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PORTRAITS

Man of Letters Writes of Farm Boy's Life

September 16, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

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.

"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.

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."

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