Nov. 17, 2014

A Child's Evening Prayer

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
God grant me grace my prayers to say:
O God! preserve my mother dear
In strength and health for many a year;
And, O! preserve my father too,
And may I pay him reverence due;
And may I my best thoughts employ
To be my parents' hope and joy;
And, O! preserve my brothers both
From evil doings and from sloth,
And may we always love each other,
Our friends our father, and our mother:
And still, O Lord, to me impart
An innocent and grateful heart,
That after my last sleep I may
Awake to thy eternal day!

"A Child's Evening Prayer" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Complete Poems. © Penguin, 1997. (buy now)

It's the birthday of historian and novelist Shelby Foote (books by this author), born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). When he was 15 years old, Walker Percy moved to town. Foote and Percy were the same age, and became lifelong best friends. Both boys went to the University of North Carolina, where Foote spent a lot of time in the library, skipping classes and reading whatever interested him. After a couple of years, he dropped out and joined the Army. He said, "Southerners are known for joining in whatever military action is going on, partly because they don't want anything that big going on in the world without being part of it." While he was serving in the military, he began working on his first novel.

He left the Army, moved back to Greenville, and worked odd jobs. In 1945, he adapted part of his novel into a 22-page story and sent it to The Saturday Evening Post. They accepted it right away and paid him $750. He was amazed, so he submitted a 44-page story; the Post accepted it and sent him a check for $1,500. He said, "I got to thinking, it's not supposed to be like this; this is not the way you learn how to be a writer." He sent them a 66-page story to see what would happen, and received a rejection letter that said: "We regret to inform you that The Saturday Evening Post doesn't publish stories about incest." He said: "I was sort of relieved. I had a strong feeling that it was not supposed to go on like this."

His success at the Post did inspire him to quit his job and become a full-time writer. He wrote a new novel, called Shiloh, about the Civil War. Dial Press thought it was unmarketable and rejected it, but asked if he had anything else. He rewrote his first novel, based on the life of his grandfather, a Mississippi planter who gambled away his fortune. It was published as Tournament (1949). He quickly wrote two more novels set in the Mississippi Delta: Follow Me Down (1950) and Love in a Dry Season (1951). They got decent reviews and sold a few copies — nothing much, but he had enough of a reputation that he was finally able to publish Shiloh (1952), and it was his biggest success so far.

The head of Random House read Shiloh and liked it. The Civil War centennial was approaching, and he asked Foote if he would consider writing a short nonfiction account of the war for a series on American history. Foote thought it would be nice to take a break from novels for a year or so, and he agreed. He ended up spending 20 years working on a three-volume series, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958, 1963, 1974). The trilogy was almost 3,000 pages long, 1.2 million words, and he wrote it all by hand.

When Ken Burns produced his Civil War documentary for PBS, Foote was heavily featured, and viewers loved him. His Civil War: A Narrative series, which had initially been a modest success, suddenly became a best-seller. Foote had always struggled to get by on his writing — while he was working on his Civil War books, he relied on grants and private loans from Walker Percy. In the eight months after Burns' documentary aired, Random House sold 400,000 copies of Foote's trilogy, and he made $800,000 in royalties.

It's the birthday of the man who created Saturday Night LiveLorne Michaels, born in Toronto, Canada (1944). He formed a comedy duo with Hart Pomerantz. In the early '70s, they had their own television variety show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, on Canadian television. They also contracted their talents to comedic acts in the United States, writing for Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Woody Allen. They wrote for the NBC show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then NBC asked Michaels to come up with a comedy show to replace the Johnny Carson reruns that aired Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.

Michaels recruited talent from all sorts of places. Dan Aykroyd was a fellow Canadian, and Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner had worked on the National Lampoon show. Muppet creator Jim Henson created sketches for the show, and recent Harvard grad Al Franken was signed on as a writer. Michaels put together the first season, 1975-1976, and won an Emmy for it.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, born in the Flushing section of Queens (1942). He went to seminary school with plans of becoming a priest, but he was expelled for roughhousing during prayers and went to NYU and majored in film instead.

He got a lot of attention for early films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), but they didn't make much money, and his musical New York, New York (1977) was a complete flop. Scorsese thought his career might be over. He began drinking too much and wound up in the hospital. Robert DeNiro came to visit him there and told him to get his act together and make the movie they'd been talking about for years, about the boxer Jake LaMotta. Scorsese agreed, and he poured the next few years of his life into that movie, trying to get every detail exactly right. When the studio finally demanded that he send the picture to the labs for printing, Scorsese almost took his name off the project because in a minor scene in a bar he couldn't hear one of the characters order a Cutty Sark. He knew that was exactly the kind of drink that character would have ordered, and he wanted people to be able to hear it. He got his way, and Raging Bull was a big success when it came out in 1980. It's now considered one of the best films of the decade.

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




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