Feb. 27, 2004

The Wish to Be Generous

by Wendell Berry

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Poem: "The Wish to Be Generous," by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems (North Point Press).

The Wish to Be Generous

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). The most well known and best loved poet of his lifetime, he wrote many poems that ordinary Americans memorized and recited in school throughout the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century. Some of his most popular works were long poems that told stories, poems such as Evangeline (1947), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1863), about the American revolutionary who warned that the British were coming. It begins:
"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year."

It's the birthday of the novelist John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). He's best known for his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about the "Dust Bowl" farmers who had to migrate to California after a drought destroyed their land. To research the book, he bought an old bakery truck, filled it with blankets, food, and cooking utensils, and joined the migration himself, so that he could meet and talk to people without being conspicuous. He was horrified by the condition of the people he saw in the migrant camps. He saw whole families sleeping on the ground with barely enough food to survive, children so exhausted by hunger that they didn't wave the flies away from their faces, and mothers giving birth to babies they didn't have the milk to nurse.

In order to write the novel, he decided to focus on one family, the Joad family, and tell their story. But he interspersed the chapters about the Joad family with short chapters describing the migration as a whole, so that the novel was balanced between the individual experience and the bigger picture. The result was that people read the novel as a social document more than a work of fiction, and it influenced the way the Roosevelt Administration dealt with the migrant farmers. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and Steinbeck went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

It's the birthday of novelist and humorist Peter De Vries, born in Chicago, Illinois (1910). He grew up in an immigrant Dutch section of Chicago that was so insular, he later said he might as well have grown up in Holland. He felt like a foreigner in the United States for the rest of his life. His parents were strict Calvinists, and they wouldn't let him go to the movies, dance, play cards, attend regular public schools, or do anything else they considered secular. He once said, "My father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too." He eventually rebelled against his upbringing, but he never quite got over the strangeness of worldly things, and it inspired him to begin writing satirical fiction.

He supported himself as a young man by selling taffy apples and servicing vending machines. He eventually became the editor of Poetry magazine. He once put on a fundraising benefit for the magazine, and invited the writer James Thurber. The two men became friends and Thurber later invited him to join the writing staff of The New Yorker. He worked on cartoons, supplying captions for pictures that other people drew, and he also wrote humorous stories for the magazine. His first collection of these stories was No, But I Saw the Movie (1952), and it became a bestseller. He went on to publish many humorous novels, including Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1962), about men who, like himself, live in the suburbs and find the world ridiculous after losing faith in God. He lost his own faith after his daughter died from leukemia, and he wrote a novel about the experience called Blood of the Lamb (1962), which many critics consider his masterpiece. Near the end, the main character throws a cake in the face of a statue of Jesus.

De Vries said, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."

It's the birthday of Kiowa poet, novelist and memoirist N(avarro) Scott Momaday, born in Lawton, Oklahoma (1934). One of the first books Momaday published was a collection of traditional Kiowa narratives about the sacred Sun Dance doll of the Kiowa tribe. While working on the project, Momaday had a chance to view the doll, which is kept in a rawhide bundle and has not been displayed since the Sun Dance of 1888. Seeing it made him feel for the first time that he had a connection to his heritage. He said, "I became more keenly aware of myself as someone who had walked through time and in whose blood there is something inestimably old and undying. It was as if I had remembered something that had happened two hundred years ago."

He tried to write a book of poems based on the experience, but Wallace Stegner helped him turn the poems into fiction, and the book became House Made of Dawn (1969), about an Indian veteran of World War II named Abel who doesn't fit in with mainstream America or the Indian reservation where he lives. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and it helped spark an American Indian literary renaissance. Momaday has gone on to write many more books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His most recent book is In the Bear's House (1999).

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913). He wrote a series of formulaic, pot-boiler novels, including The Young Lions (1948) and Rich Man, Poor Man (1970). But at the same time he was publishing a series of dark short stories in The New Yorker magazine, and collecting them in books such as Sailor Off the Bremen (1939) and Welcome to the City (1942). (

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