Sep. 5, 2004


by Debra Nystrom

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Poem: "Grandad" by Debra Nystrom, from Torn Sky © Sarabande Books, Kentucky. Reprinted with permission.


When supper was over he'd pull
the little pouch and bundle
of papers out of his pocket,
then peel free one white sheet
to fold into a tiny pair of wings across
his scarred left palm that twisted where once
the whole hand had torn off in a threshing machine.
With the right he'd loosen the drawstring,
and tap a narrow line along the crease. Roll the wings
together then, and pinch. Lick the seam.
Cracked lips puckered to the paper as he struck a flame
and puffed it into swirls hovering, then
fading above his head. Sometimes
he'd let me snug the strings tight again.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the most popular African American writers of the 20th century Frank Yerby, born in Augusta Georgia (1916). He wrote historical novels about the antebellum South, including his first novel Foxes of Harrow (1946), which he wrote while working twelve hours a day in a military equipment factory.

It's the birthday of novelist Ward Just, born in Michigan City, Indiana (1935). He started out as a journalist and went to Vietnam to cover the war there in the late sixties. His most recent book is An Unfinished Season, which came out this year.

It's the birthday of Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest, Hungary (1905). He's best known for his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) about the Moscow Trials of 1938.

It's the birthday of the avant-garde composer John Cage, born in Los Angeles, California (1912). He wrote pieces of music to be played on a variety of objects, including flowerpots, scrapped hoods of old cars and other pieces of junk. Then he began tinkering with a piano, shoving objects under the strings, including screws, bolts, spoons, clothespins, aspirin boxes, and a doll's arm. He said, "Just as you go along the beach and pick up pretty shells that please you, I go into the piano and find sounds I like."

He kept adding new sounds into his compositions. His piece "Water Music" (1952) required a piano, a radio, whistles, water containers, and a deck of cards. He finally decided he wanted to explore silence, so as an experiment he entered a completely soundproof chamber at Harvard University. Instead of hearing nothing, he heard the sound of his own circulation and his nervous system. Afterwards, he said, "No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound." The experience inspired him to write his most famous piece "4'33" (1952), in which the performer was instructed to sit silently at a piano for 4 minutes, 33 seconds, to draw attention to all the sounds being made by the audience members and the world around them.

It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's book On the Road was published. His first novel, The Town and the City (1950), had been a commercial flop. He was trying to find something new to write about when he met a man named Neil Cassady, a drifter who had actually been born in a car, and who became a car thief when he was fourteen years old. By the time Kerouac met him, Cassady had stolen more than five hundred cars in his life, and he loved driving at top speed across the highways of the west. Kerouac saw him as a mythic figure, an American folk hero, and he followed Cassady across the country for several years, meeting hobos, con men, jazz musicians and prostitutes along the way.

When he got home, he wanted to use the experience for a novel, but he struggled with various fictional plotlines: a man in search of his father, a convict in search of his runaway daughter, a young man in search of his lost love, and so forth. He finally figured out how to write the book after receiving a series of mad, rambling letters from Cassady, one of which was 40,000 words long. He realized the novel had to be written about Cassady and in Cassady's own voice.

So, in April of 1951, Kerouac sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, turned on an all-night Harlem jazz radio station, and in twenty days wrote the first draft of his new novel. He changed Cassady's name to "Dean Moriarity" and his own name to "Sal Paradise" and told the basically true story of their adventures together. Kerouac's manuscript was a continuous scroll, 120 feet long, the text single-spaced, with no commas or paragraph breaks. Kerouac showed it to various publishers and said he would only publish it if it could be published unrevised. They all turned him down.

Kerouac spent the next several years working on other novels, but finally in 1957, he published a revised and more accessible version of his novel about his travels with Neil Cassady. He went through many different titles, including Souls on the Road, American Road Night, Home and the Road, Love on the Road, and Along the Wild Road, until he finally chose the simplest title: On the Road.

The book came out on this day in 1957, and a great review appeared in the New York Times that said, "Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation."

In 2001, the scroll on which Kerouac typed On the Road was auctioned off for 2.4 million dollars to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indiana Colts. It was the most anyone has ever paid for a literary manuscript.

Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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