Oct. 29, 2004

Going Away

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Going Away," by Howard Nemerov, from New Poems © (University of Chicago Press).

Going Away

Now as the year turns toward its darkness
the car is packed, and time come to start
driving west. We have lived here
for many years and been more or less content;
now we are going away. That is how
things happen, and how into new places,
among other people, we shall carry
our lives with their peculiar memories
both happy and unhappy but either way
touched with a strange tonality
of what is gone but inalienable, the clear
and level light of a late afternoon
out on the terrace, looking to the mountains,
drinking with friends. Voices and laughter
lifted in still air, in a light
that seemed to paralyze time.
We have had kindness here, and some
unkindness; now we are going on.
Though we are young enough still
And militant enough to be resolved,
Keeping our faces to the front, there is
A moment, after saying all farewells,
when we taste the dry and bitter dust
of everything that we have said and done
for many years, and our mouths are dumb,
and the easy tears will not do. Soon
the north wind will shake the leaves,
the leaves will fall. It may be
never again that we shall see them,
the strangers who stand on the steps,
smiling and waving, before the screen doors
of their suddenly forbidden houses.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of James Boswell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1740). He is best known as the author of Life of Johnson (1791), a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is considered by many people to be the greatest biography ever written in English. As a young man, Boswell's father wanted him to settle down and take care of the family's ancestral estate in rural Scotland. Boswell wanted adventure, excitement, and intrigue, so he ran away to London and became a Catholic, which was a rebellious thing to do at the time. He began keeping a journal in London and developed a style that made him one of the greatest diarists in English literature. Instead of describing his thoughts and feelings about things, he wrote down scenes from his life as though they were fiction. He described his friends as though they were characters and recorded long stretches of dialogue.

As a young man, Boswell was the life of the party, and everyone who met him liked him. The French writer Voltaire invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour. David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He hung out with the philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau's mistress liked him so much that she had an affair with Boswell. He was even friends with the pope. And then on May 16, 1763, he met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson in the back room of a bookstore. Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him. The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you." Johnson was thirty years older than Boswell and he was the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but Boswell never tried to compete with Johnson's intellect. Their relationship was like an interview that went on for years. Boswell would just ask questions and listen to Johnson talk, and then he would go home and write it all down in his journal. He asked about Johnson's childhood and his opinions, but he also asked him bizarre things like what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. Johnson said he preferred cotton underwear to silk.

The two men eventually became great friends. They talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. Boswell knew early on that he would write Johnson's biography, but he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow going. He watched as several others published books about Johnson, and he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it. He had to fight with his editor to keep the bizarre details, like the things Johnson had said to his cat. He felt that these were the details that revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it was a huge best seller. No one had ever written such a personal biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.

It's the birthday of Henry Green, born Henry Vincent Yorke in Tewkesbury, England (1905). He grew up as a privileged son of a wealthy foundry owner. He studied literature in college, and moved in a circle of elite intellectuals, discussing philosophy and art, but he found that whenever he saw people doing physical labor, he felt guilty. So one day, he took a job as an iron molder in his father's foundry. The men he worked with knew he was the boss's son, and they couldn't figure out what he was doing there. They decided that he had committed some unspeakable crime, and he was working in the foundry as a punishment. The thing he loved most about the job was listening to the foundry workers talk, and he incorporated their voices into a novel about his experience called Living (1929). His novel got good reviews, but he published it under the pseudonym Henry Green, so no one knew he had written it. He quit his job at the foundry and became a successful industrial businessman, but he continued to write novels in secret, including Caught (1943), Loving (1945), and Nothing (1950).

It's the birthday of journalist and current editor of The New Yorker magazine, David Remnick, born in Hackensack, New Jersey (1958). Both of his grandfathers came to the United States from Russia, fleeing the Russian Revolution of 1917. As a young man, he got a job writing for the Washington Post, covering crime, sports, and fashion. Then in 1987, he heard there was an opening for a Moscow correspondent, and he took the job. Before he left, he visited one of his grandfathers in Florida and told him that he was moving to Russia. His grandfather, who was 102 years old, couldn't believe that Remnick would choose to go to a place he had risked his life to escape.

Remnick went anyway, and covered the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He interviewed politicians, generals, intellectuals, and workers to get a complete picture of the effect on Russian society. In 1993, he came out with Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. He went on to write for The New Yorker, and he was named editor in 1998, even though he'd never edited a magazine before. He is only the fifth person to serve as editor since the magazine was founded in 1925.

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