Oct. 13, 2011
I spend part of my childhood waiting
for the Sterns County Bookmobile.
When it comes to town, it makes a
U-turn in front of the grade school and
glides into its place under the elms.
It is a natural wonder of late
afternoon. I try to imagine Dante,
William Faulkner, and Emily Dickinson
traveling down a double lane highway
together, country-western on the radio.
Even when it arrives, I have to wait.
The librarian is busy, getting out
the inky pad and the lined cards.
I pace back and forth in the line,
hungry for the fresh bread of the page,
because I need something that will tell me
what I am; I want to catch a book,
clear as a one-way ticket, to Paris,
to London, to anywhere.
It's the birthday of novelist Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father was a Lutheran preacher, and the family moved from one coal-mining town to another. Richter said: "My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these."
He went to school until he was 15, then dropped out to earn some money. He worked as a farmhand, salesman, bank teller, and plenty of other things, but he liked writing best of all, and focused on a career as a journalist. He worked his way up to editor of a local paper by the age of 19, but a couple of years later moved to Cleveland for a job as a private secretary, because it paid better. He published a couple of short stories — one of these, "Brothers of No Kin," was hailed as the best short story of the year 1914 and published in the Best American Short Stories Forum. For that honor, he was paid $25. Richter said, "I had just been married, had sober obligations, and told myself stubbornly that if this was what one got for the 'best' story of the year, I had better stick to business and write in my spare time only the type of story that would fetch a fair price, which I did." He was not shy about asking for employment — he sent letters to everyone he could think of, including President Woodrow Wilson. In December of 1914, the same year he had published "Brothers of No Kin," he wrote a letter to Wilson that began: "I admit freely that I have no legitimate license to address you except the right of one sincere man to another. But I want a job. I am 29 years old and of good education. I have been secretary, banker, newspaper editor, salesman, business manager, advertising manager, correspondent and missioner. I can furnish A-1 credentials and handle most anything from typewriter to automobile and gun. For the past year I have been making enough for current expenses, contributing to magazines and moving picture producers and giving criticism to young writers through The Literary Bureau. But now I am soon to be married. And I want to get into something where ability and work will be recognized. In Cleveland a number of years ago I tutored sons of the most prominent families there. And now, since my success in magazine work, I feel honestly capable of teaching English, Rhetoric, Literature, Short Story Writing, Newspaper Reporting and any allied branches. In fact I am eager, confident for the work, urged by a natural love for teaching and adaptiveness to young people of any age. If you cannot place me yourself, may I earnestly ask you to suggest me somewhere or to mention a name to me?"
Richter's wife, Harvena, was not in the best of health, and in 1928 the Richters uprooted and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the drier air would help her. There, Richter was charmed by stories of pioneer life in the Southwest and its land and folklore. He started writing longer fiction, and published his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), a story of cowboys and farmers in New Mexico at the turn of the century.
A neighbor in New Mexico, a longtime resident of Ohio, was fascinated by history, and the two men spent a lot of time talking about Ohio's pioneer days. One day, his neighbor brought Richter a couple of books. Richter said later: "They were heavy, well used, more than 1900 pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me so I asked him if he would trade these two volumes for two of my own." These stories inspired him to write a trilogy of novels set in Ohio, The Awakening Land trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The books tell the story of Sayward Luckett, a young woman whose family strikes out for the wilderness of Ohio from Pennsylvania. When The Trees begins, Sayward is a 15-year-old girl who takes on the responsibility of her younger siblings after her mother dies; by the end of The Town, she is a wife and mother of seven children.
Richter never achieved the level of popular success he desired. After the disappointing sales figures of The Trees, his friend and editor Alfred A. Knopf offered an explanation: "I think you must reckon the archaic language which you deliberately adopted a commercial handicap. I don't question its artistic advisability mind you, but I think you must reckon on the sacrifice involved. I think also that The Trees suffered rather from lack of action and story, and gave the reader not enough narrative to bite into and something of the impression of being an overture rather than the main show." Also, Richter's brand of slow-moving historical fiction had some tough competition from more relevant contemporary novels — the best-sellers of the year 1940 included For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Richter, always anxious about money, was disappointed over and over again by the sales of his novels. These days, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) is probably his most read book, because it is required reading in many middle or high schools.
