Professor Don Foster's 1999 book "Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous" solves what the editor of "The Letters of Wanda Tinasky" grandly called "The Literary Mystery of the Decade" (the 1990s). It's also an interesting chapter in the nether life of Fort Bragg.
Someone calling himself "Wanda Tinasky" (Wanda didn't sound like a woman) wrote dozens of erudite, funny and ascerbic letters to several Mendocino County newspapers from 1983 to 1988. Some close observers thought Wanda was the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon whose novel "Vineland" is set on the Northcoast. It appeared soon after Wanda stopped writing letters to newspapers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti told the Chronicle, "I'm pretty sure this is the work of Bruce Anderson."
Everyone guessed wrong.
Professor Foster's Wanda chapter explains how he figured out that the person who called himself "Wanda Tinasky" was a Fort Bragg man named Tom Hawkins, and Foster's irrefutable attribution is the final word on the question.
In the process of identifying Hawkins as Wanda, Foster provides a mini-biography of the man which is far more interesting than anything Pynchon has written.
Like many Mendo arrivestes, the eccentric Hawkins, a seminal beatnik, moved to Mendocino County in the early 80s to escape city life. He was as much of a recluse as Pynchon and went mostly unnoticed by his neighbors in the Fort Bragg area.
As Wanda Tinasky, Hawkins created quite a stir with her sharp, witty criticisms of the County's artists, writers and poets. Hawkins/Wanda Tinasky found the Mendocino Coast a target-rich environment for his/her critical commentary.
Foster reports that for reasons unknown in September, 1988, Hawkins "bludgeoned his wife Kathy (a talented sculptress) crushing her skull," three weeks after mailing what would be his last Wanda letter.
"Amazed, perhaps," Foster writes, "at his own ghastly violence, Tom carried Kathy's body inside, into the living room, where he mourned over the corpse for several days until it became infested. On Friday, September 23, he arose and set the house on fire. As a column of smoke rose to the sky over Beal Lane, Thomas Donald Hawkins drove north on Route 1 in Kathy's orange Honda at top speed, soaring into space over the cliffs at Bell Point, crashing onto the rocks 90 feet below. His decomposed corpse was found in the surf on October 6 near Ten Mile River Bridge, five miles from Chadburn Gulch, where Kathy's Honda lay smashed and sunk."
But Foster's focus is on finding the author and the occasionally obscure literary clues in the text, not on the content of the letters themselves.
The Letters of Wanda Tinasky take on a whole new meaning when we know something about the real author.
For example, in late July of 1988, about two months before Tom Hawkins and his wife Kathy's lives came to a tragic end, Hawkins/Wanda wrote:
"Little do I care what vulgar-though-educated fanfarons may yell at me in passing, but I would hate to think that you might suspect me of lifting material from a 500-year old wop or anyone else; of course I read the Cusan like everyone at the appropriate time in my youth, but that wasn't last week & my memory is not all it once was; in fact I go around with my fly open about 1/2 the time, & so I have been doing some re-reading, & as well as I can tell the passage to which your auditors refer is one concerning the cardinal's docta ignorantia, which runs as follows (my own translation, of course): 'The place wherein Thou are found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictoris, and this is the wall of paradise wherein Thou dost abide, the door whereof is guarded by the most proud spirit of Reason, and unless he be vanquished, the way in will not lie open. Therefore I observe how needful it is for me to enter into the darkness, and to admit the coincidence of opposites, beyond all grasp of reason, here to seek the truth, where impossibility meeteth me'."
Nicholas of Cusa was a pre-Enlightenent, polymath Italian bishop who wrote about astronomy, physics, and mathematics. and asserted that "the infinity of God is that in which all opposites are combined" — the logical, if contradictory, end of what philosopher Hegel later called the dialectic.
Pretty heady stuff for Mendocino County.
After criticizing some Coast poets, Wanda was challenged to produce a poem of her own, and in May of 1984 Hawkins/Wanda responded with:
The look I'll have at the end
will be the smile I give to people I don't really know.
Albert's not come home,
he's the sad ant on the end of my finger.
Howcome you didn't wrap yourself in the dancer's spins and dips,
wear black, flared pants?
Howcome you didn't remember the old grannie lady, naked by the river,
beating on herself with a stick, getting ready, hands,
talons of anger,
ready to beat the brown rushing flood?
She got nailed by a log right after the bell.
Howcome you didn't listen to your grandfather's voice
singing the songs of his grandfather?
All dogs are comedians, they just want to be laughed at.
Howcome you drove out onto the St. Clair River in a 48 Chevy, towards Detroit?
I watched the bubbles pop through the surface.
I thought of you under there.
I thought, howcome you know to dance,
to sing the songs of our roots
and you start driving to America across a river,
through the setting yellow haze?
I shot and buried in the Alder swamp
a wounded roadkill I found today
pissed off you aren't here to help me with the dying.
* * *
"The Letters of Wanda Tinasky" is still available on-line via Amazon. Professor Foster's book is even more widely available in bookstores. Perhaps, now, someone who knew the real Tom Hawkins can re-connect his life with his letters.
Ed note: Foster, considered one of America's foremost attributionist scholars, has also written a convincing deconstruction of the famous "Lord's Avenger Letter" confessing to the 1990 bombing of Judi Bari. Foster says Mendocino County's recently retired garbage bureaucrat, Mike Sweeney, Bari's ex-husband at the time of the bombing, wrote it.
(first published October 2000)