Nov. 6, 2003

On Faith

by Cecilia Woloch

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Poem: "On Faith," by Cecilia Woloch, from Late (BOA Editions).

On Faith

How do people stay true to each other?
When I think of my parents all those years
in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever
longing for anything else—or: no, they must
have longed; there must have been flickerings,
stray desires, nights she turned from him,
sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently,
smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath
and tangled limbs must have seemed
not enough. But it was. Or they just
held on. A gift, perhaps, I've tossed out,
having been always too willing to fly
to the next love, the next and the next, certain
nothing was really mine, certain nothing
would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all;
faith that this latest love won't end, or ends
in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard.
When he turns his back to me now, I think:
disappear . I think: not what I want . I think
of my mother lying awake in those arms
that could crush her. That could have. Did not.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of actor and novelist Ethan Hawke, born in Austin, Texas (1970). He's best known for acting in such movies as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Training Day (2001), but he has also published two novels. He says he likes writing because it doesn't require collaboration. His first novel, The Hottest State (1996), got mixed reviews, but most critics praised his second, Ash Wednesday (2002). It's about an army staff sergeant who goes AWOL to take a road trip with his pregnant girlfriend Christy.

It's the birthday of novelist James Jones, born in Robinson, Illinois (1921). He's best known as the author of the military novel From Here to Eternity (1951). At the urging of his father, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939. He was stationed in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He went on to fight in the battle of Guadalcanal, where he was wounded, earning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He kept a journal while he was in the army, and when he got home from the war, he wrote a novel about the experience of disillusioned veterans. It was rejected by all the major publishing houses, but the editor Maxwell Perkins liked a particular scene from the novel and told him to expand it. He spent five years expanding that scene, and it became the novel From Here to Eternity (1951), the story of a soldier's life in the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The novel was a huge international bestseller, in part because Jones tried to portray military life as realistically as possible, using dirty language in the dialogue and describing soldiers' reckless sex lives. Jones used much of the money he made from the book to start a writing colony, and he bought a mobile home to travel around the country. He went on to write many more novels, including The Thin Red Line (1962) about the Battle of Guadalcanal.

It's the birthday of the man who founded The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). His father worked in the mining business, and the family had to move from Colorado to Utah when the silver beds ran dry. Ross said he got interested in the newspaper business when he found out that journalists got to go on police patrols and ride fire engines. He ran away from home when he was sixteen and began riding the rails around the country, working at various newspapers from New Orleans to California. He was known for his love of the nightlife in San Francisco, and he once gave the former king of Thailand a tour of seedy nightclubs. In the 1920s, Ross worked in the New York City publishing industry and became friends with many of the important artists of the time. People like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St.Vincent Millay came to his parties, and Irving Berlin would entertain the guests on Ross's piano.

Ross began to lunch with a group of bohemian writers, including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber. They met for meals at New York's Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fifth Street. They called themselves "The Vicious Circle," because they loved to gossip and attack the Puritan values of American society. Ross came up with the idea for a magazine about American life, written in the same witty tone of the group's discussions. He raised money from a friend whose father had made a fortune in yeast, and on February 21, 1925, the first issue of The New Yorker hit the stands. For the first year, the magazine lost about eight thousand dollars a week, and it didn't help that Ross kept losing his personal income in poker games.

The magazine finally took off when he hired writers E.B. White and James Thurber, who developed a distinctive style for the magazine. They began to write short essays called "casuals" - brief, humorous descriptions of life in the city - and published them in a section of the magazine called "Talk of the Town." They were widely imitated, and within a few years The New Yorker was the most popular magazine among the metropolitan upper middle class.

Ross himself never fit in with The New Yorker's audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He wore ill-fitting dark suits, and James Thurber said, "[He looked like a] carelessly carried umbrella." Ross was always full of energy that he didn't know what to do with. He once had his office sound-proofed because he couldn't stand distractions, but then he was distracted by the silence. He hired most of his staff himself, but whenever someone had to be fired, he either left the building or hid in a coat closet. Ross had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he'd only read one book in his life. But he was obsessed with the details of the magazine. He believed in accuracy above all else, and pioneered the use of fact checkers for everything, including fiction and cartoons. He never let a cartoonist draw a lamp without showing the cord plugged into a socket. He said, "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control." His greatest talent was recognizing talent in others and letting his magazine change with the times. When he started The New Yorker in 1925, there were many other general interest weekly magazines being published, such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. The New Yorker is one of the few general interest magazines that survive today.

Harold Ross said, "If you can't be funny, be interesting."

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