Nov. 30, 2004
Poem: "Yes" by Catherine Doty, from Momentum © Cavan Kerry Press. Reprinted with permission.
It's about the blood
banging in the body,
and the brain
lolling in its bed
like a happy baby.
At your touch, the nerve,
that volatile spook tree,
vibrates. The lungs
take up their work
with a giddy vigor.
Tremors in the joints
in the canister of sugar.
The coil of ribs
heats up, begins
to glow. Come
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the playwright David Mamet, born in Chicago, Illinois (1947). His father was a labor lawyer who loved to argue for the sake of arguing. Mamet said, "In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, solely based on our ability to speak the language viciously."
When he was eleven years old, Mamet hit his sister in the face with a rake. His mother came home and demanded an explanation, but Mamet's sister wanted to protect her brother so she wouldn't say anything. In an essay about the incident, Mamet wrote, "My mother...said that until one or the other answered, we would not go to the hospital; and so the family sat down to dinner, while my sister clutched a napkin to her face and the blood soaked the napkin and ran down onto her food, which she had to eat; and I also ate my food, and we cleared the table and went to the hospital."
He started writing plays in the 1970's, he became obsessed with the ways people manipulate each other with language. He specializes in writing about conmen, salesmen, thieves, and liars in plays such as American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He has also written and directed films such as House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1998). His most recent play is an adaptation of Dr. Faustus, which came out this year.
David Mamet said, "People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want."
It's the birthday of Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin (1667). He grew up in Ireland, but most of his relatives were English, and he moved to England as soon as he could after college, because he thought Ireland was an inferior country. He got involved in politics and became a kind of press secretary for the ruling Tory party, even though he didn't necessarily agree with their politics. But when the Queen died, the Tories fell out of office and Swift had to move back to Ireland, the home country he hated. He said, "[Ireland is] a wretched, dirty doghole and prison."
But because he was forced to live in Ireland, he began to notice how horribly the English were treating the colonized Irish. He began to write political pamphlets in protest of England's rule, but eventually he lost patience in straightforward commentary, and he began to express his ideas in more creative ways. In his most notorious essay "A Modest Proposal" (1729) he suggested that perhaps the best way to deal with the Irish poor was to feed their babies as a delicacy to the English aristocracy.
His masterpiece was Gulliver's Travels (1726), the story of a man journeying through a series of exotic places and meeting all kinds of strange creatures. The novel was full of political parallels, and Swift was so nervous about the consequences of publishing it that he dropped the manuscript off at the publisher's house in the middle of the night to protect his own anonymity.
Jonathan Swift said, "When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri (1835). He's best known to us today for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in his own lifetime his best-selling books were his travel books such as Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883).
He spent most of his life traveling. His mother was pregnant with him when his family joined the migration westward to the edge of the frontier. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and he loved observing the people who flowed in from the river: the gamblers, confidence men, boat captains, pioneers, and slave traders.
He traveled east to try to make a living as a printer, but eventually came back to Missouri and took a job as an apprentice pilot on a river boat. He would later say that his years working on the Mississippi river were his happiest.
He wrote, "All men—kings & serfs alike—are slaves to other men & to circumstances—save, alone, the pilot—who comes at no man's beck or call obeys no man's orders & scorns all men's suggestions...asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety & not caring a damn whether school keeps or not."
When Civil War broke out, and tied up traffic on the river, Clemens followed his brother west to Nevada. He rode out on a stagecoach, watched the scenery go by, and in a letter home he wrote, "Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs...and after these a pipe—an old, rank, delicious pipe—ham and eggs and scenery...a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart—these make happiness."
While his brother worked for the governor, Clemens loafed around, drinking and playing poker all night long. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise. They offered him a fulltime job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada.
He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. Virginia City was a rough town. Clemens interrupted one of his letters to his mother to write, "I have just heard five pistol shots down the street...I will go and see about it." It turned out that two policemen had been murdered a few blocks away.
He had always written entertaining letters to his family, and he treated his newspaper work like those letters: humorous, exaggerated, entertaining, but always conversational. He took the name "Mark Twain" from his riverboat experience. The phrase "Mark Twain" means two fathoms deep, which for a riverboat captain is just deep enough water to navigate.
In 1867, Clemens persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to send him on a steamboat pleasure cruise to Europe, and he got paid twenty dollars for each letter he sent home. Those letters made him famous, and in 1868 he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad. Many writers had gone abroad and written about their travels before, but he was the first to do so in such a distinctly American voice.
Describing the moment the ship set out for Europe he wrote, "I thought there never was such gladness in the air before, such brightness in the sun, such beauty in the sea...and as America faded out of sight, a spirit of charity rose up in [me] that was as boundless, for the time being, as the broad ocean that was heaving its billows about us. I wished to express my feelings—I wished to lift up my voice and sing; but I did not know anything to sing, and so I was obliged to give up the idea. It was no loss to the ship, though, perhaps."
Clemens wrote about his travels in Europe, his travels in the West, and his boating days on the Mississippi. But some of the most beautiful passages in his writing come from his descriptions of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the river with Jim. He wrote, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest."
It the middle of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Clemens decided he needed to do some research on his hometown, so he traveled back to Hannibal, Missouri for the first time since he was a teenager. It was the most depressing trip of his life, because all the romanticized ideas about the place where he'd grown up were shattered. He met old women who had been just young girls when he was a child. He saw how poverty stricken the townspeople were, and how blacks, even after the Civil War, were still living like slaves.
The visit erased all his old memories of Hannibal and replaced them with reality. The second half of Huckleberry Finn became much more satirical and political. Most readers prefer the first half of the book, and some scholars even call the second half a failure. After that, he traveled less often, and spent most of his time writing angry but humorous political commentary.
Samuel Clemens, who said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."
And, "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®