Dec. 15, 2013

To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota

by James Wright

Under the water tower at the edge of town
A huge Airedale ponders a long ripple
In the grass fields beyond.
Miles off, a whole grove silently
Flies up into the darkness.
One light comes on in the sky,
One lamp on the prairie.

Beautiful daylight of the body, your hands carry seashells.
West of this wide plain,
Animals wilder than ours
Come down from the green mountains in the darkness.
Now they can see you, they know
The open meadows are safe.

"To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota" by James Wright, from Collected Poems. © Wesleyan University Press, 1971. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the 70th birthday of music critic Peter Guralnick (books by this author), born in Boston in 1943. He's an authority on American roots music. He studied creative writing at Boston University, and his first two books were short-story collections. He began his career in music journalism in the 1960s, contributing pieces to Boston's After Dark magazine and, later, Rolling Stone and Living Blues. While his peers were writing about entire genres of music, Guralnick was interested in individual artists, especially blues musicians, and his early profiles on Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Charlie Rich were collected into a book, Feel Like Going Home (1971).

He's written a two-volume biography of Elvis. The first book, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994), impressed Bob Dylan so much that he wrote: "Elvis steps from the pages. You can feel him breathe. This book cancels out all others." He was already thinking about writing a bio of Presley when he attended the singer's birthday celebration at Graceland in 1988. It was there that he met Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker, in turn, invited the writer to his own 80th birthday party and told him repeatedly, "I put you on the list" — not just the party guest list, but the list of people he approved of when it came to telling Presley's story. The second volume of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, came out five years later.

Guralnick says of his work, "My aspiration is to write something that will last and convey some human truth."

It's the birthday of Irish writer Edna O'Brien (books by this author), born in County Clare in the west of Ireland (1932). She grew up in an isolated, rural community, where people were encouraged never to read anything other than religious books. But one woman in town had torn the chapters out of Gone with the Wind and passed the chapters around so that everyone could read them. Those loose-leaf chapters were the first fiction Edna O'Brien ever read.

She went to a convent as a young girl to become a nun, but she really wanted to be a saint. She said, "The ordinary trials of a nun were not enough for me." But eventually she decided to become a pharmacist. She believes that she is a better writer today because she didn't study literature in college. She said: "Writing is primarily seeing something and setting it down for the first time, and if one has the habit and the mantle of culture on one, then it'll never be for the first time. It'll never be quite fresh."

She married a novelist when she was 20, against her family's wishes, and then wrote her first novel, Country Girls (1960), in just three weeks. She said: "It wrote itself. My arm just held the pen." It was one of the first books by an Irish woman to explore sexuality in such frank detail, and it was called a smear on Irish womanhood and was burned at churches in O'Brien's childhood home. But readers in Britain and America loved her work, and O'Brien has gone on to write many more successful novels, including Wild Decembers (1999), In the Forest (2002), and Saints and Sinners (2011).

Edna O'Brien also said: "When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious."

It's the birthday of playwright Maxwell Anderson (books by this author), born on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania (1888). His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and the family traveled across the Midwest. He went to college in North Dakota and started a career as a high school teacher there, but he was fired for his pacifist views. He moved to California and ended up teaching at Whittier College, where he was fired again for the same thing.

So he turned to writing. His first play was called White Desert (1923). He said, "I wrote it in verse because I was weary of plays in prose that never lifted from the ground." It was a contemporary tragedy about a marriage, set on the North Dakota prairie. It got some great reviews from theater critics, but audiences were totally confused and it closed after just 12 performances. But he kept writing, plays like What Price Glory? (1924), Both Your Houses (1933), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948). He was incredibly prolific, staging 33 plays in 36 years.

He said: "This modern craze for biographical information leaves me cold for many reasons. For one thing, it's always inaccurate; for another, it's so bound up with publicity and other varieties of idiocy that it gags a person of any sensibility. For another, to be heralded is to become a candidate for the newest list of 'the busted geniuses of yester-year' of whom I hope never to be one."

It's the birthday of physicist and writer Freeman Dyson (books by this author), born in Crawthorne Village, England (1923). While he was in his 20s, he made a huge contribution to science: He solved the central problem of quantum electrodynamics, a theory that describes how light and matter interact.

Dyson was on a Greyhound bus trip across America when the revelation came to him. He said: "As we were driving across Nebraska on the third day, something suddenly happened. For two weeks I had not thought about physics, and now it came bursting into my consciousness like an explosion." He sorted out all the different theories and came up with the reconciling equations and diagrams — all in his head, because he didn't have paper or a pencil on him.

When he was 55 years old, he published his first book, Disturbing the Universe (1979), in which he tries to "give to non-scientists a picture of the human passions, misadventures, and dreams that constitute the life of a scientist." He's written many books since then, and his most recent is A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007).

He said of scientific theories: "You sit quietly gestating them, for nine months or whatever the required time may be, and then one day they are out on their own, not belonging to you any more but to the whole community of scientists. Whatever it is that you produce, a baby, a book, or a theory, it is a piece of the magic of creation. You are producing something that you do not fully understand."

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