Aug. 14, 2011


by David Shumate

He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napolean.
Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it
right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own
choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner.
But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the
back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school
and ask for his autograph. After he eats, he leans back and
lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in
hand, I suggest that we start with the Little Big Horn and work
our way back. But I realize I have offended him. That he
would rather take it the other way around. So he rants on
about the Civil War, the way west, the loyalty of good soldiers
and now and then twists his long yellow hair with his fingers.
But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy
Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises his
finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the restroom
while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire Sioux nation,
awaiting his return.

"Custer" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist John Galsworthy (books by this author), born in Kingston upon Thames, England (1867). He was the son of a wealthy lawyer — everyone expected him to follow in his father's footsteps. He studied law at Oxford, but decided that life as a lawyer was not for him; so he took off traveling, sailing all over the world. In 1893, he was on a ship sailing from Australia to South Africa when he struck up a friendship with the first mate, who happened to be the novelist Joseph Conrad. Conrad still identified as a sailor, but he had begun working on his first novel, Almayer's Folly, which would be published two years later. The two men became close friends, and even though Galsworthy had never considered writing before, his conversations with Conrad inspired him to give up any pretense at a future in law and become a writer instead.

Galsworthy published his first short stories and novels under a pseudonym, John Sinjohn. After seven years of publishing, he finally began using his own name when he published The Island Pharisees (1904), a scathing criticism of the upper-class British society into which he had been born.

He is most famous for his series The Forsyte Saga, which includes three novels and two "interludes": The Man of Property (1906), Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918), In Chancery (1920), Awakening (1920), and To Let (1921). He followed up The Forsyte Saga with two sequels, A Modern Comedy and End of the Chapter, both of which contained numerous books themselves. The major characters recur throughout the series: greedy Soames; his unhappy and beautiful wife, Irene [pronounced "I-ree-nee"]; Soames's cousin, Young Jolyon, whom Irene marries in the third book; young Jolyon's second wife, the French governess Helene, who helps him break free from the oppressive snobbery of his family; young Jolyon's daughter from a first marriage, June, and her fiancé, an architect named Philip Bosinney, who has an affair with Irene; old Jolyon, who falls in love with Irene like just about everyone else and leaves her all of his money; and many nephews, cousins, granddaughters, etc.

Galsworthy also wrote 31 full-length plays, many of which were popular at the time, including Justice (1910), The Skin Game (1920), and Loyalties (1922). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1932, and the Nobel committee claimed that the prize was awarded to Galsworthy "for his distinguished art of narration, which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga."

In 1967, the BBC adapted The Forsyte Saga and A Modern Comedy into a 26-part series for its relatively new channel, BBC2. BBC executives hadn't really wanted to make the series — it was expensive to film, and they didn't think a costume drama would appeal to hip 1960s viewers. But they needed something to boost the BBC2's ratings and they finally decided to give The Forsyte Saga a try. It was surprisingly popular — the BBC2 channel was only available to 8 million people, and 6 million of them watched the series. So they aired it again on BBC1 in 1968, at which point it was so popular that pubs stopped serving and churches stopped holding evening services during the episodes on Sunday nights. An estimated 18 million people watched the final episode in 1968, and overall, 165 million people worldwide watched the series.

John Galsworthy wrote: "Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight — an upper middle-class family in full plumage. ... In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family — no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy — evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature."

It's the birthday of a romance novelist who has sold nearly 600 million books: Danielle Steel (books by this author), born in New York (1947). She published her first novel, Going Home, in 1972. Her next five novels were rejected, but she kept writing, and she has recently published her 97th novel.

In order to keep up her prolific rate, Steel works on three to five books at once. She writes a long outline, about 50 pages long, and goes through it several times herself and with her editor. And then she writes an entire draft in one long push, only pausing to sleep for three or four hours at night before getting up and doing it all over again. She won't stop until the book is finished.

Danielle Steel said: "Writing is a solitary endeavor, but not a lonely one. When you write, your world is populated by the characters you invent and you feel those people filling your lives."

It's the birthday of fiction writer Alice Adams (books by this author), born in Fredericksburg, Virginia (1926). She grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father was a professor and her mother struggled but failed to make it as a novelist. Adams graduated from high school when she was just 15 years old. She said, "I was bright in school and ran into trouble because of that Southern thing that women are supposed to be stupid." She went to Radcliffe, where she met a Harvard student and married him when she was just 19. They settled in San Francisco and had a son, but a few years later, they were divorced. Adams dug herself into the San Francisco literary scene, raised her son, and started writing. She wrote 11 novels, including Superior Women (1984), Caroline's Daughters (1991), and A Southern Exposure; and books of short stories, including To See You Again (1982), After You've Gone (1989) and The Last Lovely City (1999).

Her short story "Ocracoke Island" begins: "Tall and too thin, sometimes stooped but now bent bravely forward into the wind, old Duncan Elliott heads southward in Central Park, down a steep and cindery path — his scattered, shamed, and tormented mind still alert to the avoidance of dangerously large steel baby carriages, and of runners (he must not be run down by babies or by runners, he cautions himself). But most of his thoughts are concentrated on the question of comparative evils: of all that has befallen him lately, and particularly today, what is worse — or rather, which is worst of all? To have been abandoned by one's fourth and one had hoped final wife, or to have made a total fool of oneself discussing that event — even trying, as it were, to explain it away."

It's the birthday of poet Ernest Thayer (books by this author), born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1863). He went to Harvard, where he studied philosophy with William James and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, his fellow Lampoon writer William Randolph Hearst convinced Thayer to come to San Francisco, because his father, George Hearst, had bought the San Francisco Examiner and almost immediately turned it over to his son. Thayer was expected to move back to Lawrence and take over the family woolen mill business, and he was grateful to have another alternative, so he took off for California with Hearst.

Thayer wrote a recurring humor column for the Examiner, and for one of his last columns he wrote the poem "Casey at the Bat." As usual, he signed it by his nickname from his Harvard days: "Phin." When "Casey at the Bat" was reprinted in the New York Sun, it was published as "anonymous." The poem didn't get much notice, but a New York writer named Archibald Gunter clipped it out of the paper. A few weeks later, the comedian William DeWolf Hopper was putting on a huge post-game performance for the Chicago White Stockings, the New York Giants, and all their fans. He wasn't sure what to perform, and his friend Archibald Gunter remembered the baseball poem he had clipped and passed it on to Hopper. It was a huge success. The newspaper reported the next day: "The audience literally went wild with enthusiasm; men got up on their seats and cheered, while old Gen. Sherman laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. It was one of the wildest scenes ever seen in a theatre, and showed the popularity of Hopper and baseball." It also showed the popularity of "Casey at the Bat."

Hopper performed the poem over and over, never knowing who had written it. One day Ernest Thayer — now back home in Massachusetts — attended a performance by Hopper, and revealed himself as the author. Hopper admitted later that Thayer wasn't very good at reciting it, but he was delighted to meet the author, and Thayer gave him the rights to the poem.

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