I had a strange thought after finishing Lauren Belfer’s “And After the Fire”: No Nichols graduate could have written it.
And I say that as a Nichols graduate.
The moment I put the superb book down, and considered its fictional yet bold and provocative premise – that a lost cantata of Johann Sebastian Bach contained anti-Semitic material – it seemed much more like what it is: the product of an alumna of Buffalo Seminary.
I have no doubt that historians could blow my notion to kingdom come. But I have a lifelong familiarity with the communities of both premier Buffalo private schools – faculty, alumni, supporters, parents. Ever since that fugitive thought took possession of part of my head, I have been in touch with others in both communities, all of whom found the idea intriguing, if not persuasive.
Belfer herself wrote me flatly that “I don’t think of myself as provoking or as challenging established society. … I suppose that like many fiction writers I hide behind my characters.”
My notion, nevertheless, was this: If you examine the major cultural figures in all fields from the alumni of both schools, you’re more apt to find among Nichols alumni figures of generally conservative profile, even when their positions inside their own fields have been notably progressive. Think of playwright A.R. Gurney as the epitome of an artist from Nichols. My old classmate David Milch took TV content matters to all kinds of new outposts on “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood” but his subject both times was law and order – its enforcement in one show, and a society trying to invent it in another.
The work in the arts of so many Nichols graduates takes what’s given and rearranges it.
Contrast Nichols alumna Nanette Burstein, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, with Buffalo Seminary alumna Amy Holden Jones, who, decades earlier, became one of the first women in recent times to direct a movie with “The Slumber Party Massacre.” Even Nichols alumnus 45-year-old Ed Park, founding co-editor of The Believer, has collected and promoted the abilities of others – an extremely conservative thing to do at its base. His brilliant novel “Personal Days” is a satiric portrait of the world of office work. Satire, too, emanates from kinds of conservatism.
If you look, on the other hand, at the two Buffalo Seminary artists with high profiles – the late Liz Swados and Belfer – you find a disposition to take on established society straight ahead.
Belfer admits Swados, in her theatrical work, “seemed to me to be a creative provocateur. Even as a teenager, she was exceptional.”
In “City of Light,” Belfer gives you a fictional version of Grover Cleveland, someone altogether sinister – a secretly bad man in a secretly great city. Belfer’s newest novel is a 400-plus-page set of variations whose theme is the long, pervasive and toxic tradition of anti-Semitism in Western Civilization.
Belfer’s manner may be that of a well-bred young woman dancing a graceful quadrille. But her latest novel’s essence is an open confrontation with history at its most invidious. And her Sem upbringing must get some of the credit.
So many events in the recent history of both schools seem to reinforce my thought. When Allen Ginsberg was brought to Nichols in the 1970s for a four-day residence, he brought his life partner Peter Orlovsky with him. The poems read and the behavior exhibited were, to put it mildly, not commonplace in the school’s Mitchell Hall.
In the resultant tumult in the Nichols community, faculty members William L. Morris and Sally Fiedler – the poet and now the late widow of Leslie Fiedler – were targets of some consternation. Fiedler left Nichols and began a teaching career at Buffalo Seminary, where she was revered for the rest of her career. It was a classic defining event in that period for both schools.
Belfer credits her Sem history teacher Cornelia Dopkins with being a formative influence as well as important adviser to this day. And Dopkins’ career began at Sem during Belfer’s day and then moved over to Nichols.
Key to everything at Sem is that it is still a single-sex school dealing with a gender that is – still – considered embattled in so many parts of the American social landscape, if not necessarily our own. Educating young women is teaching them to confront difficult facts of life.
I offer this as nothing but a way of understanding the cultures of the two major private secondary schools in Buffalo with the longest history of premium education in Western New York.
Cultural achievements by alumni in both schools have been formidable. But they have been different, I think.