Dec. 11, 2013
I like those old movies where tires and wheels run backwards on
horse-drawn carriages pursued by indians, or Model As driven by
thugs leaning out windows with tommy guns ablaze. Of late I feel a
cold blue wind through my life and need to go backwards myself to
the outback I once knew so well where there were too many mosqui-
toes, blackflies, curious bears, flowering berry trees of sugar plum
and chokeberry, and where sodden and hot with salty sweat I'd slide
into a cold river and drift along until I floated against a warm sandbar,
thinking of driving again the gravel backroads of America at
thirty-five miles per hour in order to see the ditches and gulleys, the
birds in the fields, the mountains and rivers, the skies that hold our
10,000 generations of mothers in the clouds waiting for us to fall
back into their arms again.
It's the birthday of American short-story writer Grace Paley (books by this author), born in New York City (1922). Paley was the youngest daughter of politically active Ukranian-born Jews who opposed the Russian czar in their youth. Her father, Isaac, was exiled to Siberia but was released in 1904 when the czar pardoned all prisoners under 21. The couple sailed for New York City and settled in the Bronx.
Paley grew up speaking Russian, Yiddish, and English. She has said that she discovered her own voice by listening to the voices of the New Yorkers around her. Paley said, "When I was little, I loved to listen to my parents' stories [...] I loved to listen and soon I loved to talk and tell." She was a bright but uninterested student and was expelled from Hunter College during her first year for missing so many classes. Paley said, "I really went to school on poetry."
In the early 1940's, she studied with the poet W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research. She married Jess Paley, a movie cameraman, in 1942. They settled in Greenwich Village, where she began raising their two children.
Paley was fascinated by the New Yorkers she met in the parks, playgrounds, and streets of her neighborhood, and she realized they had no place in the literature of the day. She couldn't figure out how to bring them into her poetry so she decided to try prose. She published three stories in magazines before an editor with Doubleday and Company, whose children were friends with her children, noticed her work. He told Paley, "Write seven more and you'll have a book."
In 1959, she published 11 short stories in her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man. The author Philip Roth said, "Though no blood sister, she's as funny as Jane Austen."
Paley never made her living as a writer alone. She taught at Sarah Lawrence and the City College of New York. And she was a passionate activist for social causes, protesting against nuclear proliferation and against wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and lobbying for women's rights. When her Collected Stories was released in 1994, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She knew each story inside and out, and when someone would tell her that they loved one of her specific stories, her response was: "What's wrong with the rest?"
It's the birthday of the writer who said: "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime." That's Jim Harrison (books by this author), born in Grayling, Michigan (1937).
He had a couple of major accidents that ended up changing his writing career. When he was seven years old, he was playing with a friend and she accidentally cut him across the face and he went blind in one eye. He felt as though that set him apart from other kids, and he started turning to nature, to the woods and creeks and fields. And then, when he was in his 30s, he hurt his back badly while he was hunting and he was confined to bed. He was an active person, loved to be outdoors, and he didn't know what to do with so much time. His good friend, the novelist Thomas McGuane, suggested he try working on a novel. In 1971, he published Wolf: A False Memoir. His first major success was Legends of the Fall (1979), a collection of three novellas. He's written many more novels and novellas, in addition to several poetry collections. For a long time, he thought of himself as a poet more than anything else, and said about his novels: "They sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry."
Harrison's latest poetry book is called Songs of Unreason (2011), and a collection of his novellas, Brown Dog (2013), will be published this month.
Jim Harrison said: "Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That's the main content. The biggest thing in people's lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know."
And it's the birthday of the writer Thomas McGuane (books by this author), the one who convinced Jim Harrison to write his first novel, born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). As a kid, he wanted to be a scientist who studied fish, but when he was 10 years old, he decided to become a writer instead. He and a friend started to write a novel together, but they disagreed about how to describe a sunset and got in a fistfight and that was the end of that novel. He went to college and flunked out, but by the third college he went to, he shaped up and did a lot of writing and ended up graduating with honors. He had a couple of manuscripts rejected, but he won a scholarship to Stanford, and he finished another novel he was working on, and he gave it to Jim Harrison, who passed it on to a friend with connections to a publishing house. It was accepted, and The Sporting Club came out in 1969. And McGuane has gone on to write 10 novels, two books of short stories, and six books of nonfiction. His most recent novel is Driving on the Rim (2010). He lives on a 3,000-acre ranch in Montana, where he raises cutting horses and runs cattle and writes books.
He said: "Literature is still the source of my greatest excitement. My prayer is that it is irreplaceable. Literature can carry the consciousness of human times and social life better than anything else. Look at the movies of the 1920s, watch the Murrow broadcasts, you can't recognize any of the people. Now, read Fitzgerald — that's it. That is the truth of the times. Somebody has to be committed to the idea of truth."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®