Jul. 1, 2003

Men at Forty

by Donald Justice

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Poem: "Men At Forty," by Donald Justice from A Donald Justice Reader (Middlebury College Press).

Men At Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father's tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Literary Notes:

It was on this day in 1863 that the Battle of Gettysburg began. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had recently won a big battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia. He thought he could win the war by invading the North. About seventy-five thousand Confederate soldiers and about ninety-five thousand Union soldiers met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the morning of July 1. The battle went on for three days. It was the largest military conflict in North American history. On the third day, Robert E. Lee decided to try to break the battle line at the center. He sent a column of troops led by General Pickett across the valley, hoping to overwhelm the Union force. The attack, known as Pickett's Charge, was disastrous. Almost sixty percent of the confederate soldiers involved in the charge were killed.

It's the birthday of crime writer James M. Cain, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). His father was the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Cain when to school there, and disappointed his father by refusing to take part in any campus activities. He didn't play any sports, didn't belong to any organizations, didn't hold any jobs, and turned down an offer to edit the campus magazine. Cain worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, he taught journalism for a while and wrote editorials for various newspapers. He tried to produce a play, and finally went to Hollywood, hoping to strike it rich writing for the movies. Paramount Studios fired him after six months. He was forty years old, living in the middle of the Great Depression, and trying to support his wife and children. One day, he read a newspaper article about a woman who had murdered her husband so she could take over his gas station. Cain realized that he knew the woman in the article. He had gone to her gas station lots of times, and had talked to her as she filled up his car with gas. He was fascinated by the idea that someone so ordinary could be so ruthless, and it gave him the idea for his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). The book got great reviews and became a bestseller. He went on to write other novels such as Mildred Pierce (1941), and Double Indemnity (1943). He said, "I write of the wish that comes true -- for some reason, a terrifying concept."

It's the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford, born in Covina, California (1915). When she was six years old, her father lost most of the family's money on the stock market. They moved to Boulder, Colorado, where they lived in poverty. Despite their money troubles, her father spent all his time writing, though he only sold one book. They survived by taking in sorority girls as boarders. After college, Stafford began dating a young poet named Robert Lowell. He was unknown at the time, but would go on to be one of the most important poets of his generation. He asked her to marry him, even though his aristocratic family disapproved of her. They got married in 1940. In 1944 she published her first novel, Boston Adventure, about a poor girl who escapes her working-class town to work for a wealthy lady from Boston. It was a bestseller, but soon after its publication, her marriage with Lowell fell apart. She wrote several more novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952), but they didn't make her any money. She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to the New Yorker magazine. When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died ten years later, and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.

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