Bruce Duffy’s projects have a way of expanding. His first novel began as a painting that begat drawings, which begat poems, which begat the 546-page The World As I Found It, about philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. That 1987 novel earned Duffy critical acclaim and a reputation for being on the Wittgenstein tip. Now the philosopher’s name is everywhere, thanks to surging interest in the Bloomsbury bunch and a Derek Jarman film about the bent genius.
Duffy denies allegations of prescience. “No one was more unqualified than I was to write a novel like that. I ran as far away as I could from any direct acquaintanceship with my subject. I meant it to be a fictive experience,” says the Wheaton native.
His second book, The Memory of Our Lives Returning, took him to regions of more direct acquaintanceship. His mother had died at 38, as he neared adolescence. In Memory, scheduled for 1994 publication by Simon & Schuster, the protagonist is an 11-year-old white boy whose mother’s passing forces him to confront the erasive effects of death and the invisibility imposed on certain of the living, especially African-Americans.
“He becomes obsessed with blacks. He’s scared of them and intrigued by them,” Duffy says. “A child is a natural philosopher, and this book is a conflation of childishness and adultishness.”
As Memory was winding down, Duffy had a vision: He imagined an escaped slave leading a two-headed piebald cow during the 1850s. He decided the beast was the issue of race in America, and began framing a story whose core is relations between the blacks and whites in D.C. He set out to encounter people around town at what he calls the “sea level” of their experiences with the color line.
To keep the cash flowing—married and twice a father, he had a house in Takoma Park and a yen for more space—Duffy had begun writing for companies: speeches, video scripts, annual reports, communiqués to stockholders. Business was good, but always at the back of his skull chirped the raven of mordant fantasy. He moved his family to Silver Spring—nothing ornate, but a bigger-enough house to heighten his concern about making the nut. In August 1992 the Duffys took a vacation, the paterfamilias managing to set aside his worries until he came home and saw mail mounded up inside the door.
Bills, he thought.
One envelope contained anything but. Each year, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation unsolicitedly selects 10 writers to fund projects undertaken in tandem with a community organization. The letter that was not a bill explained that Duffy would get $105,000 in three annual $35,000 slices. All he had to do was pick an organization and devise a program. He chose the D.C. Community Humanities Council; working with its director of projects, Carmen James, he fashioned a project in which he would immerse himself in the black communities of Anacostia, Georgetown, and Shaw, taping interviews to be archived at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library.
He hoped to study two communities the first year, but had to regroup when his suburbocaucasoidal penchant for product over process encountered a different sensibility. “The people I am meeting are more interested in process—in who you are and what your character is and whether you are a decent person who can be trusted—than in getting something onto tape,” he says.
After a so-so year in Anacostia, Duffy is now focusing on Shaw, an effort that will culminate in December with a public program titled “New York Had Harlem, D.C. Had Shaw” and featuring older neighbors speaking of their lives. (For information on date, time, and location, call the Humanities Council at  347-1732.)
Though sometimes frustrated by the elliptical paths his research demands, Duffy sees his grant work as vital. “This book scares me, and that is good,” he says. “Fear is a Geiger counter. I feel a fear of not doing justice to the subject, and a fear of the subject itself—not of people but of what race means. It is the problem of America. We have to find ways to talk about it authentically, or we will simply become more paranoid, thoughtless, and racist.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.