Nov. 12, 2004

an art student at a certain stage

by Gerald Locklin

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Poem: "an art student at a certain stage," by Gerald Locklin, from The Modigliani/Montparnasse Poems (dOOm-AH Books).

an art student at a certain stage

she hisses at her elders,
"he is not considered major nowadays."

i want to ask her why she cares
what he's considered,
why she cares what her guests
think of him,
how highly she herself feels
he should be esteemed,
and whether she does not find often
that she disagrees with those who drive
her to the passive (though aggressive)

but we have all been students once,
and it's a terrifying thing to be,
so impressed by the glib self-assurance
of the arbiters of fashion,
and as such so easily enlisted into the
(temporary) ranks of the cultural terrorists.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and short story writer Tracy Kidder, born in New York City (1945). He served in the Vietnam War and came back to write the short story "The Death of Major Great" (1974), about a group of soldiers who kill their commanding officer. The story was published in the Atlantic Monthly and launched his career as a writer. But instead of continuing to write stories, he decided that the best use of his talent would be to describe the real world in non-fiction. After a book about a murder trial that he considered a failure, he focused his attention on the growing industry of computers. He spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer, which they said would revolutionize the world. He wasn't sure he believed them, but he wrote about the engineers anyway, describing the way they talked, what they looked like, their rituals, frustrations and desires. He described the engineers as, "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement." He said, "They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." His book The Soul of a New Machine was published in 1981. It was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Kidder went on to write many more books, including House (1985), about the world of carpenters and house building, and Among Schoolchildren (1989), about the education industry. His most recent book is Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003).

It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, born in Cherbourg, France (1915). His father was killed in World War I, and his mother struggled to support the family, working as a bookbinder. Barthes did well in school and wanted to be a professor of literature and philosophy, but he came down with tuberculosis as a young man. Because of his frequent relapses, and the periods of time he had to spend in sanitariums, he couldn't hold down a teaching job. So instead of writing long books about great works of literature, he began to support himself by writing short essays about popular culture. He was one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, "I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life,'s been pretty fun." He greatly expanded the scope of cultural studies, and it is partially thanks to him that college students can now take classes on subjects like Bugs Bunny. His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970). Barthes said, "Literature is the question minus the answer."

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, born in New York City (1943). He's best known as a character actor in Hollywood movies such as The Princess Bride (1987), and Clueless (1995), but he's also one of the most experimental modern playwrights in America. His father was William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker magazine from 1952 to 1987. Wallace grew up surrounded by the New York literary society, and he became an excessively sophisticated kid. In grade school he wrote puppet plays about the fall of Chinese dynasties, and he wrote a puppet adaptation of Paradise Lost that went on for hours. But when he grew up, most people found his plays too strange. He said of his first play, Four Meals in May (1967), "[I thought it was] the answer to the war in Vietnam. I thought they would rename the country after me when people saw that play! . . . [But they acted] as if they'd been given a handful of blank pieces of paper."

Shawn continued writing plays that either had no plot, or were so violent and disturbing that no one would produce them. He has said of his early plays that they are characterized mostly by "weeping and vomiting." His first play to receive a full production was Our Late Night (1975), in which a series of casual conversations at a cocktail party gradually reveal deeply disturbing things about the characters' sex lives. At the premier of the play, members of the audience were so disturbed that they started shouting for the characters to shut up. One audience member tried to climb onstage and attack one of the actors. When his play A Thought in Three Parts (1977) was produced in London, its sexual content caused such controversy that Shawn was almost deported from Great Britain.

At the end of the 1970s, Shawn felt he was running out of ideas, so he collaborated on a play with the experimental theater director Andre Gregory. The two got together and recorded their conversations about theater and life, and Shawn used the conversations as the basis for a script about two friends having a conversation over dinner. The script was made into the 1981 movie My Dinner With Andre, and even though the entire movie consists of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sitting at a dinner table talking, it was a big success. He's since gone on to write several more plays, including The Designated Mourner (1996), his most recent. Shawn said, "I really don't think there is very much honor in a life devoted to writing, unless that writing can do something awfully unusual, awfully necessary."

It's the birthday of the founder of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). He was seriously wounded in World War I. During his recovery he read hundreds of magazines, and he began to realize that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He compiled a sample issue of the first Reader's Digest and spent years trying to sell the idea to publishers in New York, but they all turned him down. He would have given up, but he was fired from his job and figured he didn't have anything to lose. He moved to New York to publish the magazine on his own, and when he arrived he ran into a woman he had known years before named Lila Bell Acheson. He told her about his idea and she decided to help him get it off the ground. They marketed the magazine themselves from a basement underneath a Greenwich Village speakeasy, and while working on the magazine they fell in love and got married. Just before they left on their honeymoon, they sent out several hundred circulars advertising subscriptions, and when they got back, they had 1,500 subscribers. The first issue came out in February, 1922. People didn't think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal, but Wallace had a talent for finding those stories that appealed to the widest number of people. By the end of the decade, Reader's Digest was one of the most profitable magazines in the country, and it is now one of the most widely read magazines in the world.

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