Ben Morreale I

Eulogy for Ben Morreale

Delivered by Warren Dixon

at St. Peters Roman Catholic Church, Plattsburgh, New York

October Twentieth, 2008

A common saying is that people tell bad lies about us while we are alive, but tell good lies about us after we are dead.  I shall try to go through the middle between the horns of that dilemma to remember Ben much as he was.

I first met Ben forty-three years ago.  I was attracted to him for his congeniality, his worldly sophistication, and his jaundiced attitude toward poseurs and false witnesses.  Perhaps that would not have been enough to keep us friends all these years, but the signal fact that sealed our friendship was his love of literature and the flare of genius that made him a story teller.  Ben and I were close to one another in age, so that we were both early in life fascinated by the novels of a once and future great American writer, Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, North Carolina.  We both agreed that though Thomas Wolfe’s star had set among the critics, it sooner or later would rise again among readers who love rainbows and vivid life.  Ben liked to quote from Wolfe a passage about the hour of our death.  Ben would intone to me the following words:    

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: "To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—
—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.

Ben Morreale was brought up in the Catholic faith.  He was not only Catholic but a Sicilian one at that, which is a form of total devotion.  Born in America, he had spent his childhood in Sicily, a land that was to haunt him all the life long, to make of him a writer working the thin vein of smoke and blood that stretched between his America and his Sicily.  For Ben, the Second World War was twice a tragedy, for the land of his birth and the land of his childhood had gone to terrible war against each other.  While he resented the suspicion of the army that mistrusted his childhood in Sicily and sent him to the Pacific instead, he was thereby fortunately spared invading a country he loved.

In the middle part of his life, Ben was a closet Catholic, a skeptic confessing doubt even to his priest.  He was cosmopolitan and secular for years, but I do not believe his outlook toward eternity had ever done anything but hibernate in some secret lair of his heart.  Among the elder fires that informed his later life, he returned to his Church.

Wishing to avoid the good-lies syndrome, I do recall the year of grief when Ben was widowed by the tragic early loss of Linda Morreale.  Ben came to live at our house for many months, where Beverly and I helped bring him across that difficult time. I can tell you from sharing our home with Ben that he was not always an easy man to live with.  He seemed to share W. C. Fields attitude toward dogs and children. which  showed up in his poor opinion of my beloved dog Banjo.  Ben  enforced a Draconian level of quietness at our place.  Even so, he could be noisily irascible at times.  I can recall his occasional profane impatience with technicians trying to help him on the telephone with his laptop problems.  While Ben was never really a man of the quill, in the Sixteenth Century style of his friend, the poet Thomas Braga, he nevertheless had a powerful nostalgia for the typewriter.  I managed to coax him all the way to Microsoft Word 3, but beyond that Ben refused to go.  Always at ease with the typewriter, he never fully accepted the new-fangled computer.  Our friendship, however, did survive and even flourish all the better after our many months of strained intimacy.  As so often Ben was a man with a gambler’s lucky streak.  He emerged from his grief to find an angelic care-giver and companion.  Through Carol, he was empowered to descend more gentle into that good night than the poet Dylan Thomas would have liked.

Ben and I shared Oscar Wilde’s opinion that when good Americans die they go to Paris. He made it there while he was still young.  Knowing how sadly I had missed that dream of youth, he told me once while we were in France together that he had spent the best years of my life in Paris.  Still he had only taken French leave from his enduring literary affair with the land where the lemon trees bloom.  His leit motif remained his love affair with his roots in Sicily.

In his early career as an artist of words, he published his one and only lyrical novel, probably still under the spell of Thomas Wolfe.  While never quite a minimalist, he soon became a writer of clean and simple prose, sometimes with a slight evocation of poetic feelings, not out loud and insistent as in Wolfe, but rather like a bell that rings beneath the sea.  For all his love of Sicily, that childhood land was more like a mistress than a wife, his household-self always being deeply American.  He told me he had learned this during his last sojourn among the scenes of his childhood.  A scholar at the University of Palermo wrote her master’s thesis on Ben’s novels.  She concluded that Ben wrote only about the lost and mythical Sicily of his childhood, not the tumultuous Sicily of today.  Ben Morreale would try in the 1990s to retire to that haunted once-upon-a-time to live out his declining years in the peaceful village of his childhood memories.  As Thomas Wolfe could have told him, you can’t go home again, but Wolfe had also said you have to leave your country in order to know it.  Ben verified these two human truths while trying to live again in Racalmuto, the little town that appears often in his novels.  Among his unpublished papers is a work called Looking for Yesterday.  I have always suspected that in the tapers of his waning years he was looking, not for yesterday, but for that land more kind than home, more large than earth.  It is my belief that he has found it at last.