Thursday

Aug. 27, 2009

Fifteen

by William Stafford

South of the bridge on Seventeenth
I found back of the willows one summer
day a motorcycle with engine running
as it lay on its side, ticking over
slowly in the high grass. I was fifteen.

I admired all that pulsing gleam, the
shiny flanks, the demure headlights
fringed where it lay; I led it gently
to the road and stood with that
companion, ready and friendly. I was fifteen.

We could find the end of a road, meet
the sky on out Seventeenth. I thought about
hills, and patting the handle got back a
confident opinion. On the bridge we indulged
a forward feeling, a tremble. I was fifteen.

Thinking, back farther in the grass I found
the owner, just coming to, where he had flipped
over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale—
I helped him walk to his machine. He ran his hand
over it, called me good man, roared away.

I stood there, fifteen.

"Fifteen" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser, (books by this author) born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. Dreiser was a novelist known for writing realistic books like Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925). Dreiser got the idea for his novel An American Tragedy when he read a newspaper article about a man who had murdered his pregnant girlfriend to keep their relationship a secret. He followed the story of the trial and clipped articles from the paper when they were published. He didn't start to work on the novel until years after the real murderer had been executed in the electric chair.

An American Tragedy came out in 1925, the same year as Hemingway's In Our Time and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It was much longer than either of those books, and it was a difficult read, and yet it sold 13,000 copies in two weeks and went on to become by far the best seller that year. Though he lived another 20 years, Dreiser never published another novel in his own lifetime.

On this day in 1930, the famous American satirist and magazine editor H.L. Mencken (books by this author) married Sara Haardt, a Baltimore English professor, author, and suffragist. She was 18 years younger than he and they'd been dating for seven years, after they met in 1923 when Mencken was giving a lecture at the university in Baltimore where she taught.

On his wedding day, Mencken was one of the most famous men in America, having garnered accolades and notoriety for his coverage of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial earlier in the decade. He was a couple of weeks shy of his 50th birthday, and he'd never been married before. In fact, he once called marriage "the end of hope," and he'd often parodied romantic relationships. So many people were quite surprised that he had decided to tie the knot — and to do it in a church. He said, "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." People were also taken aback that he was marrying a woman from Alabama, despite being so critical of Southern lifestyles and perspectives. Their marriage made newspaper headlines around the nation.

Sara Haardt was from Montgomery and had attended the same high school as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She stayed in touch with Zelda, and while Zelda was being treated for schizophrenia at a clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital near Baltimore, the two women — former classmates and current writers, and the wives of more famous writers — met up. Haardt was shy, quiet, and well-behaved; in many ways she was Zelda's opposite. But Haardt also suffered from a devastating illness and had to be institutionalized. Sick with tuberculosis for many years, Haardt had to spend time recuperating in a sanitarium. She died of meningitis just five years after getting married to Mencken.

Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," was grief-stricken and never remarried. He edited a collection of his wife's short stories and published it as Southern Album.

And it's the birthday of travel writer William Least Heat-Moon, (books by this author) born William Trogdon in Kansas City, Missouri (1939). He's best known for an account of his journey across the back roads of America, Blue Highways (1982).

He was a university professor in the late 1970s when, within the course of a few months, his life seemed to have fallen apart: He lost his teaching job because of declining student enrollment at his school, and his wife of 11 years separated from him. He decided to take to the open road and "live the real jeopardy of circumstance." Over the course of several months, he traveled 13,000 miles around the United States. The book in which he chronicled his adventures, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, was published in 1982 and garnered widespread acclaim.

He said, "When you're traveling, you are what you are, right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road."

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

 









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