Jul. 11, 2004
Poem: "Auto-Lullaby," by Franz Wright, from Walking to Martha's Vineyard. © Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
Think of a sheep
knitting a sweater;
think of your life
getting better and better.
Think of your cat
asleep in a tree;
think of that spot
where you once skinned your knee.
Think of a bird
that stands in your palm.
Try to remember
the Twenty-first Psalm.
Think of a big pink horse
think of a fly, and
close your mouth.
If you feel thirsty, then
drink from your cup.
The birds will keep singing
until they wake up.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the literary critic and teacher Harold Bloom, born in New York City (1930). His parents were both Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. He started reading English poetry before he'd ever heard the English language spoken. He didn't do well in high school, but when he took the statewide Regents exams, he got the highest score in the state, and that won him a scholarship to Cornell University.
He went on to study literature at Yale in the 1950s, where the professors were prim and proper and all the students work jackets and ties to class. Bloom wore an old Russian leather coat and a pair of fisherman's trousers to class, and he became famous for his emotional attachment to poetry. He memorized everything he read, and could recite book-length poems both forward and backward.
When he was thirty-five, Bloom fell into a deep depression, and in the midst of that depression he had a terrible nightmare that a giant winged creature was pressing down on his chest. He woke up gasping for breath, and the next day he began writing a book that would become The Anxiety of Influence (1973), in which he argued that all great writers are obsessed with breaking away from the great writers of the past. The book made him famous, even though few lay people could understand it. A year after it was published, Bloom reread it himself, and found that he couldn't understand it either.
Since the 1970s Bloom has moved further and further away from the mainstream of literary criticism in the United States. Most other critics have come to believe that literature is a product of history, politics, and society. Bloom is one of the last critics in America who argues that great literature is a product of genius. He treats characters in books as though they are real people, and he believes that we should read not to learn about historical periods or political climates but to learn about the human soul.
In the last several years, he has begun writing books for general readers, because he thinks that scholars have forgotten how to read for pleasure. Many of his recent books have become bestsellers, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) and How to Read and Why (2000). His most recent book is Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002).
It's the birthday of the man who wrote the children's classic Charlotte's Web, E(lwin) B(rooks) White, born in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). He was a young advertising copywriter in 1925, commuting to and from New York City, when he happened to purchase the first issue of The New Yorker magazine at a newsstand in Grand Central Station. He said, "[I] was attracted to the newborn magazine not because it had any great merit but because the items were short, relaxed, and sometimes funny.... I lost no time in submitting squibs and poems [and] in return I received a few small checks and the satisfaction of seeing myself in print as a pro."
The editor Harold Ross loved White's work so much that he began hounding White to join the staff. White joined the staff in 1926 and started writing all kinds of things for the magazine—Comment and Talk of the Town pieces, humorous poems, cartoon punch lines—as well as rewriting other people's work. He said, "Every week the magazine teetered on the edge of financial ruinů. Ross fumed, fussed, broke down partitions, changed the format every issue, strove and strove, cursed and raged. It was chaos, but it was enjoyable."
White loved New York City, and once wrote, "New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up!" But he had grown up in the country, and found that he often wanted to run away from New York to the north woods of New England and Canada.
In 1929, he took a vacation to Ontario, working at a summer camp that he had gone to as a kid, and he seriously considered quitting his job at The New Yorker to become a camp director. He had just turned thirty, and he was disappointed that he hadn't written anything other than a lot of humorous magazine pieces. He wrote in a letter to Katherine Angell that he considered himself a failure as a writer, a mere hack, and he wasn't sure what the point was in continuing. She wrote back to say that there was no question in her mind that he was a great writer, even if he hadn't produced a masterpiece yet. She said, "For you to give up writing now would be like a violinist giving up music, the thing he most loved in the world, because he can't be [the best]." When White returned to New York, he married her.
They eventually moved to a farmhouse in Maine, and White started writing longer, more personal essays about his life, his thoughts on raccoons, television, the mating habits of geese, his daily chores, and the strange allure of brown eggs. He wrote, "Just to live in [the country] is a full-time job; you don't have to 'do' anything. The idle pursuit of making-a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace."
White had been keeping animals at his farm in Maine, and he said, "A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors." He was particularly fond of his pigs, and felt guilty about turning them into ham and bacon. One day, while he was walking through his orchard, carrying a pail of slop to his pig, he got an idea for a story about how a pig's life could be saved. He said, "I had been watching a large spider in the backhouse, and what with one thing and another, the idea came to me."
He wrote to his editor, "My next book is in sight. I look at it every day. I keep it in a carton as you would a kitten." Charlotte's Web was published in 1952. It's the story of Wilbur, a runt pig saved from slaughter when a spider named Charlotte begins to weave words about him into a web above his pen. After saving his life, she lays her eggs and dies. White's publishers tried to get him to change the unhappy ending, but he refused.
E. B. White wrote, "All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®