Apr. 10, 2004

First Early Mornings Together

by Robert Pinsky

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Poem: "First Early Mornings Together," by Robert Pinsky, from The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems (The Noonday Press).

First Early Mornings Together

Waking up over the candy store together
We hear birds waking up below the sill
And slowly recognize ourselves, the weather,
The time, and the birds that rustle there until

Down to the street as fog and quiet lift
The pigeons from the wrinkled awning flutter
To reconnoiter, mutter, stare and shift
Pecking by ones or twos the rainbowed gutter.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Anne Lamott, born in San Francisco, California (1954). She was an overachieving child: she got perfect grades and became a junior tennis star. But after two years in college, she decided that the only thing she wanted to do was write, so she dropped out of school and supported herself giving tennis lessons and cleaning houses. In the late 1970s, her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she began to write short pieces about the effect of the disease on him and other members of her family, and these pieces became chapters of her first novel, Hard Laughter (1980).

She wrote three more novels over the next decade, but she didn't have any big literary successes. Then, in her mid-thirties, she accidentally got pregnant and her boyfriend left her when she decided to keep the baby. For her first year as a single mother, she found herself on the edge of financial and emotional disaster. She was too busy to write fiction, so she just kept a daily journal of experiences as a parent. She read a series of books about parenting, but, she said, "They just offered solutions to calm the baby or help the baby get to sleep. No one talked about the exhaustion and the boredom and the frustration, how defeating it is [and] how funny." She thought the world needed a book like that, so she decided to revise and publish her own journal as the memoir Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993). It became her first bestseller.

She's since written two more books of non-fiction: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999). Her most recent novel, The Blue Shoe, was published in 2002.

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). When he was growing up, his father read to him and his siblings from novels by Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. He and his brothers were encouraged to write, and at an early age they started a family newspaper to report on the daily events of their household.

Theroux joined the Peace Corps after college and went to live in East Africa. He was expelled from Malawi after he became friends with a group that planned to assassinate the president of the country. He continued traveling around Africa, teaching English, and started submitting journalism to magazines back in the United States. While living in Africa, he became friends with the writer V.S. Naipaul, who became his mentor and who encouraged him to keep traveling. He did keep traveling, and he believes that living outside the United States is the best thing that ever happened to him as a writer. He said, "Travel is a creative act—not simply loafing and inviting your soul, but feeding the imagination, accounting for each fresh wonder, memorizing and moving on. The discoveries the traveler makes in broad daylight—the curious problems of the eye he solves—resemble those that thrill and sustain a novelist in his solitude."

He had published several novels when he decided to go on a four-month trip through Asia by train. He wrote every day on the journey, and filled four thick notebooks with material that eventually became his first bestseller, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975). He has since written many books of fiction, including The Mosquito Coast (1981), and many books of travel writing, including Fresh Air Fiend (2000). His most recent travel book is Dark Star Safari (2003), about traveling over land from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.

It was on this day in 1925 that F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was published. Fitzgerald was twenty-eight years old at the time. His first two novels, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), had made him one of the most successful and famous novelists in America. He had spent the early 1920s living like a rock star, jumping into fountains in New York City with his wife Zelda, getting into scuffles with the police, and going to wild jazz parties in Great Neck, New York. But he found that the life of a celebrity was not conducive to writing, and after the failure of his play The Vegetable (1923), he decided to try to work on a serious novel.

His friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, suggested that he move to Europe to get away from everything. So Fitzgerald sailed with Zelda to France in May of 1924. He found that he could see America better from a distance, and he began to write his novel about a wealthy bootlegger named Jay Gatsby, who wears pink suits and throws extravagant parties and is obsessed with winning back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan.

The first time Gatsby appears in the novel, the narrator Nick Carraway says, "The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and, turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens."

Fitzgerald worked on the novel every day that summer, writing in pencil, drinking Coca Cola and gin, and reading Keats whenever he needed inspiration. He struggled with the title, and considered calling it "Under the Red, White and Blue," "Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires," and "The High-Bouncing Lover." When he sent the first draft to his editor Maxwell Perkins, just five months after he'd started writing, he thought it should be called "Trimalchio in West Egg" or just "Trimalchio." Perkins suggested The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald was never satisfied with the title, and he also thought the character of Gatsby was too patchy and indistinct. He said, "I never at any one time saw [Gatsby] clear myself—for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself." The novel got good reviews, but it sold many fewer copies than Fitzgerald's previous novels. Most copies of the second printing were still in the Scribner's warehouse when Fitzgerald died in 1940. It was republished in 1941 and it now sells about 300,000 copies a year, more each year than it sold in Fitzgerald's lifetime.

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