Jul. 24, 2007


by Jim Harrison

TUESDAY, 24 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Becoming" by Jim Harrison, from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Nowhere is it the same place as yesterday.
None of us is the same person as yesterday.
We finally die from the exhaustion of becoming.
This downward cellular jubilance is shared
by the wind, bugs, birds, bears and rivers,
and perhaps the black holes in galactic space
where our souls will all be gathered in an invisible
thimble of antimatter. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Yes, trees wear out as the wattles under my chin
grow, the wrinkled hands that tried to strangle
a wife beater in New York City in 1957.
We whirl with the earth, catching our breath
as someone else, our soft brains ill-trained
except to watch ourselves disappear into the distance.
Still, we love to make music of this puzzle.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French novelist Alexandre Dumas (books by this author), born in Villers-Cotteręts, France (1802). He wrote swashbuckling adventure novels like The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844).

He started writing fiction at a time when publishers used fiction to sell newspapers. When his first novel appeared in a newspaper, it generated 5,000 new subscriptions. More than 50 movies have been made from The Count of Monte Cristo and more than 60 from The Three Musketeers.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist John D. MacDonald (books by this author), born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He wrote a series of novels, including The Deep Blue Good-By (1964) and Nightmare in Pink (1964), featuring Travis McGee, a beach bum detective who lives on a houseboat that he won in a poker game.

While he was serving in the army during World War II, MacDonald entertained his wife by writing her fictionalized stories in his letters. She liked one story so much that she typed it up and sent it to the magazine Story, where it was published. MacDonald was so surprised and happy that he devoted himself to writing.

He had four months of severance pay when he came home from the Army, so he spent those four months writing seven days a week, 14 hours a day. Everyone but his wife thought he was shell-shocked. By the end of the year, he was making a living selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines. He published 73 stories in 1949 alone.

He used his mystery novels to criticize what he called American junk culture: fast food, bad TV, and land development. He wrote, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as ... time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants ... pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

It's the birthday of Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon, England (1895). He was just one week out of high school when World War I began, and he was shipped off to France to fight. The war was brutal for his generation; one third of his fellow high school graduates died in battle. Graves spent much of the war in the trenches, surrounded by mud, mustard gas, corpses, and rats. He was wounded so badly in one battle that he was mistakenly reported dead in London newspapers. When someone showed him a copy of his own obituary, he decided that he had been spared from death in order to write poetry.

Graves started publishing poems after the war, and he tried to write a novel about military life, but he suffered from recurring nightmares and paralyzing flashbacks of the fighting. He wrote, "Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight. ... Strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed." When he went for walks in the countryside and looked at the hills, he couldn't stop his brain from planning out military strategies on an imaginary battlefield.

But after Graves got married and had children, he began writing furiously to support the family. In just five years, between 1920 and 1925, he wrote three books of criticism, a ballad opera, a novel, a satire on contemporary poets, and half-dozen volumes of poetry. But many critics believe his masterpiece was his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), about his childhood and his experiences in the war. It was a huge best-seller, and he was able to live off his writing for the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was the wife and muse of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at one of the military dances, and he stood out from the crowd in his fancy Brooks Brothers uniform and cream-colored boots. Zelda said, "He smelled like new goods." He told her that she looked like the heroine in the novel he was writing. They went on their first date on Zelda's birthday, July 24, 1918. She never forgot that day. Years later in a letter to Scott she wrote, "The night you gave me my birthday party ... you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn't I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best."

Their marriage was difficult. Scott struggled with alcoholism and Zelda struggled with schizophrenia, but they were the quintessential literary couple of the Jazz Age. They were so famous that William Randolph Hearst hired a reporter whose only job was to cover their activities. They looked so much alike that people sometimes mistook them for brother and sister. Lillian Gish said, "They were both so beautiful, so blond, so clean and so clear." Dorothy Parker said, "[They] looked like they'd just stepped out of the sun."

After F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, Zelda sent a letter to his family in White Bear, Minnesota. She wrote, "Now that [Scott] won't be coming east again with his pockets full of promises and his notebooks full of schemes and new refurbished hope, life doesn't offer as happy a vista. My only consolation is that he died mercifully, without suffering whereas he might have spent years confined to his room [hemmed] in by the tiredness of a heart that had always felt so deeply. ... Life has a way of closing its books as soon as one's category is fulfilled; and I suppose the time has come."

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




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