Feb. 3, 2004
Poem: "My Captain," by Maxine Cassin.
Dear Captain Kangaroo,
It is all so quiet now
until I hear the news.
Then eulogies begin.
To think we never knew
how long you were in pain—
and no one wrote to you
to say that we are grown
and busy in our lives—
raising children too.
Your memory survives.
In the storage shed,
in corduroy once red,
by the ears he hangs—
his spectacles askew—
that bunny from the past
I once hung out to dry.
From the corner of my eye
I see him now and then
remembering our days—
the carrot-colored sun—
our future all ablaze.
Now that day is done.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Paul Auster, born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). He's the author of The Book of Illusions (2002), Timbuktu (2000), and many other novels. After he graduated from college, he got a job on an oil tanker, saved all the money he made, and then went off to Paris to become a writer. He started out translating French poetry and writing his own poems. After ten years, he had published a few collections of poetry, but he barely had enough money to pay for food. For a year, he quit writing and started looking for other ways to make money. He even invented a card game and pitched it to toy companies.
Then, in December 1978, he had an epiphany while watching a dance recital in New York City. He later said, "The simple fact of watching men and women moving through space filled me with something close to euphoria." The next day, he started writing again, but instead of writing poetry he wrote fiction. His first novel, City of Glass (1985), was published six years later. It's the first novel in his "New York Trilogy," which also includes Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1987).
It's the birthday of novelist James A. Michener, born in New York City (1907). He's best known for his epic historical novels such as Hawaii (1959), The Covenant (1980) and Poland (1983). His parents abandoned him soon after he was born, and he was raised by a poor widow named Mabel Michener. They moved from house to house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, sometimes in the middle of the night on just a few minutes notice. His foster mother read him Dickens and Balzac, and he grew to love their thick, old-fashioned novels.
Michener worked at a series of teaching and editing jobs until he was 36 years old. Then, in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy, and the next year he was sent to the South Pacific. One night, after he almost crashed his plane, he couldn't sleep and went for a walk along the airstrip of his ship. It was then that he decided that if he made it back home, he was going to quit his job as an editor and become a writer. He later remembered thinking, "When this is over, I'm not going to be the same guy. I'm going to live as if I were a great man."
He came up with the idea for a series of stories about the war called Tales of the South Pacific (1947). He said he wanted to show young men what life in the military was really like. He stayed up late at night and typed it out on old envelopes and the backs of old letters from home. When he got back to the States, he gave the papers to a publisher at Random House without retyping it. They published it, and Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Two years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein made it into the musical South Pacific, and it made so much money that Michener was able to devote the rest of his life to writing.
Michener sold more than 75 million books in his lifetime. He has written novels about Israel, Colorado, Spain, Maryland's Eastern Shore, South Africa, Poland, Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico and the Caribbean. Most of his stories unfold across decades or even centuries, and include several pages of historical detail.
Michener said, "I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains."
It's the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). When she was 30 years old she moved to Paris, and lived there for almost the rest of her life. She once said, "America is my country and Paris is my hometown." She covered the walls of her house in Paris with paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, and others. Her house became known as "The Salon", and writers and artists came from all over to get advice and encouragement from her. Ernest Hemingway once said, "Gertrude was always right."
She would hold dinner parties and then stay up afterwards to work on her own novels and essays. But she wasn't very well known as a writer until she published her autobiography, which she called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in 1933. It was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly and became a huge bestseller in the United States. Stein became a household name, and the next year she returned to America for the first time in over 30 years, to go on a lecture tour.
Stein said, "Everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really."
It's the birthday of philosopher Simone Weil, born in Paris (1909). T.S. Eliot called her "a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints." After getting a degree in philosophy, she worked in fields and factories, so she could write about what it was like for manual laborers. She gave most of her money to the unemployed, living on as little as possible. She wrote essays on political, social, and religious issues, but not many of them were published during her lifetime. During World War II, she fled to the United States and then to England. There, she was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and refused to eat more than she thought an average French person was getting on wartime rations. When she died soon afterward, it was ruled a suicide. After her death, her essays were published in Gravity and Grace (1947) and Waiting for God (1950).
Weil said, "Whenever, in life, one is actively involved in something, or one suffers violently, one cannot think about oneself."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®