Sep. 21, 2004

Passing Through a Small Town

by David Shumate

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Poem: "Passing Through a Small Town" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Passing Through a Small Town

Here the highways cross. One heads north. One heads east
and west. On the corner of the square adjacent to the
courthouse a bronze plaque marks the place where two Civil
War generals faced one another and the weaker surrendered.
A few pedestrians pass. A beauty parlor sign blinks. As I turn
to head west, I become the schoolteacher living above the
barber shop. Polishing my shoes each evening. Gazing at the
square below. In time I befriend the waitress at the cafe and
she winks as she pours my coffee. Soon people begin to
talk. And for good reason. I become so distracted I teach my
students that Cleopatra lost her head during the French
Revolution and that Leonardo perfected the railroad at the
height of the Rennaissance. One day her former lover returns
from the army and creates a scene at the school. That evening
she confesses she cannot decide between us. But still we spend
one last night together. By the time I pass the grain elevators
on the edge of town I am myself again. The deep scars of love
already beginning to heal.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Fannie Flagg born Patricia Neal in Birmingham, Alabama (1941). She's best known as the author of the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987).

It's the birthday of poet, novelist and songwriter Leonard Cohen, born in Montreal, Canada (1934). He's the author of many books of poetry, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and Death of a Ladies' Man (1978), and novels such as Beautiful Losers (1966).

He learned to play guitar at a socialist summer camp when he was a teenager, but at the time he only used the guitar to get girls. He was more interested in poetry, and by the early 1960's he was considered one of Canada's most promising young poets. Then in 1966, the folksinger Judy Collins heard some of his songs, which he had written and performed only for friends, and she persuaded him to perform in public and make a record. He's been recording music ever since.

His most famous song is "Suzanne" from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968). It goes, "Now Suzanne takes your hand / And she leads you to the river / She is wearing rags and feathers / From Salvation Army counters / And the sun pours down like honey / On our lady of the harbour / And she shows you where to look / Among the garbage and the flowers."

Leonard Cohen wrote, "As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armour themselves against wonder."

It's the birthday of publisher Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams in Bristol, England (1902). He was the founder of Penguin Books. He would have gotten a menial job as a young man, but one of his mother's cousins was a successful publisher and offered to give him a job on one condition. He had to change his last name from Williams to Lane. He did, and he worked his way up in the publishing world.

He branched out on his own in 1935, when he got the idea to publish high quality literature at low prices. At the time, only the lowest forms of literature were published in paperback, adventure stories and pornography, and they were rarely published in England. Publishers thought that if the public wanted high quality literature, they wanted it to be beautifully bound so that they could keep it forever. Lane realized that more people might want to read good books if they were more affordable.

He partnered with Woolworth's department store and published ten different books, including novels by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. He designed the books to be small enough to fit in a pocket, and he used slightly higher quality paper for the covers, so they would not tear as easily as other paperbacks. His secretary came up with the name "Penguin."

The plan was a huge success, and it greatly increased the quality of books that average people read. The most famous book he ever published was D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1960), which sold over three million copies after a trial for obscenity. He retired in 1969 after publishing the three thousandth Penguin title, an edition of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).

It's the birthday of novelist H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells, born in Bromley, England (1866). His father was a gardener and his mother was a maid. His parents got him a job when he was boy, even though he was a promising student. He kept up his education by stealing books from the library of his mother's employer. When he was sixteen, he threatened to commit suicide if his parents didn't let him go back to school, so they let him. He won a scholarship to a school where he was taught by the famous biologist T. H. Huxley.

After working for a few years writing biology textbooks, he decided to try fiction, and between 1895 and 1898, he published all of the novels for which he is best remembered: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). At the time, scientists were debating the processes of evolution, the danger of scientific knowledge, and the possibility of life on other planets. He was one of the first writers to explore these ideas in fiction.

He went on to publish two or three books almost every year for the rest of his life. He continued to write science fiction, but he also wrote social novels like Tono-Bungay (1908). His book Outline of History (1919-1920) was his attempt to write a complete history of the world, and it outsold all his other books combined.

H. G. Wells, said, "It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening."

And, "We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery."

And, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

It's the birthday of horror novelist Stephen King, born in Portland, Maine (1947). He's the author of many novels, including The Shining (1977), Pet Sematary (1983), and most recently From a Buick 8 (2002).

His father, a merchant seaman, deserted the family when he was two. He has no memories of the man, but one day he found a boxful of his father's science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, including an anthology of stories from Weird Tales magazine and a book by horror author H. P. Lovecraft. That box of his father's books inspired him to start writing horror stories.

After college, King worked jobs at a gas station and a laundromat. His wife worked at Dunkin' Donuts. He said, "Budget was not exactly the word for whatever it was we were on. It was more like a modified version of the Bataan Death March." His writing office was the furnace room of his trailer home, and all of his rough drafts were typed single-spaced, with no margins, to save paper.

He sold a series of horror stories to men's magazines, and he said that the paychecks from these stories always seemed to arrive when one of his kids had an ear infection or the car had broken down.

His first novel was Carrie (1973), about a weird, miserable, high school girl with psychic powers. The hard cover didn't sell very well, but when his agent called to say that the paperback rights had sold for $400,000, King couldn't believe it. He said, "The only thing I could think to do was go out and buy my wife a hair dryer. I stumbled across the street to get it and thought I would probably get greased by some car."

He went on to become one of the most popular novelists of all time. Before him, most horror novels took place in drafty old mansions and castles. His horror novels take place in ordinary American small towns, at fast food restaurants, local libraries, and little league baseball games. King says that he writes about his own fears, and he claims to be afraid of spiders, elevators, closed-in places, the dark, flying, sewers, funerals, cancer, heart attacks, and being buried alive, among other things.

The first time someone asked him for his autograph was in a deli. The man behind the counter looked at him funny and asked if King was somebody famous. King got excited about being recognized for the first time, but then man said, "I know, you're Francis Ford Coppola." King said yes, he was Francis Ford Coppola, and he gave the man a signed napkin that said, "Francis Ford Coppola."

Last fall, the National Book Foundation gave King its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Previous recipients of the medal have been Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller and Toni Morrison. Some members of the literary community objected to King receiving the medal because they claim he doesn't write literary fiction.

In his acceptance speech, King said, "I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack...Giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that...bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers."

When asked what he wanted to achieve when he first became a writer, King said, "I wanted people to leave jobs, to ride past their stop on a bus or train, to burn dinner--because of my books. I wanted to take them prisoner."

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