Aug. 23, 2008
Father Ray Byrne quickly became
a star. He played sports, danced,
sang, told jokes. He was a man
of the people, and we loved him
for that. He came to our apartments
and brought us comfort.
He even came to a high school graduation
party one night. I was a little drunk.
Father Byrne came up to me and asked
"Are you thinking about it?" I panicked.
What did he mean? Sex? Booze? Basketball?
Could he read my mind? Then I realized
his tone wasn't accusatory, so I said,
"Yeah, I'm thinking about it," not having
any idea what he was talking about.
"That's great," he said, "I can always
tell when a young man is thinking about
it. Just let me know if I can be of any help."
Now I was positive he wasn't talking about
sex or money or any of the things I actually
did have on my mind. Father Byrne thought
I might have a vocation.
But I wasn't considering the priesthood.
I didn't even think professional basketball
was a possibility any more. God had walked
out the door about a year before,
when I was sixteen, and never looked back,
even though I begged him not
to leave me, alone and weeping
in this valley of tears.
It's the birthday of American poet Edgar Lee Masters, (books by this author)born in Garnett, Kansas, in 1868. Masters grew up in the small town of Lewiston, Illinois, in the Spoon River valley. His father was a lawyer who didn't approve of his son's ambition to write, so Masters became a lawyer in Chicago. While he practiced law, he started to write and publish poetry and plays under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace, including A Book of Verses (1898) and Maximilian (1902), but he didn't write anything particularly successful. He dreamed of writing a novel about the small-town Illinois of his childhood.
Then in 1909, he got a gift from Marion Reedy, the editor of Reedy's Mirror in St. Louis. Masters had been submitting poems to the journal, and Reedy rejected all his poems, but he liked corresponding with Masters, and he sent him a copy of Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, a book of poems from the Classical and Byzantine periods of Greek literature. Most of these poems are in the form of epigrams. After Masters read the Greek Anthology, he decided to change the form of his novel and make it into a series of monologues. These monologues would be set in a graveyard, and they would be anecdotes spoken by more than 200 dead citizens of a small town. He based the small town on a combination of Lewiston, where he grew up, and nearby Petersburg, where his grandparents had their farm, but he named it after the river that ran by these towns, and these monologues became Spoon River Anthology (1915). It was an immediate commercial success, one of the most popular books of poetry in American history. But the monologues were often cynical and showed the hypocrisies of small-town life, and so Spoon River Anthology wasn't popular with everyone. It made Masters an outcast from the small towns where he grew up — he had based many of his characters directly on people there, hadn't even changed their last names, and many of them were horrified by his unflattering depictions of them. And even beyond these towns, lots of people were scandalized by Masters's cynical view of small-town America and considered him unpatriotic. He continued writing but he never achieved the same level of success that he had with Spoon River Anthology.
Edgar Lee Masters said, "How shall the soul of a man be larger than the life he has lived?"
And he wrote in Spoon River Anthology:
It was just like everything else in life:
Something outside myself drew me down,
My own strength never failed me.
Why, there was the time I earned the money
With which to go away to school,
And my father suddenly needed help
And I had to give him all of it.
Just so it went till I ended up
A man-of-all-work in Spoon River.
Thus when I got the water-tower cleaned,
And they hauled me up the seventy feet,
I unhooked the rope from my waist,
And laughingly flung my giant arms
Over the smooth steel lips of the top of the tower —
But they slipped from the treacherous slime,
And down, down, down, I plunged
Through bellowing darkness!
It's the birthday of the writer Sophie Kerr, (books by this author) born in 1880 in Denton, Maryland. She wrote more than 500 short stories and 23 novels, what she called "light fiction," including Miss J. Looks On (1935) and Michael's Girls (1951).
When Sophie Kerr died in 1965, she left half a million dollars to Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, for a prize that to gives money to one promising graduating writer each year. Her money has been invested, and the Sophie Kerr Prize is now worth over $65,000, which makes it the largest undergraduate literature prize in the country. Because of her gift, this tiny liberal arts college has become a literary hot spot; more than one in 10 students belong to the Writers Union, and the visiting lecturer's series attracts famous writers.
Sophie Kerr, who said, "An industrious sinner I much prefer to a lazy saint."
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