Michael Steinberg: A Remembrance & a Review Print E-mail

Mike Steinberg

(River Teeth Blog, January 3, 2020)


In December 2019, in a country torn apart by Donald Trump’s bullying and Fox News’ Pravda-like misinformation, in congressional hearings that traded in the ridiculous and the profound, in a democracy under such partisan assault it seemed to buckle before our eyes, and in the month of Trump’s impeachment, we were hit with grave news of another sort: creative nonfiction’s (and my) beloved colleague, mentor, and friend, Mike Steinberg, 79, died from pancreatic cancer, undiscovered until a week before he passed.

In literary nonfiction, Mike was an all-star, a clutch hitter, a gamer. Editor/author, he played long enough to be a starter, a reliever, and a coach, his enthusiasm for writing and writers as infectious as a ninth-inning rally. I’m parlaying the baseball metaphor because baseball was Mike’s prime subject for most of his essays and memoirs. I’ll enlarge on this later, but I want to note first (so it’s not lost in my reflections) that the best essayists chose a subject or an event in hopes that an underlying truth about the person may break through whatever the surface interest may be. One such truth centers on the self whose nature is often hidden, often denied. Mike was a master of this surface/depth approach with nonfiction. But he was much, much more.

In 1999, Mike started what arguably became America’s foremost nonfiction journal, Fourth Genre. (His wife Carole was its art director.) His devotion to the form was shared by other stalwart crusaders who, in Mike’s time and tide, also began nonfiction journals and edited anthologies—Phillip Zaleski, Robert Root, David Cooper, Joe Mackall, Dan Lehman, Laura Julier, Robert Atwan, Phillip Lopate, John D’Gata, and another colleague we lost last year, Ned Stuckey-French.

With Fourth Genre, Mike helped revive and relaunch literary journalism, science writing, narrative nonfiction, critical reflection, but mostly today’s ubiquitous forms, the personal essay and the memoir. Revive and relaunch were only the beginning. In general, many of these forms, and their authors, had been discounted by the myopic molders of the fiction/poetry canon; in particular, these nonfictionists were underappreciated (Loren Eiseley), made light of (Pete Hamill), overlooked (Zora Neale Hurston), or just plain forgotten (Richard Selzer). While Orwell and Baldwin, Didion and Dillard, have always been beatified, Mike widened the tent and gathered in others, the freewheeling sorts, often female, who sparked and fired the form—from lyric essayists (Lia Purpura) to essayistic aphorists (Lydia Davis).

The growth of literary nonfiction in the last thirty years echoes the swell of modern literature a century ago. Some of that recent wave we owe to the indefatigable Steinberg—not only for Fourth Genre, but also twenty-five years of teaching composition at Michigan State (he earned a PhD and an MFA); panels at AWP annual conferences (Mike invited me to be on many); manuscript reading and editing of students and friends; letters of recommendation and blurbs; CNF contest judge; encouraging post-MFA students to write more and then publish; and workshop camaraderie (Mike, so sweet, was never an assaultive critic) by the busload at Vermont College, Stonecoast, Solstice, Ashland; and guest gigs in Prague, Paris, Geneva, and Homer, Alaska.

But his prime influence was one-on-one, not just with me, but with hundreds of writers. The only downside of my activities in AWP and MFA programs is the many books I get every year from fellow scribes of which, I sometimes moan, Help, I can’t keep up. Mike did. For every book I praised or reviewed or taught, he had three or four he buttonholed me about. Not only that, he interceded in writers’ careers where he could. A word from Mike to a critic or publisher meant you got nearer the editor to thee. His blurbs reveal incisive analysis and a love of burnishing literary gems. “Oh,” he said of books by Kim Dana Kupperman or Tom Montgomery-Fate, “you’ve got to read them.” And so I did.


Mike wrote narrative essays; his core drama revealed the constant preparation, psychic and physical, it took to play baseball well. He animated his game days, choosing near-operatic scenes in time, place, and import, whose outcome was often a win. But if his team lost, it was so because he lost it for them. He’d go series by series, season by season, the adult flying out of the adolescent’s nest. There was ever a conflict brewing, a feared result, a crossroads stressed. In the prose, he worried he’d put his addiction to ball beyond two other things he treasured—his wife Carole and his writing. He wrote of the tick-tock of the game’s momentum, as I say, not always ending in his favor. How he blew (and, on occasion, saved) the game is reason enough to read his classic pieces, “Trading Off,” “Chin Music,” and “Elegy for Ebbets.”

Fortunately, those three essays and four new ones are in his last book, Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond. These stories present a striver, lodged between victory and loss, unraveling his pretend certainty on the mound. Mike was a pitcher, the most psychologically fraught of all the field positions, the manager in the dugout, second. Incredibly, Mike’s career (from thrower to pitcher to finesser) lasted from boyhood to age forty-five when he finally gave up playing and coaching fastpitch softball.

