Nov. 3, 2004

In the Library

by William Stafford

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Poem: "In the Library" by William Stafford, from Even In Quiet Places © Confluence Press, Lewiston, Idaho, 1996. Reprinted with permission.

In the Library

You are reading a book, and think you know
the end, but others can't wait—they crowd
on the shelves, breathing. You stop and look around.
It is the best time: evening is coming,
a bronze haze has captured the sun,
lights down the street come on.

You turn the page carefully. Over your shoulder
another day has watched what you do
and written it down in that book
you can't read till all the pages are done.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Martin Cruz Smith, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1942). In the 1970's, he was a struggling writer of potboiler mysteries and horror novels when he got an idea for a novel about a Russian detective. He wanted the novel to be authentic, so he saved up enough money to take a trip to Russia, where he wandered around taking notes and sketching pictures of things.

The Russian authorities thought he might be a spy, and wouldn't let him return for any follow up trips. So he became friends with as many Russian émigrés as he could find, and interviewed them for more details. He said, "I wanted to know everything, from the quality of shoes to whether a ranking policeman would have to be a member of the Communist party." The research alone took him eight years, and the result was Gorky Park (1981), which got great reviews and became one of the best-selling books of the 1980's.

He's gone on to write many more novels including Red Square (1992) and Havana Bay (2002). His latest novel Wolves Eat Dogs comes out this month.

It's the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally, born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939). He's best known for his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together.

McNally started out as a journalist in Texas and one of his first big breaks was an interview with Lyndon Johnson, who was running for re-election to the Senate. During the interview, Johnson got a phone call from his wife, and while he talked to her, he flipped through a Playboy magazine. McNally thought that was the most interesting part of the interview, but he got in a lot of trouble when he wrote about it, so he decided journalism wasn't for him.

McNally started writing plays but then put it off to take a job as a tutor for John Steinbeck's children. He thought maybe Steinbeck would give him some advice, but all Steinbeck told him was that playwriting was the worst existence in the world. McNally stuck with it though, and had a series of off-Broadway hits. Then his career hit a slump. He stopped writing and supported himself working on radio shows. He said, "I guess it hadn't occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write plays -- I thought you could be a playwright and sulk."

Then, one day, someone recognized his voice, and asked him if he was that guy on the radio. He realized that if he didn't keep writing plays, he'd be remembered as some radio personality. So he got back to work and produced Frankie and Johnny, which became his first big hit and was made into a movie.

His most recent play is The Stendhal Syndrome, which was produced this year.

It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in fancy boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at the Sylvia Beach's bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn't meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn't amount to much. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."

He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure, but one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures he took in America was of the parade honoring Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.

He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why there it is."

He photographed storefronts and signs with marquee lights, blurred views from speeding trains, old office furniture, and common tools. He took pictures of people in the New York City subways with a camera hidden in his winter coat.

Evans especially loved photographing bedrooms: farmers' bedrooms, bohemian bedrooms, middle-class bedrooms. He'd photograph what people had on their mantles, on their dressers, and in their dresser drawers. By the early 1930's, he was one of the most celebrated photographers in the United States. In 1933 was given the first one-man photographic exhibition by the new Museum of Modern Art.

In the summer of 1936, he went down to Greensboro, Alabama to photograph tenant farmers struggling through the Great Depression. He spent weeks there, with the journalist James Agee, photographing the Burroughs family the Fields and the Tingle family at work on their farms and in their ramshackle homes.

At first, he was uncomfortable with the idea of taking pictures of such desperate people, but James Agee persuaded him that their job was show how noble these people were despite their circumstances. When Evans and Agee said goodbye at the end of their work, the farmers wept. The photographs, with Agee's text, were published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). They are among the most famous images of the Great Depression.

Walker Evans said, "Fine photography is literature, and it should be."

It's the birthday of journalist and columnist James "Scotty" Reston, born in Clydebank, Scotland (1909). He grew up in Scotland, in extreme poverty, living in a brick tenement house with only one bed. For years, he and his sister slept crosswise on the bed at their parents' feet. But when he was eleven years old his family moved to the United States and settled in Dayton, Ohio.

He was an athletic kid, and was so good at golf that he considered turning professional out of high school, but his mother demanded he go to college. He studied journalism, but skipped the class on governmental reporting. He specialized in sports coverage and got a job as a sportswriter for the Associated Press. He went to London in 1937 to cover summer sporting events.

But as soon as he arrived, he became interested in all the growing talk of war, and he began to write dispatches on British foreign affairs. His articles impressed the staff of the New York Times, so they hired him for their London bureau. His first day on the job was Sept. 1, 1939, the same day that Hitler's armies marched into Poland, starting World War II. He spent most of the rest of his career reporting on upon the aftermath of that day.

Reston covered all the major developments of the Cold War. He broke the news that the leaders of the major countries of the world were planning to establish the United Nations. He was the first journalist to learn that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. He traveled to China to cover that country's growing openness, months before Nixon ever went there. And he helped persuade the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers when they were leaked in 1971.

Reston typed all his stories with two fingers and frequently wore out typewriters because he banged so hard on the keys. He always smoked a pipe as he worked, and the papers on his desk were covered with tiny black burn marks from the many matches he discarded after lighting and relighting his pipe.

Reston's political column for the New York Times, called "Washington," appeared in more than 300 newspapers across the country, three times a week, making him the most influential American journalist of his generation. He said, "What I try to do, is write a letter to a friend who doesn't have time to find out all the goofy things that go on in Washington."

His memoir Deadline came out in 1991.

James Reston said, "I think newspapering is important, to say nothing of being fun. It not only involves a man in the struggles of his time, thus keeping him from going to sleep, but gives him the opportunity, unmatched by the university or the law, to write on the big issues when people are paying attention."

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




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