If Berry's Oregon novels represent a high point in the use of history as a basis for fiction, his writing on the web is ahead of its time in the way it adapts a new medium to an old creative form. By keeping his pieces relatively short and self-contained and through creative use of linking and hypertext, he has tried to make the computer work for literature, rather than the other way around. Although much of the work he has done on Berryworks could be published in a conventional book, he maintains he is not interested. "I am invariably asked why someone who has been nominated for the National Book Award would simply give their work away," Berry said. "I have never been part of that world. It has always been my dream to write exactly what I want to write and give it away to anybody who wants it. Cyberspace makes that possible.
"Some of what I have in Berryworks might be published on paper, but increasingly the work I am exploring is shaped by the character of cyberspace and would be unpublishable in physical form," he said. "Cyberspace is the unknown, and it is chaos, and that is where I am truly happy."
That statement, and that attitude, reflect the intellectual independence and restlessness Berry learned at Reed. Although he left the college in 1951 and did not graduate, Berry said his years at Reed were important enough "to be very hard to specify. It was my first look at the landscape of the intellect. First standards of excellence. And the basis of a value system grounded in the search for meaning."
The child of musicians who moved frequently, Berry once attended six schools in five states in a single year. The family eventually moved to the Portland neighborhood of Vanport, and Berry attended Roosevelt and Jefferson High Schools. He left home at 15 and bounced around the country, working at odd jobs, before enrolling at Reed in 1949. He was tending a heating boiler on the Reed campus, sleeping on top of the boiler at night, when he was invited to live in a house on Southeast Lambert Street with several other students.
Among them were Snyder, Whalen, and Welch. The three poets formed the Adelaide Crapsey-Oswald Spengler Mutual Admiration Poetasters Society and drank wine, made up poems, and goofed off for the better part of two years.
Berry, who was more interested in painting than writing at the time, was one of the editors of the Reed literary magazine. "I once rejected a poem as being too derivative of Lew Welch," he remembered. "Lew gave me hell later, because he had written it."
At Reed, Berry also met the legendary calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds, who would tell his students "you've got a million bad letters in your fist, and the only way to get rid of them is to write them down."
Berry remembers Reynolds as an inspirational instructor.
"Lloyd was one of the four great teachers of my life," he said. "Not necessarily in any specific detail, but in the sense that he was the first teacher who ignited me, as a candle is ignited from a candle already burning.
"He showed the most astonishing confidence in my ability. When I was a freshman, Lloyd had me deliver the lectures on Chinese art to his art history classes. Those were the only lectures they received on the subject, and Lloyd seemed content. At the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me. . . . My candle was lit from Lloyd's flame. He helped me learn the difference between creative intelligence and analytic procedures."
Berry's interest in Eastern philosophy goes back to grade school, where his nickname was "China," but he did not begin formal Zen study until decades after his Reed roommates. Trask, with its depiction of a man rejecting Western values and going on a search for enlightenment, is a reflection of Eastern philosophy that Berry understood intuitively, rather than actually experienced.
"I did not study Zen until 10 years after the Oregon novels, though clearly some of the experiences in Trask parallel Zen teachings as the West Coast understands them," Berry said.
Berry has traveled to India and studied with some of the great teachers of Zen Buddhism. His writings on Berryworks and some of the other web sites he has helped create are beautiful reflections of Eastern philosophy by someone who has spent a lifetime studying it. Berry now lives in Seattle and is not in the best of health, but his mind is as agile as ever, and he wanders through cyberspace for hours every day.
Jeff Baker writes on books for the Oregonian.This is his first article for Reed.