One element Mike returns to is his constant struggle to impress managers who, of course, hold his and others’ fate in their hands. Along the way, many punished Mike with belittling smack or vague promises, often rivaling his own self-reproach. (There’s a special place in hell for managers who bully with more false hope than actual reward.) But even such abuse remains a backdrop to the fraught tale of Mike’s deferred maturity. So seductive is the game that athletes seldom realize the personal cost. The game’s demand for more and more sacrifice is insatiable. Until one day it beans the Mighty Caseys of the world, and the debt comes due.

Of the four new pieces in Elegy for Ebbets, I find a more fortified persona in which, egg-like, Mike’s ultimate unlived self is closer to breaking free than ever. As in other works, this ball-mad savant is shaped (via forty years of pitching), second-guessed (the body, and his wife, want him to leave the game sooner than he does), and, at last, we trust, abandoned (for the sake of his wife and his waylaid desire to write).

The most intimate essay here is “The Last Road Trip,” a nervous mix of self-pity, self-delusion, and self-disclosure. In it, Mike is torn (though, while playing, he seems content) between a final summer softball game in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—on the day before he and Carole’s flight to Paris, an overdue trip to engage her love of art—and the plane’s departure from Detroit. Each encounter between them heightens the tension. Mike overdoes the “trust me” card; he promises he’ll quit while Carole stews at the charade. We know this because Mike assigns himself the “Pete Rose” position: having to lose the game so he can make the flight, which every instinct in his body resists.

How strong that instinct is, even at 45, is inextinguishable. On the ballfields of summer, one

could inhale the pungent aroma of a new fallen rain on the grass and the musty scent of fresh-cut hay and alfalfa. There was the calm tranquility in left field between innings on a sunny Saturday afternoon in lake resort towns like Charlevoix or Petoskey. I remember the anticipation and excitement driving to road games, the front windows rolled down, fifties and sixties rock and roll music cranked high, me singing as loud as I could and looking forward, just as I’d done in childhood, to a weekend of nothing to think about but playing ball.

Just as I’d done in childhood. How honied and hopeless this sounds. Nostalgia is a bugbear, but worse, is to be enthralled by an uncritical allegiance. It can’t be about the game anymore. Mike has to wake up not only to his wife’s perspective but the mature man he’s trying to become. But, alas, as the pattern has cookie-cut him, he can’t, not quite. What makes this essay memorable is how deft his resistance matches his giving in. The tale teeters on this fulcrum, as well-sustained as a rising fastball to a sophisticated hitter or a down-and-away slider to a free swinger.


I may have edged over the ethical line between remembering a friend and reviewing his writing. So be it. For my comrades in the lit world, I think many could tell some blurred tale of similar repute about Mike—the sweetest guy who read, recommended, critiqued, blurbed, and more often than not ballyhooed hundreds of us—impressionable students, single-book authors, polished pros, overworked editors, those of us stuck, blocked, or lost until found, or not.

After my study, The Memoir and the Memoirist, came out in 2007, he and Steve Harvey recommended me to the MFA program at Ashland University, where I taught with dedicated colleagues for seven years. Mike never told me; I found out, offhandedly, from the director. In like manner, Mike brought many lit-types together to share our love of nonfiction, as an organizer of panels and conference get-togethers, of gabfests and long dinners, our favorite small-tent cluster, NonfictioNOW.

Another incident involves our conversations. He and I once drove for six hours from Phoenix to San Diego, talking literature the whole way, a couple of Oxford Dons, our interests parallel and, thus, competitively turned. We got to my home not far from the Pacific Ocean, too pooped to pop, spent the night, then met for coffee the next day, and went at it again (from Scott Fitzgerald to Maggie Nelson), for another two hours.

The surprise of thinking about his evolution as a writer requires some speculative closure. I don’t believe any of us who knew Mike’s avidity with creative nonfiction really understood how he wrenched himself out of baseball and into a literary art. I understand only now that he’s gone how vexed he was by this transition. “Playing ball” was his destiny, the thing he was meant to do before he wrote about it, so he would later luxuriate in its memory and mull his decisions as if he were shaking off his catcher’s signs.

Of course, having a voice and a style in nonfiction is essential. But it’s not the only thing, maybe not the primal thing. To write true, you have to be beguiled by (and seek) an undisclosed mystery, something unfinished in your life, whether with a partner, a parent, a place, it doesn’t matter, whether lived in the past and nearly over or lived in the past and never over.

The ultimate subject for the memoirist is the nagging dread of finding the newest version of the self, be it overrun by alcohol, religion, baseball, whatever, because that which consumes us in our mundane and artistic lives is what will fascinate our readers. Mike had that. He didn’t know it, but I was jealous of just how deeply he obsessed over his obsession. That writing about baseball, in a sense, never satiated him, always haunted him. Or maybe he did know that I knew, and that was why he and I loved each other.