Jan. 31, 2004


by Baron Wormser

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Poem: "Haberdasher," by Baron Wormser, from Subject Matter (Sarabande Books).


Over the course of decades style changed:
Your regular Joe stopped wearing hats,
Polished brogues, ties, starched white shirts.
America became casual and drove away

From the store on the corner of First and Main.
Even Sunday faded. Over his after-hours Scotch
The retailer pleaded to his pleated wife:
"What can I do when gentlemen no longer

Are gentlemen? What can I say to a world of rubes?"
Each morning he tied a perfect Windsor knot.
Later, he stared disconsolately out the windows
At the busy cars, brightened when someone came in.
"How could you buy a suit from a stranger?"
He asked himself. Each advertised day replied.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Kenzaburo Oe, born on the island of Shikoku, Japan (1935). He fell in love with literature at an early age, after his mother gave him a translation of Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). He spent most of his childhood playing in the forest near his house, and he often fantasized about flying away from his home like geese he saw above the forest.

He was in grade school during World War II, and he always remembered the moment Japan surrendered to the United States. He wrote, "The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most surprised and disappointed that the emperor had spoken in a human voice... . How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" He was shocked when the American soldiers arrived in his village, and, instead of killing everyone, handed out chocolate bars and bubble gum.

He became the first member of his family to leave his island when he went to school in Tokyo. He began writing fiction with some success, and then in 1963, his first son was born with a cerebral hernia, which resulted in permanent brain damage. He was devastated when he got the news, and found that he felt ashamed, as though his son's handicap were his own fault. During that time, he took a trip to Hiroshima where he met people suffering from radiation sickness, and he began to see that his feelings about his son were similar to Japan's feelings about its past. He used his experience to write a novel called A Personal Matter (1964), about a father struggling to love his deformed son. It was a huge success, and Oe went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

It's the birthday of (Pearl) Zane Grey, born in Zanesville, Ohio (1872). He's one of the most popular writers of westerns of all time. He started out as a dentist, and only wrote in his spare time. But then he fell in love with a woman who encouraged him to give up dentistry and focus on his writing, so that's what he did. He's the author of Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and many other novels.

It's the birthday of short story writer and novelist John O'Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). His father was a wealthy doctor, and his family lived in the most affluent part of Pottsville, but because they were Irish Catholics, they were never really accepted by upper class society. O'Hara didn't do well in school, and his father punished him by getting him steel-working jobs during the summer. When he finally graduated from high school, his father refused to pay for him to go to Yale. He always felt inferior for having missed out on an Ivy League education.

He got a job as a newspaper reporter and started writing fiction on the side. His upbringing had made him very sensitive to social distinctions, and he began to write fiction that examined, in precise detail, the way people dressed, the way they talked, what kinds of cars they drove, and what schools they went to. His dialogue was so accurate that some critics accused him of carrying around a tape recorder and transcribing conversations.

He went on to become one of the most popular serious writers of his lifetime, writing many best-selling novels, including Appointment in Samarra (1934) and A Rage to Live (1949). Most critics consider his best work to be his short stories, which were published as the Collected Stories of John O'Hara (1984). He holds the record for the greatest number of short stories published by a single author in The New Yorker magazine.

He said, "I want to get it all down on paper while I can... . I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty."

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was an engineering student at Harvard when he was drafted into the army in 1944, and he served in the Philippines and Japan until 1946. After his discharge, he moved to New York City and spent fifteen months writing a novel about the war called The Naked and the Dead (1948).

That book became the definitive literary novel about World War II, and it made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. It begins, "Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach... . All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead."

His next two novels flopped, and critics said that he had failed to live up to his promise as a writer. He was depressed by the bad reviews he had gotten, and he decided that he would take a break from trying to write the great American novel. Instead he wrote one of the most confessional books that had been published up to that time, Advertisements for Myself (1959), about his own ambitions and fears. He wrote, "Like many another vain, empty and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind... . The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time."

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




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