Nov. 17, 2009

Alexandria, 1953

by Gregory Djanikian

You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.

Even on the back streets
You could feel it on your skin,
You could smell it in the aroma
Of dark coffee, spiced meat.

You looked at the sea and you heard
The wail of an Arab woman singing or praying.

If, as I can now, you could point
To the North Atlantic, swollen
And dark as it often is, you might say,
"Here lies Wrath," or "Truly God is great."
You could season a Puritan soul by it.

But you could fall into the Mediterranean
As though you were falling into a blue dream,
Gauzy, half unreal for its loveliness.
It was deceptively calm and luxurious.
At Stanley Bay, you could float
On your back and watch the evening sun
Color the city a faint rose.
You could drown, it was said,
Almost without knowing it.

"Alexandria, 1953" by Gregory Djanikian, from Falling Deeply into America. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who created Saturday Night LiveLorne Michaels, born in Toronto, Canada (1944). He majored in English at the University of Toronto, and then moved to Britain in the 1960s to pursue a career selling cars. His friends and acquaintances in England, who loved his sense of humor and recognized his leadership potential, quickly realized it'd be a huge waste of talent for him to sell cars all of his life.

He moved back to Canada, where he formed a comedy duo with Hart Pomerantz. In the early '70s, they had their own television variety show, "The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour," on Canadian television. They also contracted their talents to comedic acts in the United States, writing for Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Woody Allen. They wrote for the NBC show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then NBC asked Michaels to come up with a comedy show to replace the Johnny Carson reruns that aired Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.

Michaels recruited talent from all sorts of places. Dan Aykroyd was a fellow Canadian, and Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner had worked on the National Lampoon show. Muppet creator Jim Henson created sketches for the show, and recent Harvard grad Al Franken was signed on as a writer. Michaels put together the first season, 1975–1976, and won an Emmy for it.

It's the birthday of a young man who became a best-selling author as a teenager, Christopher Paolini, (books by this author) born in Southern California (1983) and raised near Paradise Valley, Montana. He was homeschooled, and when he finished high school at age 15, he had a lot of time on his hands, so he decided to write a fantasy novel. He began Eragon and finished it a year later. He spent a second year revising that draft, and then gave it to his parents. They loved it, and in 2001, Eragon was self-published through the family company. The Paolini family embarked on an exhausting tour to promote Christopher's book. They went to 135 promotional events that first year, dressed in red and black medieval costumes. Paolini got offers from both Random House and Scholastic, and in August of 2003 — when Paolini was still 19 — the book was published by a division of Random House/Knopf. The book went straight to the number three spot of the New York Times Best-seller List.

On this day in 1936, Scribner's Maxwell Perkins wrote a letter to Thomas Wolfe that chronicled one of the most famous conflicts between editor and novelist in the history of American publishing. Perkins had helped to discover the young and unknown Thomas Wolfe (books by this author) (along with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and helped shape Wolfe's manuscripts into book form. He sat down with Wolfe — and his first manuscript, O, Lost, written in just 20 months — and helped him cut more than 60,000 words; the finished product, published while Wolfe was in his 20s, was still 544 pages long and now entitled Look Homeward, Angel (1929), from a poem by John Milton.

The manuscript for Thomas Wolfe's second work was as lengthy as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Wolfe had written an epic composed of multiple volumes. Perkins insisted it would sell better if it were a manageably sized single-volume book, and he went to work with Wolfe trimming down the tome. Wolfe dedicated that completed novel, Of Time and the River (1935), to Perkins. He wrote in his diary the start of unsent letter to Maxwell Perkins that said, "In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend." But soon after the publication of Of Time and the River, rumors began to circulate in the literary world that Wolfe's ability to shape his books into something publishable, and his success and his literary genius even, were overly dependent on Maxwell Perkins's editing. Wolfe grew resentful at Perkins for his editing and for the cuts to his manuscripts. Wolfe hinted that he was going to break ties with Scribner's.

Perkins tried to instill confidence into the self-doubting Wolfe, and to preserve their personal and business relationships. He hand-wrote a letter to Thomas Wolfe on this day in 1936 that said, "I never knew a soul with whom I felt I was in such fundamentally complete agreement as you. […] You must surely know, though, that any publisher would leap at the chance to publish you."

Despite Perkins's efforts, Wolfe broke ties with Scribner's and signed with Harper and Brothers, and he and Perkins became estranged. Wolfe died at the age of 37 from tuberculosis. On his deathbed he wrote a conciliatory letter to Perkins that concluded: "I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below."

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




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