Jul. 16, 2004

If What You're Waiting for is Christmas

by David Devine

FRIDAY, 16 JULY, 2004
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Poem: "If What You're Waiting For Is Christmas," by David Devine, from The Light of the Morning: Light Rhymes for Hard Times. Reprinted with permission.

If What You're Waiting for is Christmas

If what you're waiting for is Christmas
You don't need me to tell you so
If you've been looking for somebody
You might not have that far to go

See how the candle dances
With all the shadows on the wall
If what you're waiting for is Christmas
It might be coming after all

Sometimes I feel so tired
Sometimes I feel so blue
I'm just going thru the motions
Of almost anything I do

But guess I'm getting better
Even I'm a bit surprised
When I see my own reflection
In a dark haired angel's eyes

Maybe all that really matters
Try to feel the mystery
Found in people left abandoned
Burning, blooming poetry

If for miracles you hunger
You might see a few come true
If what you're waiting for is Christmas
It might be waiting there for you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright Tony Kushner, born in New York City (1956). He's best known for his two-part play Angels in America (1991). He grew up in a highly cultured environment. His parents were both classical musicians, and they encouraged him to listen to opera and read literature. They paid him a dollar for every poem he memorized. When he was a young boy, he saw his mother star in a local production of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. He found it so powerful that he had vivid dreams about it for days, and he later said that's a big reason he went into theater.

Before he started writing plays, he was a director. The first play he wrote got terrible reviews, and he wasn't sure what to do next until he won a grant from the NEA. He decided to write a long play in order to give the taxpayers their money's worth. The result was the first half of Angels in America, titled Millennium Approaches. It was more than three hours long, and featured as its characters homosexuals, Jews, AIDS patients, Mormons, the McCarthy era lawyer Roy Cohn, and an angel. Kushner never even thought it would be produced on Broadway, but it became a huge hit, and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, along with almost every other award for drama that year. It was recently made into a TV movie for HBO.

It's the birthday of literary critic and essayist Anatole Broyard, born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1920). He was one of the most influential book critics for the New York Times Book Review from 1971 to 1989. His reviews and essays are collected in Aroused by Books (1974), and Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes (1980). He wrote, "It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn't wait to leave."

It was on this day in 1951 that J.D. Salinger's first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published. Salinger had started his career as a writer back in 1940, at a time when the short stories published in magazines were still one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States. Salinger published a number of short stories in the group of magazines known as "the slicks," magazines that included the Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, and Collier's. But the magazine that he most wanted to publish a story in was The New Yorker. In 1941, Salinger sent The New Yorker a story called "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," about a troubled teenager named Holden Caulfield and The New Yorker bought it.

"Slight Rebellion Off Madison," was not written in Holden Caulfield's voice; it was narrated in the third person. In one of the first descriptions of Holden Caulfield, Salinger wrote, "While riding on Fifth Avenue buses, girls who knew Holden often thought they saw him walking past Sak's or Altman's or Lord & Taylor's, but it was usually somebody else." The story was about Holden's date with a girl named Sally Hayes. He complains to her that that he hates everything about New York, including buses and taxi cabs and movies, but eventually he calms down and tells her that he'll come to her house and help her trim the Christmas tree.

The New Yorker bought the story in November of 1941, and planned to run it in their Christmas issue. That December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and Salinger's story was put on hold. It was considered too trivial in a time of war. Salinger kept submitting stories to The New Yorker for the next few years, even as he was drafted into the army, but his stories kept getting rejected.

At the start of his army enlistment, Salinger was stationed in England, so he didn't see any combat. He was still able to write and submit short stories for publication, and he published a series of stories about army life. He told his agent that he was working on a set of stories about Holden Caulfield, but he didn't want to publish any of them because he thought he could put them together in a novel. Then, in June of 1944, Salinger learned that he would be deployed in the ground force invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Salinger's division hit the beach in the fifth hour of the invasion, and for the next several months Salinger saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge. Between 50 and 200 soldiers in his division were killed or wounded every day. At the end of the war Salinger checked into an Army general hospital in Nuremberg, suffering from a nervous breakdown. He spent several months recuperating.

It was after his release from the hospital that he sent out for publication the first Holden Caulfield story narrated by Holden Caulfield himself, a story called "I'm Crazy." It was published in Collier's in December of 1945. One year later, in 1946, The New Yorker finally published "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which they had been holding onto since before the war began. J.D. Salinger had finally become a New Yorker writer, something he'd been dreaming of for more than a decade.

Salinger continued publishing short stories for the rest of the 1940s, most of them in The New Yorker, and in 1949, the editor Robert Giroux wrote him to ask if he wanted to publish a collection of short stories. Giroux didn't hear back from Salinger for months, and then, one day, Salinger walked into his office. Giroux said, "A tall, sad-looking young man with a long face and deep-set black eyes walked in, saying, 'It's not my stories that should be published first, but the novel I'm working on ... about this kid in New York during the Christmas holidays.'" Giroux said he'd love to publish it, but when it was finished one of his superiors thought the kid in the book seemed too crazy. So Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye with Little, Brown and Company, and it came out on this day in 1951.

The New York Times ran a review titled "Aw, the World's a Crumby Place" that poked fun at Salinger's style. The New Yorker refused to run any excerpts of the novel, because they said that the children in it were unbelievably intelligent, and the style of the novel was too "showoffy." But despite the mixed reviews, The Catcher in the Rye reached the bestseller list after being in print just two weeks, and it stayed there for more than six months. It has gone on to sell more than sixty million copies. It has been at one time or another the most banned book in America and one of the most assigned books in American classrooms.

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