Feb. 3, 2011
When I was twelve, a man was burned
not quite to death at my father's
factory. Recovered enough
to walk the town, he didn't know
what to do with himself—a ghost
whose scarred, fire bubbled face made you
look away, though not my father
who felt responsible and so wouldn't
refuse the man's eyes when they fell
upon him. The burned man held no
grudge, thought the accident his
own fault, and sought my father out
as the one whose eyes told him yes,
he was still alive.
So they held long
conversations on the post office
stoop, which I observed from the car
where I waited, where I could read
my father's stiff shoulders, the way
he clutched the mail, how he tilted
his head, even his smile that was
in truth a grimace. I knew just
what my mother knew—my father
had to let himself be tortured
once or twice a week, whenever
Bernard Sawyers saw him in town,
lifted his claw of a hand, rasped
out his greeting that sounded like
a raven that'd been taught to say
Hello, Mr. Huddle, how are you?
They'd stand there talking in the town's
blazing sunlight, the one whom fire
had taken to the edge of death
and the other invisibly
burning while they passed the time of day.
It's the birthday of the novelist who said: "I have only one bit of advice to beginning writers: be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein." That's James Michener, (books by this author) born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907).
He never knew who his parents were — he was taken to an orphanage as an infant, and adopted by a Quaker woman in Pennsylvania. He grew up in poverty, moving from house to house — they would always leave in the middle of the night. He never had any toys or possessions for himself, didn't get Christmas presents. He beat up younger kids and got beaten up by older ones. When he was 14, he took off and hitchhiked all over the country. He said: "I think the bottom line is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it's not at all bad. Obviously, you come out a pretty tough turkey, and you have had all the inoculations you need to keep you on a level keel for the rest of your life. The sad part is, most of us don't come out."
He said: "I would suppose I learned how to write when I was very young indeed. When I read a child's book about the Trojan War and decided that the Greeks were really a bunch of frauds with their tricky horses and the terrible things they did, stealing one another's wives, and so on, so at that very early age, I re-wrote the ending of the Iliad so that the Trojans won. And boy, Achilles and Ajax got what they wanted, believe me. And thereafter, at frequent intervals, I would write something. It was really quite extraordinary. Never of very high merit, but the daringness of it was."
His mother read aloud all of Dickens' novels, and after a salesman convinced his aunt to buy the complete works of Balzac, she passed them on to her nephew. By the time he got to high school, he had decided he wanted to go to college, and he did — he was a good student and a good athlete, and he got a full scholarship to Swarthmore.
He was drafted into the military during World War II, and he joined the Navy even though he was a Quaker and 36 years old, so he could have gotten out of it. He was stationed in the Solomon Islands, where he kept records of aircraft maintenance. While he was there, he wrote some stories and sketches based on life in the Navy, and he sent his manuscript anonymously to Macmillan. They accepted it, and Tales of the South Pacific was published in 1947. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it into the hit musical South Pacific (1949).
After that, Michener never had to worry about finances. But he was uncomfortable being wealthy. Instead, he said, "The decent thing to do is to get rid of some of this money." And he did — at least $100 million. He donated the royalties from many of his books, which was no small gesture — he wrote nearly 40 books and they sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. Since he himself got to go to prestigious schools for free, through scholarship money, he decided that he would donate to universities so that other people could have the same opportunity. He died of kidney failure in 1997, and left his $10 million estate to Swarthmore, his alma mater. The year before, he had given away $24 million.
His books include Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Poland (1983), Alaska (1988), and Texas (1985).
He said, "As a writer I have persisted in my uncertainty, alternating between novels which could charitably be considered literature and world reporting which by another stretch of objective standards might be called history."
And, "I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains."
It's the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She spent part of her childhood in Vienna and Paris, but grew up in Oakland, California. Years later, after a visit to California, she wrote: "What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there." While she was referencing the fact that her family home and the childhood she remembered had disappeared, people in Oakland have not taken kindly to Stein's opinion that "there is no there, there." In 2005, a sculpture was installed on the Berkeley-Oakland border that says "Here" on the Berkeley side and "There" on the Oakland side, intended to be a playful reference to Stein's quote. But plenty of Oaklanders just ended up even more offended, assuming that it was yet another dig as Oakland.
