Mar. 6, 2004

Thirtieth Anniversary Report of the Class of '41

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Thirtieth Anniversary Report of the Class of '41," by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (University of Chicago Press).

Thirtieth Anniversary Report of the Class of '41

We who survived the war and took to wife
And sired the kids and made the decent living,
And piecemeal furnished forth the finished life
Not by grand theft so much as petty thieving--

Who had the routine middle-aged affair
And made our beds and had to lie in them
This way or that because the beds were there,
And turned our bile and choler in for phlegm--

Who saw grandparents, parents, to the vault
And wives and selves grow wrinkled, grey and fat
And children through their acne and revolt
And told the analyst about all that--

Are done with it. What is there to discuss?
There's nothing left for us to say of us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, born Elizabeth Barrett near Durham, England (1806). In January of 1845, she received a telegram from a little known poet named Robert Browning. He wrote to her, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett . . . and I love you too." The two began a correspondence, but they had to keep their relationship secret from her father, who had forbidden her to marry. They met in secret several times in the summer of 1845, and they secretly married on September 12, 1846. Elizabeth continued to live with her father for a week after her marriage, and then, with the help of her maid, she ran away with Robert to Italy. She wrote a series of love poems about their courtship, but since she expressed her love so frankly in the poems, she decided to publish them as though they were translations, and the collection was called Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). They were some of the first love poems in English written from a woman's point of view, and they are the poems we remember her for today, including the sonnet that begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

It's the birthday of humorist and short story writer Ring Lardner, born in Niles, Michigan (1885). He came from a wealthy family, but his father lost most of his fortune when Lardner was a senior in high school. He tried to get a degree in mechanical engineering, but he dropped out after less than a semester. He started working as a sports writer for a variety of papers, and eventually got a column in the Chicago Tribune, covering the Cubs and the White Sox. At the time, sports writing was more diverse, and Lardner filled his column with profiles of athletes, poems about baseball, parodies of sports articles, and short works of fiction about the sports industry. He was especially good at reproducing the spoken speech patterns of players and coaches.

He got the idea of writing a series of fictional letters from the point of view of a semi-literate rookie baseball player, and in 1914 it was published in the Saturday Evening Post as "A Busher's Letters Home." He later published an expanded version of the letters in his first book, You Know Me Al (1916), and it was a big success. Some critics called his work satire, but he said, ď[I donít know] where they get that stuff about me being a satirist. . . . I just listen."

It's the birthday of novelist Gabriel García Márquez, born in Aracataca, Columbia (1928). He's the oldest of eleven children, and he lived with his grandparents for the first eight years of his life. He said, "I grew up in a village hidden away among marshes and virgin forest on the Colombian north coast . . . a place where the sea passes through every imaginable shade of blue, where cyclones make houses fly away, where villages lie buried under dust and the air burns your lungs." As a child, he loved listening to his grandfather's stories about the recent civil war and his grandmother's stories about ghosts, omens, premonitions, and dead ancestors.

He went to boarding school in Bogotá after his grandfather's death, and he tried to study law, but in 1948, a prominent Liberal Party politician was assassinated, and the event triggered a civil war that lasted for more than ten years. García Márquez stayed in the city to write about the violence, but a riot in his neighborhood started a fire that burned down his house, and all his manuscripts were destroyed. With almost no money, and only two changes of clothes, he moved into a tiny room in a four-story brothel called "the Skyscraper." He began supporting himself as a journalist, writing a series of newspaper stories about tall tales and superstitions in local villages. He met other writers in the cafés and bookstores, and he began to read the authors that would influence his fiction, including Joyce, Faulkner, and Kafka.

He knew he wanted to write fiction, but he wasn't sure what to write about. Then in 1950, he was sitting in his favorite café when a woman came in and told him that she was his mother. He hadn't seen her in a long time, and barely recognized her. She told him that his grandparents' house was up for sale, and she wanted him to travel back to his hometown to help her sell it. He and his mother traveled to his hometown by boat. On the journey, she told him that she was ashamed he had given up his law studies, and that he was living like a beggar in a brothel. She begged him to promise that he would go back to law school as soon as they sold his grandparents' house. He began to wish he'd never agreed to travel with her. Before dawn on the morning they approached their destination, he walked out on the prow of the ship to get a breath of fresh air. He said, "From the windows at the prow . . . the lights of the fishing boats floated like stars in the water. . . . The invisible fishermen conversed . . . [and] their voices had a phantasmal resonance within the boundaries of the swamp. As I leaned on the railing, trying to guess at the outline of the sierra, nostalgia's first blow caught me by surprise." For the rest of the trip he was flooded with memories of his childhood and the stories told to him by his grandparents. A fictional town began to take shape in his mind, based on his memories, and he knew he had to write a novel about that town. He wrote five novels in the next fifteen years, but he wasn't satisfied with any of them.

In January of 1965, he was driving from Mexico City to his home in Acapulco when the entire first chapter of a novel came into his head. He began writing as soon as he got to his house, and worked on nothing else for the next 18 months. When he finished, he was twelve-thousand dollars in debt, and he had to sell his wife's hairdryer in order to pay the postage to send the manuscript to his editor. That novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), about several generations of a family in the fictional village of Macondo. It begins, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

One Hundred Years of Solitude is now considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and has gone on to write many more books, including Love in the Time of Cholera (1988) and The General in His Labyrinth (1989). His most recent book is Living to Tell the Tale (2002), the first volume of his autobiography.

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