Apr. 8, 2003

Your Ways, Father

by Nancy Frederiksen

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Poem: "Your Ways, Father," by Nancy Frederiksen from Coming up for Air (Paper Jack Creek Press).

Your Ways, Father

Your sullen looks, the crabapple
dismissal when I'd win
too many games

the grumbling from your chair
and the wait for a quarter
I knew you would give

but the suspense that held
us captive until you would give it up
like a gold medallion we were to

It was spent, quickly spent
on movies and candy. Gone.

But not forgotten
is the suspense.

We learned to think of it as love.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of editor and publisher Robert Giroux, born in New Jersey, (1914). He wanted to be a journalist, but as a student at Columbia he became interested in literature, inspired by the professors Mark Van Doren and Raymond Weaver. The first major author that Giroux discovered was Jean Stafford. While traveling by train to Connecticut, Giroux took Stafford's manuscript at random from his briefcase, and became so absorbed in reading it that he rode past his stop. When he got to know Jean Stafford, she introduced him to her then little-known husband Robert Lowell, whose first collection of poems had been published privately by a small house and had gone largely unnoticed. Giroux snatched him up, and he became one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. Lowell then introduced him to a young woman named Flannery O'Conner, whom he also published. During his long career he published Carl Sandburg, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, and T.S. Eliot. Giroux said, "When you look at work by someone never published, you always hope to pick up a manuscript you cannot put down."

It's the birthday of journalist Seymour Hersh, born in Chicago, Illinois (1937). He got into journalism after he flunked out of law school. The Chicago City News Bureau was hiring almost anyone with a college degree, so he took the job. He started as a copy boy and then became a police reporter. Once he went to investigate a case in which two police officers reported that a prisoner had tried to escape and they'd shot him. Hersh ran down to the police garage because he wanted to interview the cops first and write a good story. When he arrived on the scene he heard the cops talking and one said, "Yeah, I told him he was free, and he started running down the alley, and I plugged him." He couldn't quite believe what he'd heard, so he waited a little while, checked the police report, and the coroner's report said bullets in the back. But he never wrote the story. Everybody told him not to. Bad things would happen to someone who took on the Chicago police department. In the late 1960's he got a tip from a lawyer who worked with military deserters that American soldiers had massacred an entire village in Vietnam, killing all the men, women, and children. He followed up on it and broke the story of what is now known as the My Lai massacre. At first, none of the national newspapers or magazines would publish the story. He sent the story by Western Union to more than fifty local newspapers and they started to publish it, but the major media outlets still wouldn't touch the story. Finally, Hersh wrote about a witness of the massacre, a farm kid from a small town in Indiana named Paul Meadlo, who believed that he and the other soldiers had committed an evil act and would be punished by God. Meadlo was interviewed on the nightly news and the My Lai massacre became common knowledge in America. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story. He went on to write books including The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), and The Dark Side of Camelo (1997).

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). At an early age her family moved to rural Kentucky, where her father was the county physician. When she was in the second grade, she moved to Africa with her family, where her father worked for almost a year as a physician in the Congo. It was in Africa that she began her lifelong habit of keeping a journal. She said, "what I feel is that writing is the thing that makes my experience real to me." Her experience in Africa partially inspired her book The Poisonwood Bible (1998), about the wife and four daughters of an evangelical Baptist minister who go as missionaries to the Belgian Congo in 1959. In the novel she wrote, "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. 'And heaven knows,' our mother predicted, 'they won't have Betty Crocker in the Congo.'" She's also the author of The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993) and her most recent, Prodigal Summer (2001), about a rural farming family in Southern Appalachia.

On this day in 1935, Congress approved the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the national works program created by President Franklin Roosevelt to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression. The program employed more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943. The Federal Writers' Project, a special project within the WPA, employed many well-known writers including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright. The Federal Writers' Project's best-known undertaking is a series of state guidebooks, about life in various regions of the United States.

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