May 25, 2004
Poem: "Loafing," by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
I looked into the room a moment ago,
and this is what I saw--
my chair in its place by the window,
the book turned facedown on the table.
And on the sill, the cigarette
left burning in its ashtray.
Malingerer! my uncle yelled at me
so long ago. He was right.
I've set aside time today,
same as every day,
for doing nothing at all.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke, born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). It took him ten years to publish his first book of poetry, Open House (1941). Thirteen years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Waking (1954). Roethke battled bipolar disorder his entire life, and spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. But he said he used these periods of depression to gather material for his poetry, and many of his poems are about his own mental struggles.
Roethke said, "Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."
It's the birthday of short story writer Raymond Carver, born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He's known for writing pared down, realistic stories about working class people, collected in books like What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Will You Be Quiet, Please? (1976).
He became seriously interested in writing in 1959, while he was taking a fiction-writing class from the novelist John Gardner at Chico State College. Gardner would pick apart Carver's stories line by line. He would cross out words and sentences and tell Carver that he was not allowed to keep them in the story; and he would circle other sections and allow Carver to come up with arguments for why they should be allowed to stay. Carver later said that for the rest of his life he could feel Gardner looking over his shoulder whenever he wrote a story.
It's the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He's famous for his essays and lectures about nature, literature, religion, and self-reliance. He started out as a Unitarian minister, but when his wife died in 1831 he questioned his faith and eventually he left his position. He had liked giving sermons, and he was a great public speaker, so he started giving lectures in the Boston area. Emerson wrote in his journal, "Why should we write dramas, & epics, & sonnets, & novels in two volumes? Why not write as variously as we dress & think? A lecture is a new literature, which leaves aside all tradition, time, place, circumstance, & addresses an assembly as mere human beings."
Public lectures were becoming more and more common in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Emerson was one of the first people to make his living off of them. Many of his first lectures were on natural history. In November of 1833, he gave a lecture for the Natural History Society. The lecture, "The Uses of Natural History," was so successful that Emerson was invited to give more lectures on science by many other organizations in the winter of 1834.
In 1836, his first great essay, "Nature," was published in Boston, and it got a lot of attention in America and England. People began seeing him as the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, which was becoming more and more popular in New England. That winter, Emerson was invited to give a series of twelve lectures in the Masonic Temple in Boston. The subjects ranged from "Philosophy of History" to "Trades and Professions."
By this time, lecturing had become his main source of income, and Emerson needed the money to take care of his family. In order to make as much money as he could from the lectures, he wrote his own advertising and oversaw ticket sales himself. Tickets cost two dollars for twelve lectures, and they could be bought at Boston bookstores. Emerson considered the lectures a success: each lecture drew about 350 people, which was pretty good considering he was competing against many other lecturers in Boston at the time. He ended up making about 350 dollars in the course of a month and a half of lectures, which works out to be about 100 dollars more than he would have made as a minister in the same amount of time.
He often scheduled three or four lectures a week, each in a different city, and so he spent a lot of time traveling. Railroads were just beginning to be built in the eastern United States, and he rode trains from lecture to lecture whenever he got a chance. He wrote in his journal, "Get into the railroad car and the Ideal Philosophy takes place at once. . . . The very permanence of matter seems compromised & oaks, fields, hills . . . do absolutely dance by you." Emerson also traveled by carriage, steamboat and sleigh. Sometimes he traveled alone, and sometimes with his wife Lidian. He stayed with friends and family whenever he could, but he often had to stay in hotels.
His reputation grew quickly, and by 1838 he had begun to decline almost as many invitations to lecture as he accepted. In the winter of 1840, more people went to his lectures in New York than those of all the other speakers combined.
Emerson began giving lectures outside of New England, as far west as St. Louis, and also in England and France. He started spending more and more time away from his family, and complained to friends about the toll all of the travel was taking on him. He wrote in his journal, "A man writes a lecture, & is carted round the Country at the tail of his lecture, for months, to read it."
As he grew older, his daughter began acting as his secretary, scheduling his lectures and keeping records of how much money he made. By the end of his life he was making about a hundred dollars per lecture, and he had become a celebrity in America and Europe.
Emerson said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."