Saturday

Apr. 3, 2004

The Truck

by John Stone

SATURDAY, 3 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "The Truck," by John Stone, from Music from Apartment 8 (Louisiana State University Press).

The Truck

I was coming back from
wherever I'd been when
I saw the truck and
the sign on the back repeated
on the side to be certain
you knew it was no mistake

PROGRESS CASKETS

ARTHUR ILLINOIS

Now folks have different
thoughts it's true about
death but in general it's
not like any race for
example you ever ran
everyone wanting to come in

last and all And I admit
a business has to have a good
name No one knows better
than I the value of a good
name A name is what sells
the product in the first

and in the final place
All this time the Interstate
was leading me into Atlanta
and I was following the sign
and the truck was heavier
climbing the hill than

going down which is as
it should be What I really
wanted to see was the driver
up close maybe talk to him
find out his usual run
so I could keep off it

Not that I'm superstitious It's just
the way I was raised A casket
may be Progress up in Arthur
but it's thought of
down here
as a setback.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Washington Irving, born in New York City (1783). He has been called the first American man of letters. His father was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and named him after George Washington. He was the youngest of eleven children, and unlike his older brothers, he didn't go to college. Instead, he apprenticed with a law clerk and began a legal career. In his free time, he contributed sketches to newspapers, and began to publish, with his brother and brother-in-law, a series of satirical pamphlets called Salmagundi; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others (1807).

Then, in 1809, he published his first book, A History of New York, a satirical history of the city from the point of view of an eccentric, old Dutch professor named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving promoted the book by claiming that Diedrich Knickerbocker was a real person, and that Knickerbocker had left the manuscript for the book at the front desk of his hotel and then mysteriously vanished. The book became so popular among New Yorkers that they began to call themselves Knickerbockers, and the term became the source of the name for the basketball team.

As he was working on the book, Irving fell in love with a young woman named Matilda Hoffman, and he was planning to marry her. But the same year his book came out, Matilda died of consumption. Irving was devastated. He found that he couldn't continue writing, and spent the next several years working as an editor and traveling aimlessly around Europe. He was able to live comfortably in part because of money he received from his father. But in 1818, the family business went bankrupt, and suddenly Irving had to support himself.

With no other choice, he finally returned to writing, and quickly produced a book of essays and short stories called The Sketch Book (1819). Most of the pieces in the book were descriptions of England, where Irving had been living. But in two of the stories, Irving rewrote German folktales and transplanted them to American soil. The first of these was "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep during British rule of the American Colonies, and wakes up years later to find that he lives in the independent United States.

The other American story in his Sketch Book was the most famous story Irving would ever write, set in an area of the Hudson River Valley which he described as, "one of the quietest places in the whole world . . . [where] a drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere . . . this sequestered glen . . . known by the name of Sleepy Hollow."

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving invented one of the first memorable characters of American literature, the visiting schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. Irving described Crane as, "tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. . . . To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for . . . some scarecrow eloped from a corn-field."

"Rip Van Winkle" and "Sleepy Hollow" were revolutionary American short stories because they were among the first works of American fiction to suggest that America already had a history. At the time "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published, there were no internationally known American writers of fiction. One English critic wrote in 1818, "The Americans have no national literature and no learned men." And another said, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Irving's Sketch Book was the first international bestseller by an American author, and it was greatly admired by British writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

Irving became an American hero. When he returned to New York, people tried to persuade him to run for mayor, but he refused. He settled in a farmhouse in the part of the Hudson River Valley that he had named Sleepy Hollow, and was happy to find that it hadn't changed at all since he was a boy. He wrote, "Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I . . . still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom."

He went on to publish many more books, most of them bestsellers, but he is still best remembered for "Rip Van Winkle" and "Sleepy Hollow," stories which greatly influenced many early American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Irving said, "There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's position and be bruised in a new place."

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