Oct. 17, 2012
Two limericks excerpted from "The Rubaiyat of Carl Burell"
There was a young poet who tried
Making boxes when preoccupied;
One day he made one
And when he got done,
He had nailed himself on the inside.
There was a man went for to harma
Quiet but human old farmer:
Now he wishes he'd known
To let folks alone,
For this is the doctrine of Karma.
It's the birthday of Shinichi Suzuki, born in Nagoya, Japan (1898). He's the man who developed the Suzuki Violin Method, a way of teaching very young children to play classical music by listening and imitating, the way they learn to speak. His father had a violin factory, and he and his brothers and sisters thought that violins were like boxes, that they were just toys; they never heard anybody play them. When Suzuki was 17, he heard a recording of Mischa Elman and was flabbergasted. He took a violin home and started to teach himself to play it by listening to other recordings and trying to imitate them. He began to feel that it ought to be possible to teach anyone to play that way, and the little children he taught became proficient enough to make some listeners suspect he had gathered a bunch of prodigies together like a circus act. He felt strongly that he was not just tutoring musicians, but nurturing souls, and he encouraged his students to listen to other people as carefully as they listened to the notes on their violins.
It's the birthday of Arthur Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family had a large Manhattan apartment, a chauffeur, and a summer home at the beach. But the family lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929.
The family had to move to a poor section of Brooklyn called Gravesend, where few of the streets had been paved, and much of the neighborhood was full of vacant lots. They had been living on the sixth floor of a building on Central Park North, but they now moved into a six-room clapboard house, where Miller had to share a bedroom with his grandfather.
The neighborhood was also home to Arthur Miller's uncle on his mother's side, Manny Newman, who would captivate Miller's imagination for years. Uncle Manny was a salesman, and he was a big talker, full of schemes and hope for the future, even though he struggled to make ends meet.
Miller got involved in drama as a college student when he decided to enter a playwriting contest and managed to win the first prize with the first play he'd ever written. His first big success was his play All My Sons (1947), and just before the Broadway premiere, Miller went to an advance performance of the play in Boston. He was standing outside the theater when he looked up and saw that one of the people leaving the auditorium was his uncle Manny, whom he hadn't seen in years. He realized right away that Manny must have been on a business trip to Boston and had come to the play on a whim. Miller said, "I could see his grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day's business." They only spoke briefly, and all Manny had to say was that his son Buddy was doing well. A year later, Miller learned that his uncle Manny had committed suicide.
He decided that he had to write a play, based loosely on his uncle's life. He tracked down Manny's two sons, Buddy and Abby, and interviewed them about their father. Soon after those interviews, Miller set out to write his play in a tiny cabin in Connecticut.
The result was Death of a Salesman (1949). It's the story of a salesman named Willy Loman and the last 24 hours of his life with his wife, Linda, and his sons, Biff and Happy. He comes home from a business trip, carrying a case of samples, and tells his wife that he decided to cut the trip short because he's not feeling well. He spends the next day trying to figure out how to pay off his debts. In the end, he decides to kill himself in a car accident, in the hopes getting his family the insurance money.
The final scene of the play takes place at Willy Loman's funeral, and one of the characters says, "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that's an earthquake. ... A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
It's the birthday of Nathanael West (books by this author), born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1903). He was managing a hotel in New York City when he met a woman who wrote an advice column for the paper. She showed him a few of the letters she had gotten from readers. She thought he'd find them funny; instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were. He wrote his first novel Miss Loneyhearts, which came out in 1933, about an advice columnist overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. The book got great reviews, but within weeks, the publishing house went bankrupt.
West next wrote a parody of Horatio Alger novels called A Cool Million. It didn't sell. He decided to move to Hollywood. He stayed there for a few years, couldn't find a job, but he got to know people who lived on the margin of Hollywood, people who'd hoped they'd make it as movie stars and failed. He wrote a novel about them called The Day of the Locust, now considered one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood.
He said: "Feeling is of the heart and nerves and the crudeness of its expression has nothing to do with its intensity."
It's the birthday of Jimmy Breslin (books by this author), born in Jamaica, New York (1930). He wrote The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1969) and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez (2002). His latest book is Branch Rickey (2011), about Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey and his efforts to integrate baseball in the '40s by introducing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist says working in newsrooms is quiet nowadays — no one smokes or drinks. He says that writers used to go to the bar and listen to the old-timers tell stories, but now "they all go to health clubs and then go home. They're in fantastic health, but they wish they were in the bar, and their wives wish they were in the bar, too."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®