Sunday

Dec. 8, 2013

Takeoff

by Timothy Steele

Our jet storms down the runway, tilts up, lifts:
We're airborne, and each second we see more—
Outlying hangars, wetlands with a pond
That flashes like sheened silver and, beyond,
An estuary and the frozen drifts
Of breakers wide and white along a shore.

One watches, cheek in palm. How little weight
The world has as it swiftly drops away!
How quietly the mind climbs to this height
As now, the seat-belt sign turned off, a flight
Attendant rises to negotiate
The steep aisle to a curtained service bay.

"Takeoff" by Timothy Steele, from The Color Wheel. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (books by this author), born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He's best remembered today for his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1944), the tale of a henpecked husband who fantasizes about a life of daring adventure. As a young man, Thurber's own fantasy had been a little more tame: he dreamed of working as a staff writer for a new magazine called The New Yorker. He began submitting pieces to the magazine in 1926, when it had only been in print for about a year. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to think The New Yorker must have a rejection machine." He persisted, and the first story that was accepted was so impressive that editor Harold Ross offered him a job.

But the story must have impressed Ross a little too much, because instead of getting the staff writer position he longed for, Thurber found himself higher up the ladder as an administrative editor. Unhappy, he tried to get himself demoted by making mistakes on purpose, but it didn't work. He gave up and just kept submitting pieces to the magazine. When Ross found out how badly he wanted to write, he gave him the position and put him in an office with E.B. White. The two men became good friends, and collaborated on a self-help parody called Is Sex Necessary? (1929), which featured Thurber's cartoons.

It's the birthday of poet and short-story author Delmore Schwartz (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1913). He studied philosophy, and wanted to become a poet, and one summer while he was in college, he locked himself in his apartment for a month and wrote a short story. It was called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," and it was published as the lead piece in The Partisan Review. In the story, which is based on Schwartz's life, the main character watches his parents' courtship unfold on a movie screen. When his father proposes, the author begs them to reconsider, to never marry and have children. Schwartz also gave the title to his first collection of poetry and short stories, which he published in 1938 to great acclaim from literary luminaries like Pound, Eliot, and Nabokov.

Schwartz was one of the most promising writers of his generation, but he fell into the abyss of alcohol abuse and mental illness. He began spending his days drinking at the White Horse Tavern in New York and collecting little bits of quotations in a journal. He died of a heart attack in 1966, and no one claimed his body for three days.

On this date in 1660, a professional female actress appeared on the English stage in a production of Othello. It's one of the earliest known instances of a female role actually being played by a woman in an English production. Up until this time, women were considered too fine and sensitive for the rough life of the theater, and boys or men dressed in drag to play female characters. An earlier attempt to form co-ed theater troupes was met with jeers and hisses and thrown produce.

But by the second half of the 17th century, the King's Company felt that London society could handle it. Before the production, a lengthy disclaimer in iambic pentameter was delivered to the audience, warning them that they were about to see an actual woman in the part. This was, the actor explained, because they felt that men were just too big and burly to play the more delicate roles, "With bone so large and nerve so incompliant / When you call Desdemona, enter giant."

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

 









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