Dec. 3, 2007


by George Held

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Poem: "Aftermath" by George Held, from Grounded . © Finishing Line Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It's not the storm itself—wind and rain lashing shore,
uprooting trees, toppling poles and dousing lights,
flooding cellars and roads, capsizing boats—
but the aftermath—the bright calm, the pair
of drowned cats crumpled against the picket fence,
the parlor of Izzy's shack open for inspection,
the walls fallen flat on all sides, your own
roof filling the front yard, covering your car,
and your own twin daughters dazed by Nature's
petulance—that makes you reconsider
your life and weigh your possessions and the cost
of putting down stakes too near the coast
as the globe warms, and storms grow worse.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, (books by this author) born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), whose father was arrested for trying to start an insurrection against the Russian government. The family had to go into exile in Northern Russia, and both of Conrad's parents died there from TB. He was sent to live with his uncle, and he started to dream about traveling the world. He once looked at a map, pointed at the middle of Africa, and said, "Someday I will go there." He began hopping French Merchant Marine ships, and by the time he was 21 he had joined the British merchant Navy, even though he spoke barely a word of English. He spent the next decade sailing to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, and the South Pacific. And in 1889, while stationed in London, he began writing his first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895).

But it was in 1890 that he got to go to the Africa he'd dreamed about as a kid, with a job piloting a steamboat up the Congo River. He thought the journey would be an exotic adventure, but he later described what he saw there as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience." The Congo was under the control of King Leopold II of Belgium at the time, and the colonists forced the local Africans into slave labor camps, gathering ivory and rubber. They arrested, abused, or killed anyone who refused to work. It's been estimated that between 1880 and 1920, half of the local population in the Congo was wiped out. There were stories of colonists sending home African heads to be stuffed by taxidermists.

No one knows exactly what Conrad saw in the time he worked in the Congo, because he didn't keep a diary at the time or write any letters about it. But instead of staying on the job for the three years he had planned, he quit after only four months. And it was not long after that that he gave up the life of a sailor altogether and settled down to life of writing.

His early novels were tales of adventure at sea. It took him more than 10 years to write about his experiences in the Congo in his novel Heart of Darkness (1902), about a steamboat captain named Marlow who pilots his ship up the Congo in search of mysterious trading agent named Mr. Kurtz who has set himself up as a kind of god among the natives of the jungle, and has surrounded his trading post with severed heads on stakes. Critics had long thought that Conrad's description of the brutality in the Congo was exaggerated, but scholars in the last decade have discovered that there was a Belgian man there at the time who surrounded his house with severed heads on stakes, and it's possible that Conrad met him.

Joseph Conrad said, "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." He also said, "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."

It was on this day in 1947 that Tennessee Williams' (books by this author) A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York City. Williams spent months writing and revising the play, and he had three different working titles for it: The Moth, Blanche's Chair on the Moon, and The Poker Night. Then he moved to an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he could hear two streetcars rattling by, one named Desire and one named Cemeteries. He changed the setting of his play to New Orleans, and he changed the title to A Streetcar Named Desire.

Stella was originally played by Kim Hunter, Blanche by Jessica Tandy, and Stanley by a 23-three-year-old Marlon Brando. The play got a 30-minute standing ovation on opening night, and it ran for over 800 performances.

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