim retired from Brown and moved back to Berkeley, where he lives with his wife Margot, former singer with the San Francisco Opera, now anthropologist and authority on Guatemalan textiles.  

When I asked Jim what he is working on now, his gentle eyes turned steely. “Some poems on the theme of Bush’s concept of evil.” 

You can hear James Schevill read some of his new poems at Berkeley Art Center (in Live Oak Park) on Saturday, July 19. The 6:30 reception is followed by a 7:30 reading.