Aug. 27, 2002

The Utter Failure

by Fred Chappell

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Poem: "The Utter Failure," by Fred Chappell from Family Gathering (Louisiana State University Press).

The Utter Failure

                        What's left of her hair
Spears out in green and orange spikes;
Her eyes, a snowman's anthracite,
Look upon us with a stare
So hard we're forced to think that she dislikes
The lot of us, eager to fight
                        With nail and tooth
Our flabby images of untruth.

                        Her furious tattoos,
Those Jolly Rogers and daggered hearts,
Bleeding roses and poison darts,
Her fingernails in various hues
                        Of pretended harlotry,
Are manifestos meant to address
And put to exquisite duress
                        Her misguided family.

She's punctured her head with painful holes
In fervid hopes to shock our souls,
And yet she looks merely as grubby
As some punk baroness and her hubby
                        At Epsom Downs or Ascot.
Cousin Lena's proud ambition
Was to shame us of our condition,
But there she sits, our cute mascot.

On this day in 1930, H. L. Mencken married Sarah Powell Haardt, a writer from Alabama. He was fifty, and she was thirty-two. He had taken potshots at marriage for years-"Marriage is a wonderful institution," he wrote, "but who wants to live in an institution?"-yet his position as a nationally-known critic put him high on the list of eligible bachelors. On the day of the ceremony, the headlines in Baltimore read, "Mighty Mencken Falls." Sarah died five years later of tuberculosis. Mencken organized and helped edit her writings after she died, and carefully pasted all the clippings he could find about her into a big scrapbook.

It's the birthday of C. S. Forester, born Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith in Cairo (1899). He wrote dozens of novels, including The African Queen (1935) and the Horatio Hornblower books. When he was three, his mother took Cecil and his brothers and sisters back to England for school, leaving his father in Cairo. His father didn't earn enough money to keep both households solvent, and his mother started drinking. There was only enough furniture in the London house for the first two floors; the third floor was empty, except for a lot of old cardboard boxes. The children spent hours playing up there; they pretended the boxes were ships, or horses, and used them to re-enact all the important battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Forester's first novel, A Pawn Among Kings (1924), attributed Napoleon's military errors to a lady who kept distracting him at crucial moments. Forester went on to write a series of novels about Captain Horatio Hornblower, a sailor serving under Nelson during the same wars. Far from being a hero of the iron man type, Hornblower tended to get nervous before big battles, and was prone to seasickness.

It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser, born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He's the author of Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925). Frank Norris, who was working as a reader for Doubleday, was the first to read Sister Carrie, and he told a vice president there that it was the best novel he had ever read. The vice president promised Dreiser that they would publish the book, but when Frank Doubleday came home from Europe and read the manuscript, he was livid. It was full of swearing, and it did not properly punish characters who had behaved badly. Dreiser refused to bring the manuscript to another publisher, and Doubleday's lawyers said it would be better to go ahead and honor the agreement. Doubleday printed less than a thousand copies, and didn't even bother to get most of them bound. Dreiser had a nervous breakdown, and didn't publish another novel for ten years.

On this day in 1660 Charles the Second, newly restored to the British throne, ordered the books of John Milton to be burned in public. When books were burned by decree, the sentence was usually carried out by a common hangman. Milton had been in prison since May; he had spent the years of Cromwell's government writing anti-monarchy pamphlets, and he continued to publish them until just weeks before Charles the Second returned to London. Most of those who had aided in the plot to overthrow Charles the First were put to death, but Milton's friends argued that he was too old to be treated harshly. He was sent home in December, where he resumed working on Paradise Lost.

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