Stein left Oakland for Radcliffe College, where she took classes from the philosopher William James. Then she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with Alice B. Toklas. Alice moved in with Gertrude, and she typed up Gertrude's manuscripts, got up early to clean and arrange the dishes, cooked and shopped, and ran the household. Together they presided over a salon in their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus — Gertrude had first lived there with her brother, Leo, but he did not share her passion for cubism and avant-garde writing, and moved to Florence. Young writers and artists flocked to 27 Rue de Fleurus — Picasso, Matisse, Ezra Pound, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire; and in later years, Hemingway, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was not by Toklas at all, and to everyone's surprise it became a best-seller. Stein went on a highly publicized and popular American speaking tour, where she met with celebrities and politicians (including having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt). She asked to limit the audience to 500 people, because, she said, she "didn't wish to be stared at as a marvel," so policemen had to stand at the doors and turn people away. After her first lecture in New York, The New York Times ran a headline: "Miss Stein Speaks to Bewildered 500"; the sub-headline was: "Speaker's Dress, Almost Like a Nun's, Forms Contrast with Brilliance of Audience." Stein made no effort to make her future talks any less bewildering — for her next lecture, in Princeton, she began: "I am going to read what I have written to read, because in a general way it is easier even if it is not better and in a general way it is better even if it is not easier to read what has been written than to say what has not been written." In The Alice B. Toklas Cook book, Toklas described their travels, and meals, on that lecture tour. She wrote: "Gertrude Stein said she was not going to lunch or dine with anyone before lecturing, we would eat simply and alone. Before her first lecture she ordered for dinner oysters and honey-dew melon. She said it would suit her. In traveling to a dozen states she deviated as little as possible from that menu. Occasionally the oysters had to be replaced by fish or chicken."
Gertrude Stein said, "I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it."
She said: "Take any piece of land. Let alone the farmer and the real estate agent or the picnicker, one painter will see it flat, another painter will see it in depth, another as structure, another as fluffy, another as dark and light, another as spots and lines, another as still, another as changeable, another as full of its detail, another as a general expression or mood, and so on. But it is all the time the same commonplace piece of land. Likewise people and ideas are normally just as commonplace, but they are irregular since they do contain what is from the practical point of view an excess of aspects and qualities. If it were not for this excess nobody probably would go on living, because in it is all possibility and all novelty and all freedom."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of the novelist Paul Auster, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). He wanted to be a baseball player. But he had an uncle, a translator, who left some of his books at Auster's house while he was on a European vacation. Auster started reading those books, and he was so entranced that he decided to become a writer instead.
He worked for a while on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, and he made enough money to move to Paris. He wrote poetry that didn't sell, wrote a detective novel that he thought was bad, and even invented a card game called "Action Baseball" and tried to pitch it. And then one night he saw a dance rehearsal and was so inspired that he went home and started writing, but this time he tried writing fiction.
A few months later, he got a phone call from someone who asked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Auster said, I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number. But later he thought about what might have happened if he'd decided to impersonate a detective. He wrote a novel, City of Glass (1985), about a mystery writer who pretends to be a detective so he can see what it's like to solve a real mystery.
After that, Paul Auster went on to write many more novels, including The Book of Illusions (2002) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005). His most recent novel is Sunset Park, which came out last November.
It's the birthday of the journalist Horace Greeley, (books by this author) born in Amherst, New Hampshire (1811). He started the penny daily The New York Tribune when he was 30 years old. He wrote editorials during the Civil War, championing his radical politics, and he ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant. But just before the election, his wife died, and Greeley went crazy and died a few weeks later — after the popular vote, which he had lost, but before the electoral votes had officially been cast. More people attended his funeral than attended Abraham Lincoln's, and they filled the streets of New York for days in his honor.
He said, "Common sense is very uncommon."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®