Oct. 15, 2013

The Garden of Love

by William Blake

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

"The Garden of Love" by William Blake, from The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. © Doubleday, 1988. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881). His father was a magistrate in Hong Kong. His mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, so Wodehouse was raised by a series of aunts. He wanted desperately to go to college, but his father went bankrupt and couldn't pay for his education. Wodehouse got a job as a bank clerk instead and started writing humorous stories and poems on the side. It was as a journalist that Wodehouse first came to the United States — to cover a boxing match — and he fell in love with America right away. He said, "Being [in America] was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying."

He moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and started to write stories for the Saturday Evening Post about an imaginary cartoonish England, full of very polite but brain-dead aristocrats such as Bertie Wooster, who was looked after by his butler Jeeves. He said: "I was writing a story, 'The Artistic Career of Corky,' about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That's how a character grows."

He wrote more than 100 books, including My Man Jeeves (1919), Summer Lightning (1929), Thank You Jeeves (1934), Young Men in Spats (1936), The Code of the Woosters (1938), and Joy in the Morning (1946).

It's the birthday of "the Iron Man of radio," reporter Bob Trout, born Robert Blondheim in Wake County, North Carolina (1909). He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father owned a shoe store. But the boy didn't want to stay in the family business; he hoped to be a great writer some day, traveling the world and having adventures like his hero, Jack London. He graduated from high school and worked odd jobs — a soda jerk, a cab driver, and a janitor at a local radio station, WJSV. One day, the station's regular announcer didn't show up for work, so the managers asked their janitor to fill in. He did so well that he was offered a regular position as a broadcaster. He delivered the news and shared practical advice for housewives and fishermen.

In 1932, he changed his last name from Blondheim to Trout, which was the last name of a family friend. That same year, WJSV was purchased by CBS, and soon Trout joined Edward Murrow in the CBS newsroom in New York City. Trout was still in his early 20s, so he grew a thin mustache in the hopes of making himself look older, and he kept it for the rest of his life.

Trout became known in the newsroom for his ability to improvise, seemingly endlessly, during major news events, which earned him the nickname "the Iron Man." During the Allied invasion of Normandy, Trout began broadcasting at 3 a.m. and didn't stop for more than seven hours. His reporting during the war made him famous, and it was Trout who announced to America the official end of World War II.

Trout's ability to ad lib particularly impressed President Roosevelt, who had put it to the test in 1936 on the way to accept his second-term nomination in Philadelphia. Roosevelt was listening to the radio en route, and Trout was filling airtime while he waited for the president's train. When the train stopped, Roosevelt heard Trout announce that the train had finally arrived and the president would be emerging any moment. But Roosevelt didn't come out, and the minutes went by; Trout ran out of anything new to say, but he just kept ad libbing. Finally the president emerged, and he admitted to Trout years later that he had been sitting there waiting just for fun, to see how the reporter would handle it. Trout became the president's favorite broadcaster, and he introduced Roosevelt's "fireside chats." When Trout got the news of Roosevelt's death in April of 1945, he interrupted his own broadcast and delivered an impromptu 25-minute tribute to the president without any planning or notes.

Trout dressed well, in dark, tailored, three-piece suits. He wore a hat out of doors, and he tipped it whenever he passed a woman. He refused to fly unless absolutely necessary, and his preference was walking — at least 100 blocks a day in Manhattan, with a walking cane. Trout was a shy man, not a natural speaker, but he overcame his shyness by always thinking of the microphone as if it were a telephone and he were delivering the news to someone personally.

It's the birthday of Italian writer Italo Calvino (books by this author), born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923). His parents were scientists — his father an agronomist, his mother a botanist — and they were working in Cuba at the time of their son's birth, but moved back to Italy not long afterward. As a boy, he listened to the radio constantly, dreaming about the outside world. When he discovered his talent for writing, he began writing radio plays.

When Calvino was 21, at the height of World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance and spent a violent 20 months fighting in the Maritime Alps. Afterward, he dropped out of college, abandoning any pretense of studying agronomy, which he had never liked anyway. He moved to Turin, and he said that his life really began there, after the war. He found a community of novelists, so he decided to write novels instead of plays. He said, "If one gets used to translating into a novel one's experiences, one's ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression." At first, he wrote realism, like his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), set during the war. He labored over three more novels, but he didn't like any of them. Finally, he made a decision. He said: "I had made efforts to write the realistic-novel-reflecting-the-problems-of-Italian-society and had not managed to do so. (At the same time I was what was called a 'politically committed writer.') And then, in 1951, when I was 28 and not at all sure that I was going to carry on writing, I began doing what came most naturally to me. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic." So he wrote The Cloven Viscount (1952), the story of Medardo, a 17th-century nobleman who is hit by a cannonball and cloven into two people, one good and one evil, but both only half a person. The bad Medardo wants to make everyone else miserable, and is constantly destructive; the good Medardo wants to heal everyone and everything, and spends a lot of time fixing the bad deeds of his counterpart. No one really likes either Medardo — one is too cruel, the other is so nice he makes people uncomfortable. Then the two Medardos fall in love with the same girl and end up fighting each other, and, finally, getting stitched back together.

Calvino went on to write many novels that blended fantasy and reality, including The Baron in the Trees (1957), Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter's night a traveler (1979).

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