Mar. 24, 2013

Demand It Courageously

by Julia Hartwig

      Make some room for yourself, human animal.
      Even a dog jostles about on his master's lap to
improve his position. And when he needs space he
runs forward, without paying attention to commands
or calls.
      If you didn't manage to receive freedom as a gift,
demand it as courageously as bread and meat.
      Make some room for yourself, human pride and
      The Czech writer Hrabal said:
      I have as much freedom as I take.

"Demand It Courageously" by Julia Hartwig, from In Praise of the Unfinished. © Knopf, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1955 that Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (books by this author) premiered in New York City at the Morosco Theatre. It was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, and Burl Ives. Tennessee Williams won a second Pulitzer Prize for the play, and a Tony Award, and the show ran for 694 performances. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Williams' favorite play, but he despised the film version of it, with Elizabeth Taylor.

Directors hated it when Williams came to opening night performances; he had a funny, high-pitched laugh, he laughed at lines nobody else found funny, and people in the audience were always turning around trying to see where the noise was coming from, which bothered the actors.

It's the birthday of the geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell, born in Mount Morris, New York (1834). His father was an itinerant preacher, and the family moved around constantly, a habit that Powell kept. As a young man, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin, and he traveled by boat down much of the Mississippi River. He fought in the Civil War, and he lost an arm in combat, but it didn't stop his adventures. He is most famous for exploring the desert Southwest: He traveled down the Colorado River, navigated the Grand Canyon Gorge, and explored what are now Zion, Canyonlands, and Bryce National Park, Lake Powell, and Lake Mead.

It's the birthday of a great writer of hymns, Fanny Crosby (books by this author), born in Southeast, New York (1820). When she was an infant, she got sick and the family accidentally hired a quack doctor who prescribed mustard plasters on her eyes, and she went blind. Throughout her career, she wrote thousands of hymns. No one knows exactly how many she wrote — the hymnals were hesitant to print too many hymns by one person, so Crosby used about 100 different pseudonyms — but probably between 3,000 and 8,000. Her best-known hymn is "Blessed Assurance," which begins:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

It's the birthday of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (books by this author), born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father, an Italian immigrant, died before the boy was born and his mother was committed to an asylum while he was still an infant. A French aunt took over custody of young Lawrence and moved him to France. After a few years, they returned to New York, where his aunt got a job as a governess with a wealthy family. Then his aunt took off, abandoning her nephew, but the family liked the boy so much that they took him in.

Ferlinghetti had access to good schools, went to college at the University of North Carolina, and then joined the Navy during World War II, where he was the commander of 110-foot ship. He said: "Any smaller than us you weren't a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way."

After the war, he went to the Sorbonne, and then settled in San Francisco. He loved the North Beach neighborhood, full of Italian immigrants, and he decided to open a bookstore there. In 1953, he opened City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house, which made its name printing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Ferlinghetti did not publish his own book, A Coney Island of the Mind, but New Directions did in 1958, and it sold over a million copies.

Ferlinghetti wrote: "I have a feeling I'm falling /on rare occasions / but most of the time I have my feet on the ground / I can't help it if the ground itself is falling."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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