Aug. 27, 2004

The Eulogy

by Tim Nolan

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Poem: "The Eulogy," by Tim Nolan. Reprinted with permission.

The Eulogy

He could be funny, but only in small groups
of meek women—which is to say—he was not

very funny. He had beautiful and expressive
hands which he normally kept in his pockets.

When he was roused to passion, as he seldom was,
it would usually go unnoticed. He did have

strong feelings for animals—his family crest included
the loon—that symbol of fidelity and lonely song.

He was quite a mimic—I personally remember
how he could sound just like Bobby Kennedy—underwater—

if he was drunk enough. I suppose you all remember
his obsession with orchids—it was strange at the end—

his fretting over their blossoming—when would it happen?
Then, his disappointment when they would fade and drop.

He was a collector of sales receipts—some of you
may not know this—he would ask you to empty

your pockets to show him where you'd been, what you bought.
At his confirmation on June 4, 1954, he chose a verse

from the Old Testament, The Book of Haggai—"He that
earneth wages earneth wages to put in a bag with a hole.

Consider your ways, sayeth the Lord." Let us consider
him ... as we head downstairs. There must be other stories.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, born in Stuttgart, Germany (1770). He started out as a philosopher of Christianity, and he was particularly interested in how Christianity is a religion based on opposites: sin and salvation, earth and heaven, church and state, finite and infinite. He wanted to create a philosophy that described how and why human beings created communities and governments, made war, destroyed each other's societies, and built themselves up to do it all over again.

What Hegel came up with was his concept of Dialectic, which is the idea that all human progress is driven by the conflict between opposites. That, for example, each political movement is imperfect and therefore gives rise to a counter-movement, which, if it takes control, is also imperfect and therefore gives rise to yet another counter-movement, and so on to infinity. Hegel believed that perhaps, someday, the progress of humanity would come to an end when all the opposites would be resolved.

It's the birthday of novelist who wrote under the name C. S. Forester, born Cecil Smith in Cairo, Egypt (1899). His father was a British official working in Africa. Forester went to school in London, and then started his literary career writing hack biographies and thrillers.

His experiences as the captain of a ship inspired him to write his first really successful novel The African Queen (1935) about an evangelical English spinster and a grizzled small-boat captain who fall in love while navigating a river through Central Africa. Forester had never been to Central Africa, but he managed to make the novel convincing anyway. The book was made into a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

Forester kept sailing in his spare time, and it was on a long, slow sea voyage along the coast of Central America that he got the idea for his most famous character, Horatio Hornblower, a fictional Royal Navy midshipman, born July 4, 1776, who becomes a hero in the naval wars against Napoleon. The first novel featuring the new character was The Happy Return (1937), and Forester published many successful sequels.

Readers still remember the character today because he is so unique: heroic but also introverted, suffering from sea-sickness, full of self-doubt, class-conscious, a fanatic about discipline and efficiency, and a hater of the poetry of Wordsworth.

It's the birthday of novelist Theodore Dreiser, born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He was the twelfth of thirteen children. His father was injured in a factory accident, and his mother had to take in lodgers and washing to keep the family from starving. Dreiser's daily chore was to look for stray lumps of coal along the railroad tracks that the family could burn for heat. He finally left home at sixteen and moved to Chicago, where he started out as a driver for a laundry wagon, but eventually became a newspaper reporter, covering labor issues, murder trials, lynchings, and politics.

One of his newspaper editors persuaded Dreiser to try writing fiction. He was trying to come up with an idea for a novel, when one night, he wrote the words "Sister Carrie" on a half-sheet of yellow newspaper, as if in a trace. Within a year, he had finished his first novel, called Sister Carrie (1900). He went on to become perhaps the greatest American realist of the 20th century. Because of his newspaper background, he had a genius for factuality: he re-created the inner workings of a factory, a stock exchange, and a luxury hotel.

Dreiser got the idea for his novel An American Tragedy when he read a newspaper article about a man who had murdered his pregnant girlfriend to keep their relationship a secret. He followed the story of the trial and clipped articles from the paper when they were published. He didn't start to work on the novel until years after the real murderer had been executed in the electric chair.

An American Tragedy finally came out in 1925, the same year as many other great works of literature, including Hemingway's In Our Time and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Theodore Dreiser said, "Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail."

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