Jul. 1, 2004

Men at Forty

by Donald Justice

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Men At Forty," by Donald Justice, from A Donald Justice Reader. © Middlebury College Press. Reprinted with permission.

Men At Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.
And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father's tie there in secret
And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1863 that the Battle of Gettysburg began. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had recently won a big battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia. He thought he could win the war by invading the North. About 75,000 Confederate soldiers and about 95,000 Union soldiers met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1. The battle went on for three days. It was the largest military conflict in North American history. On the third day, Robert E. Lee decided to try to break the battle line at the center. He sent a column of troops led by General Pickett across the valley, hoping to overwhelm the Union force. The attack, known as Pickett's Charge, was disastrous. Almost sixty percent of the Confederate soldiers involved in the charge were killed.

It's the birthday of crime writer James M. Cain, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). His father was the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Cain when to school there and disappointed his father by refusing to take part in any campus activities. He didn't play any sports, didn't belong to any organizations, didn't hold any jobs, and turned down an offer to edit the campus magazine. Cain worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, taught journalism for a while, and wrote editorials for various newspapers. He tried to produce a play, and finally went to Hollywood, hoping to strike it rich writing for the movies. Paramount Studios fired him after six months.

He was forty years old, living in the middle of the Great Depression, and trying to support his wife and children. One day, he read a newspaper article about a woman who had murdered her husband so she could take over his gas station. Cain realized that he knew the woman in the article. He had gone to her gas station many times and had talked to her as she filled up his car with gas. He was fascinated by the idea that someone so ordinary could be so ruthless, and it gave him the idea for his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). The book got great reviews and became a bestseller. He went on to write other novels, including Mildred Pierce (1941), and Double Indemnity (1943).

Cain said, "I write of the wish that comes true—for some reason, a terrifying concept."

It's the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford, born in Covina, California (1915). When she was six years old, her father lost most of the family's money on the stock market. They moved to Boulder, Colorado, where they lived in poverty. Despite their money troubles, her father spent all his time writing, though he published only one book. They survived by taking in sorority girls as boarders.

After college, Stafford began dating a young poet named Robert Lowell. He was unknown at the time, but would go on to be one of the most important poets of his generation. He asked her to marry him, even though his aristocratic family disapproved of her. They got married in 1940.

In 1944 she published her first novel, Boston Adventure, about a poor girl who escapes her working-class town to work for a wealthy lady from Boston. It was a bestseller, but soon after its publication, her marriage with Lowell fell apart. She wrote several more novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952), but they didn't make her any money. She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to The New Yorker. When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died ten years later and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »