May 8, 2011
In my fifty-fifth year,
kneeling in my garden
to pull a weed,
I discover my father,
whom I hardly knew,
lying down in his garden.
His heart so damaged now
no doctor would remove
the cataracts that spoil his sight,
he has no other way to see
what he is doing. With him again
in his sad dimness,
I don't want to lecture him
about the smell of booze
or talk about the seed
he left long ago untended.
Aging father with my own
flaws of the heart,
I am content to see him
resting among the carrots
and peas. It is enough
to listen to him sip
the air in the innocence
of his concentration,
doing his best with the weeds.
Today is the birthday of literary and social critic and all-around “man of letters” Edmund Wilson (books by this author), born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1895. He didn’t like to be called a critic; he thought of himself as a journalist. He had a decent, if brief, editorial career in the 1920s, at Vanity Fair and The New Republic, and later was a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Wilson could be very opinionated; he liked what he liked, and he didn’t pretend to be interested in things that bored him. “I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through Don Quixote.” He wasn’t interested in literary criticism for its own sake — he especially hated academics and their obsessive “close readings” — but he was an influential literary critic all the same. He wrote criticism from the point of view of a writer, and some of his essays on writers like Dickens, Kipling, Pushkin, and Flaubert changed public perception of their work.
His dream for many years was to do away with American literary provincialism, and he had hoped to see American writers reach the level of respect their European counterparts received. By the mid-1940s, he had stopped believing in his country’s bright literary future, especially after the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. He blamed the corrupting influence of Hollywood and publisher Henry Luce. Wilson gave up on literature and turned back to journalism, usually choosing to write about obscure or forgotten subjects.
He didn’t file his income tax returns for nine years, from 1946 to 1955. In his book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963), he admits that it was mostly a careless oversight on his part: “I thought that this obligation could always be attended to later. I had no idea at that time of how heavy our taxation had become or of the severity of the penalties exacted for not filing tax returns.” He makes his battle with the Internal Revenue Service into the occasion for a closer examination into the federal budget, and ends in an attempt to spin it as a conscious protest against the Cold War. The IRS wanted $69,000, but they settled for $25,000 and no jail time.
Later in life, he began work on what would become his seven-volume autobiography. He modeled it after Casanova’s extensive Story of My Life, and while Casanova’s memoirs read as literature, Wilson’s read like the disorganized notebook entries that served as his chief source.
It’s the birthday of children’s author Andrew Svenson, born in Belleville, New Jersey, in 1910. In 1948, he joined the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced several popular book series for kids, most notably Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. He and syndicate founder Harriet Adams shared most of the writing and editorial duties; under a variety of pen names, Svenson wrote several books for the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Honey Bunch series. He also created three original series of his own: The Happy Hollisters, The Tolliver Family, and Bret King. In all, he authored or co-authored more than 70 children’s adventure stories.
“The trick in writing children’s books,” Svenson once said, “is to set up danger, mystery, and excitement on page one. Force the kid to turn the page. I’ve written page one as many as twenty times. Then in the middle of each chapter there’s a dramatic point of excitement, and at the chapter’s end, a cliff-hanger.”
In 1973, he hired his eight-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer, to be his editorial assistant, paying her five cents a page to “edit” galley proofs of Bobbsey Twins books. “I remember struggling to try to find something to change, feeling obligated since I was being paid. These proofs were already marked up pretty well by the time I received them; I remember asking him to take out the word hasten a couple of times (a favorite word of his, I never liked the way it sounded). He always made me feel that my opinion mattered.” Swenson changed the standard Hardy Boys back cover copy from “All boys ages 10 to 14 ...” to “Anyone age 10 to 14 ...” when Jennifer remarked that girls liked the series too. Jennifer was devastated when Svenson died of prostate cancer in 1975; it was one reason, she says, that she eventually became a doctor, rather than a writer.
It’s also the birthday of poet Gary Snyder (books by this author), born in San Francisco in 1930. He’s associated with the Beat Generation; he certainly knew them, and liked them well enough, especially Jack Kerouac, who modeled Dharma Bums’ Japhy Ryder on Snyder. Most of the Beats were city kids, and they found Snyder fascinating because he grew up in the woods of Washington and Oregon, was interested in nature, and had worked as a logger, a seaman, and a fire lookout. He earned his Beat label based on geography and timing, mostly, and not on common purpose or underground lifestyle. He was a student of anthropology and Asian culture, a dedicated Zen Buddhist, and an ecological poet. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called him “The Thoreau of the Beat Generation.”
When an instructor at the American Academy of Asian studies taught him about landscape painting as a meditative practice, Snyder thought he might try to translate the concept to poetry. He began his epic myth-poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, in 1956, attempting the literary equivalent of a Chinese or Japanese scroll painting. He expected it to take a couple of years to complete. It took 40. He told the Paris Review: “It all got more complicated than I had predicted, and the poems were evasive. So I relaxed, and thought, However long it takes. I kept my eye on it, walking, reflecting, and researching, but didn’t make any big demands on the mountain-goddess muse. So it worked out to about one section a year for forty years.” It spans Buddhism, geology, and pre-history, and it also traces the poet’s evolving views on environmentalism.
And it’s the birthday of novelist Thomas Pynchon (books by this author), born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. in Glen Cove, New York, in 1937. He’s considered one of the 20th century’s most gifted writers, and certainly one of its most elusive. There are only a few photos of him in circulation, and most of those are from his high school days, and much of what we know — or think we know — about him comes to us by way of rumor or anecdote. In 1977, Playboy published a fairly revealing article about his personal history, written by his college friend Jules Siegel. According to Siegel, Pynchon was obsessive about his teeth, studied with Nabokov at Cornell but couldn’t understand what he was saying, and had an affair with Siegel’s wife. It’s been rumored at various times that Pynchon is living in Mexico, or has died, or is really J.D. Salinger, or the Unabomber. He has made a couple of appearances on The Simpsons, but his cartoon image is always portrayed with a paper bag over his head.
He graduated from Oyster Bay High School on Long Island at the age of 16, and studied engineering physics at Cornell for two years. He left to join the Navy for two years, and returned to Cornell in 1957 to study English. In 1959, he applied for a Ford Foundation grant, and in his brief autobiographical section, he divided his work into five phases: romanticized war stories; science fictions; imitations of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Byron; imitations of Henry James, Nelson Algren, and William Faulkner; and Voltairean satires. He began his first novel, V., while working as a technical writer for Boeing in Seattle.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the William Dean Howells Medal for Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), his most celebrated work, but he declined the award, writing to the Academy: “The Howells Medal is a great honor, and, being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don’t want it. Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want. It makes the Academy look arbitrary and me look rude. ... I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that’s no.”
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®