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Man of Letters Writes of Farm Boy’s Life

Robert Peters became a teacher through accident, a poet through tragedy and a prose writer through frustration.

His first published prose work--a warm and graphic account of life on a poor Wisconsin farm during the Great Depression, called “Crunching Gravel"--appeared earlier this year to positive reviews. (Kirkus Reviews called it “a commemoration of a nearly lost American agrarian life,” and the New York Times called it a “clear-eyed memoir (that) dispenses with the haze of nostalgia that is usually a feature of similar works. It is a fascinating, unsentimental look at a piece of our past.”)

Peters, a resident of Huntington Beach and a professor of English at UC Irvine for the past 20 years, has distinguished himself in four fields: as a teacher, poet, literary critic and playwright-actor. Although he has written 31 volumes of published poetry and numerous scholarly works, he has longed for a broader audience. “The audience for poetry,” he says, “is so limited as to be almost nonexistent. I’ve always wanted to write good prose with commercial possibilities and the wide readership that implies.”

“Crunching Gravel” (published by San Francisco’s Mercury House) appears to be a powerful step in that direction. The book describes in pungent, poetic prose a single year (1936) in the life of a 12-year-old Wisconsin farm boy. It is structured like a stereopticon slide show that the Peters’ family couldn’t afford; crisp, vivid, detailed sunbursts of incident or description that bring to life a period of American history almost inexplicable to those who didn’t experience it.

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“I’ve always wanted to leave some record behind for my three children of what their dad’s origins were like,” said Peters in his book-lined UCI office recently. “They’ve always jollied me along whenever I told them about living without electricity or running water or indoor johns. Not that they weren’t interested; it was just that my early years were so very remote from theirs that they couldn’t begin to comprehend. So when I found myself moving deeper into my ‘60s I set out to write a book that would be almost snapshot simple, like leafing through an old album.”

Peters--who was divorced in 1973--has three children (no grandchildren) ranging in age from 29 to 36. Son Rob is a biologist with the Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C.; daughter Meredith is a painter and U.N. librarian in Switzerland and his youngest son, Jeff, is completing his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Michigan.

“Like most parents who lived through the Depression,” says Peters, “I’ve found it almost impossible to explain to middle-class kids what those years were like--the fears of not having clothes and even of starving. This book is an effort to record as many of the specific details of that time as possible. I really believe that much of our drive as writers and managers of our daily practical lives comes from that experience. There’s something about our values, perhaps, that is deepened because we lived through those years.”

Peters’ father was a North Dakota orphan who attended two years of school and made a tenuous living as a carnival roustabout, itinerant farm worker and mechanic. He taught himself to play several musical instruments and believed strongly in education. Peters’ mother was also a North Dakotan, the eighth of 10 children. She had completed one year of high school when she met and married Sam Peters. She was 16; he was 20. They drove a Model-T Ford to Wisconsin where they had relatives and were able to buy 40 acres of farmland through the federal government’s Homeowners Loan Corp. Through the decade of the Depression, they raised four children and farmed this land. Robert, the oldest child, born when his mother was 17, was named after Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “A Child’s Garden of Verses"--the only book the Peters family owned.

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The name was prophetic. From this dubious literary beginning, young Robert developed into a precocious writer who skipped several grades in his one-room schoolhouse. Although he was wildly misplaced in this rural environment--he had a great distaste for killing animals, refused to fire his father’s gun and was totally inept with farm machinery--his love of the people and the place is implicit in every line of his writing, particularly for his gentle father who allowed Bob his eccentricities.

“We got two more books when I was growing up,” recalls Peters, “ ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Tom Swift and His Sky Train.’ I found both of them boring and never got past the third page of either one, but since I was named for him, I always liked holding the Stevenson book and pretending that I was a writer.”

A scholarship got Peters to the University of Wisconsin, where he was a student when the country got into World War II. He spent three years in the Army, mostly in England, France and Germany, where he served as a clerk-typist and replacement depot sergeant major. “This duty was pure luck, because my original unit was cut up at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. I went in a coward and came out a coward--in a good sense, I think, of keeping my pacifism intact. I always had a great fear and distaste for killing--even the animals on the farm we needed to kill in order to eat.”

Back in Wisconsin after the war, he majored in English “because I was always good in literature and held to the romantic notion that I was going to be a writer.” That notion was still intact when he finished his Ph.D. in English and took a teaching job at the University of Idaho to support his writing habit. He was writing novels then that had one element in common: They were universally unsuccessful. They were also bizarre, rooted in such postwar phenomena as Zap Comics and Andy Warhol films. “Agents and publishers don’t much like my humor,” he says matter-of-factly, “and they may be right.”

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All that changed in 1965 when Peters’ 4-year-old son, Richard, died after a one-day bout with meningitis. A year later, Peters published his first book of poetry, “Songs for a Son.” “I wanted to detail this loss in such simple, lyric terms that a child could understand them,” says Peters, “and I still get occasional letters from people who have had similar losses and have been touched by the book.”

From that time until the publication of “Crunching Gravel,” Peters’ writing has been devoted solely to scholarly criticism or poetry. Since joining UCI as a professor of English in 1968, he has published more than two dozen books of poetry, many of them celebrated by grants and prizes, including Guggenheim and National Foundation for the Arts fellowships. But throughout these successes, Peters quite frankly yearned for wider exposure of his work. And before he turned to prose, he tried the theater by adapting two of his poetry subjects--"Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria” and “Erzebet Bathory: The Blood Countess"--for dramatic presentation. Peters, who had never attempted acting before, played both the roles to modest success all across the country.

“I think that poets have to make their audiences,” he says, “and performing Ludwig and Bathory was a way of letting people know about my books. If they enjoyed the performance, maybe they’d get the books and read them.”

Peters, a large fuzzy bear of a man, commandeered the stage, sometimes threatening to overpower his own words by sheer size. But offstage, he’s a soft-spoken, gentle man with a reservoir of writing energy that sends him to his computer at UCI almost every morning long before students and his faculty associates begin to appear. Even though “Crunching Gravel” has been out only a few months, Peters has almost completed a sequel that will follow him from the farm through World War II. “The war book,” he says, “has no battles, no sadistic sergeants--and yet that might be why it is useful since it may be more typical or generic for most GIs of that war.”

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He hopes the new book--to be called “The Turquoise Lake: A Memory of World War II"--will find a home more easily than “Crunching Gravel” which was turned down by several major publishers who, Peters says, felt it was “too harrowing in its details of violence and elementary struggles for survival in great poverty on the farm. Yet there is much to celebrate about that life and it took a small trade publisher looking for out-of-the-way manuscripts to risk the book. And I’m happy to say they’re doing well with it.”

The peace and tranquility of a lake has become a primary image in both of these books. In “Crunching Gravel,” the muddy and leech-infested Minnow Lake near the Peters home provided young Robert a place to swim and fish and think. And the World War II book is named for a magnificent turquoise lake he stumbled on during maneuvers in South Carolina, “and for years thereafter, the lake recurred in my dreams. It somehow reaches into something deep within me about killing, war, resolving various sexual fears--yes, and the celebration of life also.”

A few years ago while he was touring with “Ludwig,” he went in search of both lakes. He never found the lake in South Carolina, and in Wisconsin “where my family house stood is now a modern tract house, and the acreage leading to the lake has been subdivided for homes and summer cottages. It’s hard even to stand there and imagine our lives.”

That may be, but Bob Peters has brought that place and time graphically to life in his memoirs--and perhaps at the same time finally found a way, at the age of 64, to reach the broad audience he has long coveted for his work.

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