Nov. 8, 2004

An Ill Wind

by Louis Jenkins

Monday, 8 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "An Ill Wind" by Louis Jenkins, from Sea Smoke © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

An Ill Wind

Today there's a cold northeast wind blowing, piling up ice all
along the water's edge. The Point is deserted, no one for five
miles down the beach. Just the way I like it. The sand is frozen
mostly, so the walking is easy as I pick my way through the
wrack and drift. Today I don't even leave footprints. Wind,
sand, sun and water. A simplicity that defies comprehension.
The barest essentials for the imagination's work. This shore has
been pretty much the same for ten thousand years. Countless
others have been here before me, musing and pondering, as
they walked down the beach and disappeared forever. So here's
what I'm thinking: wouldn't it be great if one of them dropped
a big roll of hundred dollar bills and I found it?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954). His family moved to Great Britain when he was six years old. Though he didn't visit his home country again for more than thirty years, he wrote two novels about Japanese life, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986).

But he's best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a fastidious English butler who served under a Nazi sympathizer during the lead up to World War II. That novel won the Booker Prize. Ishiguro's most recent novel is When We Were Orphans, which came out in 2000.

It's the birthday of the poet Rachel Hadas, born in New York City (1948). She's the author of many collections of poetry, including Mirrors of Astonishment (1992) and The Empty Bed (1995). Her most recent collection, Laws, came out this year.

It's the birthday of Bram Stoker, born in Dublin, Ireland (1847). He was working as a clerk for the civil service when he saw an unknown actor named Henry Irving in a play that changed his life. He became obsessed with Irving's acting career, and began writing freelance reviews of every play in which Irving appeared. Eventually, Irving became one of the most famous Shakespearian actors of the era, and he invited Bram Stoker to be his manager at the Lyceum Theater in London.

Stoker became the devoted servant of Henry Irving, writing his speeches, ordering his lunches, and planning his every appointment. He was a hard worker and a meticulous bookkeeper and always kept the theater out of debt, and didn't have much ambition to do anything else. But one night, in 1890, he dreamt that a woman was trying to kiss him on the throat, and an elderly Count interrupted her shouting, "This man belongs to me!" Stoker woke up and immediately wrote about the dream in his diary. He couldn't get it out of his mind for weeks, and kept thinking about whom the Count might be.

Over the next several years, he began to make notes for a novel about the Count. He spent seven years gathering material, reading Transylvanian folklore, visiting graveyards, and studying the behavior of zoo animals. He named the Count after a Romanian historical figure, Vlad Dracula, remembered as the last warrior to defend Europe against the Turks after the fall of Constantinople.

Dracula came out in 1897 and got mixed reviews. It only became a minor best-seller in Stoker's lifetime. When he died in 1912, the obituaries about Stoker focused on his career in theater, and not a single one mentioned his authorship of Dracula. Stoker's wife made a fortune when the first Dracula movies started appearing in 1922, but she lost most of the money in the 1929 stock market crash. She used her remaining savings to build a bathroom in her basement, and she named the bathroom "Drac."

Count Dracula went on to become one of the most enduring fictional and cinematic characters of all time, appearing in more than 250 movies. Today there is a World Dracula Congress, many Dracula societies, and Romania has recently developed a tourist trade around Dracula, leading tours of Vlad Dracula's castle, where visitors can purchase Dracula goblets, Draculina soft drinks, paintings of Dracula, and bottles of blood red Vodka.

It's the birthday of the author of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1900). She spent almost her entire life in Atlanta, where everyone's grandparents told stories about the Old South and the War Between the States. She started writing fiction, and had written short stories and novels by the time she was a teenager, but she decided she wasn't good enough, so she gave up. She went to Smith College for a year and studied psychiatry, but moved back home when her mother became ill.

She was an independent and controversial young lady. The Atlanta Junior League rejected her application for membership because she'd once performed a risqué dance at a debutante ball that scandalized everyone in attendance. She married a wild bootlegger named Red Upshaw, who later became the basis of the character Rhett Butler, but when he turned violent she divorced him and married his best friend.

She got a job as a reporter, and wrote a series of stories about Georgia women who'd broken conventions, including a woman who'd disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. The articles resulted in a barrage of angry letters from readers who said Mitchell was defaming Georgian womanhood. So she gave up on feminist journalism and started writing about Confederate history. While working on a story about Confederate General Henry Benning, she became fascinated by the story of his wife, who struggled to keep the family plantation in operation and nursed wounded Confederate soldiers in her house.

In 1926, Mitchell injured her ankle, which forced her to quit her job as a reporter. Her husband brought her books to read from the library during her recovery, and then one day he brought home a stack of copy paper and a typewriter as a present. He told her that there was hardly a book left in the library she hadn't read, so she better write one of her own. She worked on her novel for years, writing the chapters out of order, and poring over history books so she could get all the historical details right. She documented at least four sources for every historical event she referenced.

Mitchell was still working on the rough draft when the editor for Macmillan, who was in Atlanta looking for publishable manuscripts, heard about her book. He contacted her, but she denied having written anything. Then, just before he was to leave the city, she showed up at his hotel with the five-foot pile of paper. She later said, "I just couldn't believe that a Northern publisher would accept a novel about the War Between the States from the Southern point of view."

Macmillan editors said Mitchell's manuscript was in terrible shape, with more than 1000 pages of faded and dog-eared paper, poorly typed and with penciled changes. But they loved the story. They asked Mitchell to change the original title "Tomorrow Is Another Day" because at the time there were already thirteen books in print with the word "Tomorrow" in the title. They also asked her to change the main character's name from Pansy to Scarlett.

Gone with the Wind broke all publication records. It sold 50,000 copies in one day, a million copies in six months, and two million by the end of the year. The sales of the book were even more impressive because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. The hardcover of the novel cost three dollars a copy, which was fairly expensive at the time. Its sales injected millions of dollars into the publishing industry. The year it came out, employees at the Macmillan publishing company received Christmas benefits for the first time in nearly a decade.

Gone with the Wind was translated into almost forty languages. Margaret Mitchell was particularly proud that it was banned in Nazi-occupied Europe during the war and that black market copies sold for high prices among members of the French Resistance, who identified strongly with Scarlett O'Hara.

Margaret Mitchell became one of the most famous writers in America. She was the victim of rumors she was insane, that she had a wooden leg, that her husband had really written Gone with the Wind, that she had paid author Sinclair Lewis to write the book for her, that she was dying of leukemia, and that she was going blind.

Mitchell never wrote another novel, but spent the rest of her life answering fan mail and doing charity work. In 1945, she had a premonition and wrote to a friend, "I'm going to die in a car-crash. I feel very certain of this." Four years later, she was crossing the street with her husband, when a drunk driver struck and killed her. Two collections of her early writing have been published: Before Scarlett: Girlhood Writings of Margaret Mitchell and Margaret Mitchell: Reporter, both of which came out in 2000.

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




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