Nov. 17, 2004

Then It Was Simple

by Cortney Davis

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Poem: "Then It Was Simple" by Cortney Davis from Leopold's Maneuvers © University of Nebraska Press. Reprinted with permission.

Then It Was Simple

You walked up Sylvandell Drive
on the coldest night. Soon, Father would be home,

easing the grey Plymouth into the one-car garage,
and Mother, who was always home,

would be cooking meatloaf with its two
sizzling strips of bacon. Snow stung your face,

snow crunched beneath your boots and the glow
from Pittsburgh's steel mills hung in the sky.

In such a place, in 1955, Mary could appear to you
casually, leaning out the neighbor's window,

a blue domestic angel with a movie star face,
round arms crossed on the sill, her brown hair

in a friendly page boy. She smiled, you smiled back,
your sled tugging behind you,

grounding you, and the frozen snow and the whirl of gravity
holding you, and Mary,

as if she were not from another world,
so happy to see you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne upon the death of her sister, Queen Mary. She reigned for 45 years, one of the great eras in English history. Near the end of her reign, she said to her subjects: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves."

Despite the dark events of war and religious murders, Elizabeth's reign is best remembered for extraordinary achievements. She believed it was her divine mission to lead England, and under her direction, the country became strong and unified. Commerce and industry prospered. The queen herself was an expert musician and her court was the cultural center of its day. Some of the great writers in English literature—Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare—appeared during her reign. Spenser's masterpiece, The Faerie Queen (1596) is even dedicated to her.

It's the birthday of American novelist and historian Shelby Foote, born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). He was a successful novelist when, in 1952, he accepted the suggestion of his publisher to write a short history of the Civil War to complement his novel Shiloh (1952). Foote is best known for his trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative.

Foote grew up on the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, once a great swamp filled with alligators and water moccasin snakes. Foote's father was a manager at Armour & Co. and died of septicemia from an operation on his nose when Foote was five. Foote's mother never remarried. She spent her time getting him out of trouble. He was editor of the high school paper and liked to give the principal a hard time. When Foote applied to attend college at Chapel Hill, the principal wrote a letter saying not to let Foote into their school under any circumstances. Foote got in his car and drove to North Carolina to register anyway and told them he didn't think they meant it so they let him in. He was a literary prodigy there along with his classmate Walker Percy, who was his best friend for sixty years.

Foote's interest in writing began with his interest in reading. When he was eleven he won as a prize a copy of David Copperfield. Up until then, he'd read The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift and Tarzan. He said, "This was a whole other world, and it was a world of art. I couldn't have defined it as that, but, one thing, I knew David Copperfield better than anybody I knew in the real world, including myself. I said, 'My God,' to myself, 'this is a whole world.'"

As a teenager, Foote sold poems to magazines for 50 cents apiece. He read and loved the work of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner and Walker Percy's uncle, Will Percy.

When Foote was 19 years old and he and Walker Percy were planning to drive from Foote's hometown, Greenville, Mississippi, through William Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Foote suggested they stop in Oxford and try to meet him. Percy said he wasn't going to just knock on his door and Foote said he would. Percy waited in the car while Foote went up the cedar-tree lined walkway to Faulkner's house. He was greeted in the yard by three hounds, two fox terriers and a Dalmatian. Soon, a small man, barefoot, naked save for a pair of shorts, and seemingly drunk, appeared and asked Foote what he wanted. "Could you tell me where to find a copy of Marble Faun, Mr. Faulkner?" Foote asked. Faulkner was gruff and told him to contact his agent. Faulkner later befriended Foote, who walked Faulkner around the Civil War battlefields of Shiloh.

Foote once told Faulkner on one of their outings, "You know, I have every right to be a better writer than you. Your literary idols were Joseph Conrad and Sherwood Anderson. Mine are Marcel Proust and you. My writers are better than yours."

