Jul. 18, 2004
Poem: "Soda Crackers," by Raymond Carver, from The Collected Poems. © Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
You soda crackers! I remember
when I arrived here in the rain,
whipped out and alone.
How we shared the aloneness
and quiet of this house.
And the doubt that held me
from fingers to toes
as I took you out
of your cellophane wrapping
and ate you, meditatively,
at the kitchen table
that first night with cheese,
and mushroom soup. Now,
a month later to the day,
an important part of us
is still here. I'm fine.
And you—I'm proud of you, too.
You're even getting remarked
on in print! Every soda cracker
should be so lucky.
We've done all right for
ourselves. Listen to me.
I never thought
I could go on like this
about soda crackers.
But I tell you
the clear sunshiny
days are here, at last.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, born in Calcutta, India (1811). His father worked for the British East India Company, but he died when Thackeray was just a boy, and Thackeray's mother sent him back to England to go to boarding school. He missed his mother so much in England that every night, before he went to bed, he prayed that he would dream of her.
He hated school, and spent all his time drawing humorous pictures and writing satirical essays about his teachers. He had an inheritance waiting for him from his late father, but he wouldn't receive it until he turned twenty-one, so he decided to kill time by studying law. Unfortunately, he couldn't stand law. He wrote in his diary, "I find I cannot read. I have tried it at all hours & it fails—I don't know so much now as when I came to town & that God knows was little enough." He began to spend all his time going to taverns and gaming houses, racking up gambling debts.
Just as he was about to receive his inheritance, he learned that the Indian banking houses in which his father's money was invested had collapsed, and what remained of his inheritance was gone. He was deep in debt, and he'd made no progress on a career in law. Desperate for a way to make money, he turned to the only thing he'd ever enjoyed back when he was in school: funny drawings and satirical essays. He began contributing illustrations and journalism to newspapers, and they turned out to be very popular. He made his name with a satirical column he wrote for Punch magazine called "The Snobs of England By One of Themselves." At that time, the word "snob" meant a person of the lower class, but Thackeray redefined the word as, "one who meanly admires mean things."
After he got married, Thackeray began to write novels, and he went on to become the second most popular novelist of his lifetime, after Charles Dickens. At the time, many intellectuals thought Dickens was too vulgar and sentimental, and they preferred Thackeray's work. His masterpiece was the novel Vanity Fair (1847). It's the story of Becky Sharp, the poor daughter of a drawing master who fights her way up through society by any means necessary. She delivers the novel's most famous line when she says, "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year."
Thackeray said, "There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write."
It's the birthday of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, born in Louisville, Kentucky (1939). His father was an insurance agent, and Thompson grew up in a comfortable, affluent home. In high school, he was accepted into a prestigious club called the Athenaeum Literary Association along with all the other wealthy and socially elite young people of Louisville. But around the same time, Thompson's father got sick and died from a rare immune disorder. His mother had to take a job as a librarian to support the family, and Thompson suddenly became the poor member of his group of friends, the only one who couldn't afford to go to an Ivy League school.
He rebelled against the club and became famous in the town for his outrageous pranks. He flooded the first floor of the high school with three inches of water during an assembly, and dumped a truckload of pumpkins in front of a downtown hotel. He also began to write a series of bitterly sarcastic essays for the literary association's newsletter, including one called, "Open Letter to the Youth of Our Nation," signed "John J. Righteous-Hypocrite." He wrote, "Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken to the call of the future. Do you realize you are rapidly becoming a doomed generation?"
He was arrested several times in his senior year for vandalism and attempted robbery. He was excommunicated from the literary association, and he spent thirty days in jail. When he was released, he joined the United States Air Force. He spent most of his time in the Air Force writing for the newspaper at his base. He was honorably discharged in 1958, and began writing for any small newspaper that would take him. In his spare time, he obsessively studied his favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, outlining it and rewriting passages. He said, "I wanted to teach my neurological system how it felt to write that kind of prose."
In 1964, the California attorney general issued a report on a dangerous new motorcycle gang known as the Hell's Angels, and the national media picked up the story. Thompson was hired by The Nation magazine to write a brief investigative article about the gang. After his article was published, he got a call from a publisher offering him fifteen hundred dollars to write a book on the same subject. Thompson was so broke at that point that the electrical company had recently shut off his power. He later said, "For fifteen hundred dollars I would have done the definitive text on hammerhead sharks and stayed in the water with them for three months!"
Thompson bought a motorcycle with his book advance and began driving around the country, meeting bikers and writing about them. He almost died doing his research one day when five Hell's Angels suddenly turned on him and beat him senseless. But he survived, and in 1967 he published his book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. He went on to become one of the most prominent journalists of his generation. In 1971 he published his most famous book, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, about a trip he took to that that city, how it almost drove him crazy, and his realization that idealism of the 1960s had disappeared for good. His most recent book is Kingdom of Fear, which came out last year.
Thompson has often written about and been associated with the drug culture, but he once said, "I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as a sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is, [or] going out and getting into the weirdness of reality and doing a little time on the Proud Highway."
Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®