In The Trees, Richter wrote: "Everywhere she went the trees stood around her like a great herd of dark beasts. Up and up shot the heavy butts of the live ones. Down and down every which way on the forest floor lay the thick rotting butts of the dead ones. Alive or dead, they were mostly grown over with moss. The light that came down here was dim and green. All day even in the cabin you lived in a green light."
It's the birthday of cookbook author Mollie Katzen (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1950). She grew up in a Jewish home, where she learned to love food. "Being grateful for food, slowing down around food — that's what was sacred for me, and this was all in kashrut. [...] Even a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, I love to 'behold' the popcorn, and not just mindlessly reach in and eat it."
She went to college at Cornell University, although she dropped out partway through, frustrated that all the student activism made it impossible to actually attend classes. She said: "I just kind of wanted to go to school. Everyone was like, 'Nixon invaded Cambodia, so we shouldn't go to school!' I was thinking, 'I don't completely see the connection.'" She moved to California, to the Bay Area, where she was inspired by the healthful-but-still-tasty food there. She returned to Ithaca to visit her brother, and he was on the verge of helping to launch a collectively owned restaurant called the Moosewood. Katzen decided to stay and help for a while, and ended up working at the Moosewood for five years. She collected recipes from the restaurant and published The Moosewood Cookbook (1977), with illustrations and hand-lettered recipes for dishes like Gypsy Soup, Tabouli, Vegetable-Almond Medley, and Zucchini-Feta Pancakes. She got a loan from a local bookstore and printed 800 copies, and they sold out within two weeks. So she printed 2,000 more, and they also sold out. The Moosewood Cookbook became a sensation. Recently, it was listed by The New York Times as one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. Since then, Katzen has published many more cookbooks, including The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1982), Sunlight Cafe (2002), and most recently, Get Cooking (2009).
She said: "I love working at home. I rarely dress in anything fancier than a T-shirt and sweats. My kids often have dance and gymnastics classes in the evening (they are both serious dancers), so they often eat dinner on the run (frequently some variation of homemade pizza that I whip up for them. There is always pizza dough in my refrigerator!) and my husband and I eat late, usually a simple vegetable stir-fry. We love to go for evening walks in the park down the road. The most important leisure activity for me is just plain being outside in beautiful Northern California, where I am lucky enough to live. I even love it in the rain. And I adore my work."
It's the birthday of playwright Frank D. Gilroy (books by this author), born in New York City (1925). He started writing plays in college. He said: "I was going into my junior year at Dartmouth. During the summer I'd seen a movie called The Time of Your Life based on the Saroyan play. I thought, 'That's from a play. I think I can do that.' So I took a playwriting course. The teacher was a lovely gentleman named Bradley Watson who did an interesting thing that I would recommend to people teaching playwriting. Instead of saying, 'go write a play' which can leave everybody floundering, he said pick a short story and adapt it into a one-act play. I chose Ring Lardner's The Love Nest. I was writing on my 1945 Royal portable and the first time I typed 'Time; Place; At Rise' I knew, bordering on mystical, that if there was anything I could do in a superior way, I had just found it."
Gilroy's plays include Who'll Save the Plowboy? (1962), The Subject Was Roses (1965), The Only Game in Town (1968), and Any Given Day (1993).
He said: "All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover."
And, "I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: 'What I'm Going to Be if I Grow Up.'"
And, "A comedian is one who performs words or actions of his own original creation, usually before a group of people in a place of assembly, and these words or actions should cause the people assembled to laugh at a minimum of, on the average, one laugh every 15 seconds — or let's be liberal to escape the hue and cry of the injured and say one laugh every 25 seconds — he should get a laugh every 25 seconds for a period of not less than 25 minutes, and accomplish this feat with consistency 18 out of 20 shows. Now understand, I'm discussing comedy here as a craft — not as an aesthetic, altruistic art form. The comedian I'm discussing now is not Christ's jester, Timothy; this comedian gets paid, so his first loyalty is to the club-owner, and he must make money for the owner. If he can upgrade the moral standards of his community and still get laughs, he is a fine craftsman."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®