Foote started a novel in his late 20s, but World War II interrupted and he served in the European theater under General George Patton as a captain of field artillery. He carried with him, in his baggage, G.F.R. Henderson's Stonewall Jackson, and had Douglas South Freeman's R.E. Lee with him as often as he could lug it around. He spent his spare time drawing maps and figuring out what happened during the Civil War.

He said, "I think history has a plot. You don't make it up; you discover it."

After the service, Foote returned to fiction and sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. He published several highly regarded novels—including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950) and Love in a Dry Season (1951)—before he turned to the first Civil War volume in 1952.

What Foote thought might be a four-year project turned into a three-volume effort that took two decades, topping 1.6 million words and a total of 2,093 pages when published. He compared the project to swallowing a cannonball. He wrote all three volumes in Memphis. Scores of television viewers were introduced to Foote during Ken Burns' 1991 PBS series "The Civil War."

He said, "The kind of country we are emerged from the Civil War, not from the Revolution. The Revolution provided us with a constitution; it broke us loose from England; it made us free. But the Civil War really defined us."

Foote writes six to eight hours a day seven days a week in his bedroom. He writes five or six hundred words a day (about 100,00 words a year) with a dip pen, which you have to dip in ink after every three or four words. After he finishes writing, he sets it aside to dry, then copies it off on a typewriter and puts it on the stack without editing, because Foote doesn't see a need to edit his work. He likes to be left alone when he writes. He often quotes words John Keats wrote in a letter: "A fact is not a truth until you love it."

Foote said, "I'm privately convinced that most of the really bad writing the world's ever seen has been done under the influence of what's called inspiration. Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time."

And he said, "I have noticed that when a man dies, no matter at what age or by what cause, his life then has a beginning and a middle and an end, and sometimes his death explains his youth."

And, "A writer's like anybody else except when he's writing."

It was on this day in 1869 that the Suez Canal was formally opened for navigation. The Canal was officially inaugurated in a lavish ceremony. French, British, Russian, and other royalty were invited for the event which coincided with the re-planning of Cairo. A highway was constructed linking Cairo to the new city of Ismailia, an Opera House was built, and Verdi was commissioned to compose his famous opera, "Aida" for the opening ceremony.

The digging of the canal began on April 25, 1859 and continued for ten years. The sea-level waterway is 100 miles long, connecting, by way of three natural lakes, the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and the Indian Ocean. It is the longest Canal that has no locks, and it can be widened and deepened at any time when necessary.

More than 2.4 million Egyptian workers took part, of which more than 125,000 lost their lives.

It's the birthday of film director Martin Scorsese, born 1942 in Flushing, in the New York borough of Queens. He is known for his direction of movies like "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1975), "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), "Goodfellas" (1990), "The Ages of Innocence" (1993) and "Gangs of New York" (2002).

Scorsese grew up in Little Italy in Manhattan where he lived until he was 24. Scorsese had asthma and wasn't able to work odd jobs during the summers or play with the neighborhood boys. Instead, he went to movies with his father and afterward sketched motion picture scenes on drawing pads.

Scorsese was raised a devout Roman Catholic and enrolled in a seminary with the intention of becoming a priest. He was expelled for roughhousing during prayers and transferred to a high school in the Bronx where he found in filmmaking his true vocation. He went to New York University and won awards for his student films "What's a Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" (1963) and "It's Not Just You, Murray" (1964).

Scorsese directed his first feature film, "Who's That Knocking At My Door" (1968) while teaching at NYU. Scorsese won widespread acclaim with "Mean Streets" (1973), based on a relationship between a couple of small-time hoods (played by Harvey Keitel and the then-unknown Robert De Niro) in the criminal world of Little Italy. In a long New Yorker review, Pauline Kael called the movie "a triumph of personal filmmaking."

Along with movies, Scorsese made documentaries about antiwar demonstrations and Woodstock. He made a 45-minute documentary of an after-dinner conversation with his parents. The film, "Italianamerican" (!973), includes his parents telling stories and a demonstration of his mother making spaghetti sauce. It received a standing ovation at the 1974 New York Film Festival, during which his mother blew kisses to the audience.

Martin Scorsese said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out."

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




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