Dec. 8, 2004


by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Poetics" by Howard Nemerov, from Inside the Onion © University of Chicago Press, 1984. Reprinted with permission.


You know the old story Ann Landers tells
About the housewife in her basement doing the wash?
She's wearing her nightie, and she thinks, "Well hell,
I might's well put this in as well," and then
Being dripped on by a leaky pipe puts on
Her son's football helmet; whereupon
The meter reader happens to walk through
And "Lady," he gravely says, "I sure hope your team wins."

A story many times told in many ways,
The set of random accidents redeemed
By one more accident, as though chaos
Were the order that was before creation came.
That is the way things happen in the world,
A joke, a disappointment satisfied,
As we walk through doing our daily round,
Reading the meter, making things add up.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Ron Hansen, born in Omaha, Nebraska (1947). He's the author of novels on a wide variety of subjects, including Mariette in Ecstasy (1991), about nuns in a convent, and Hitler's Niece (1999) about a woman Hitler may have murdered before he became a dictator. His most recent novel, Isn't It Romantic, came out last year.

Ron Hansen said, "Stories give us access to otherwise hidden, censored, unsayable thoughts and feelings now shiftily disclosed in the guise of plot and character...The hungers of our spirits are fed by sharing in the glimpsed interiority of others."

It's the birthday of Delmore Schwartz, born in Brooklyn, New York (1913). He's remembered mainly for a story he published when he was twenty-three years old: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," (1938) about a Jewish man who goes to a movie theater and sees the lives of his own immigrant parents projected on the screen.

That story made him famous, but Schwartz never fulfilled his own early potential. On his thirtieth birthday, he wrote in his diary, "Too late, already too late." He suffered from alcoholism and mental illness. His life was a long slow decline and he eventually died in a Times Square hotel. But that one short story influenced all the major Jewish American writers of the twentieth century, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud.

Delmore Schwartz wrote, "Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn."

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary Gordon, born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). One of the first books she read as a child was Peter Pan, but she was terribly afraid of Captain Hook. So her father took a pair of scissors and cut out every reference to the evil pirate. When they read the book after that, her father invented new characters and stories to take the place of the missing parts. He taught her to write poems and stories and took her to the New York City Public Library every Saturday.

Her father had a heart attack in the main reading room of that same library when Mary Gordon was seven years old. She grew up in a house with her mother and grandmother, neither of whom supported her creativity. She said, "When my father died, it was like all lights went out."

After college, Gordon published several novels, including Final Payments (1978) and Men and Angels (1985), and in each one there was usually a character based on her father. After years of writing about him in her fiction, she decided to write a nonfiction book about his life. But once she began to do some research, she realized that she hadn't known anything about him at all.

She had grown up thinking he was a Harvard graduate, but in fact he'd never passed 10th grade. She'd always thought he was a writer, but in fact he was a publisher of pornography magazines. And though he'd grown up Jewish, he'd converted to Catholicism and become an anti-Semite. She remembered him going to work in the city every day, but in fact her mother had supported the family.

Gordon wrote about the experience of investigating her father in the memoir The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1996). She said, "Writing the book made me realize...I'm more self-invented than I thought. She said that she resents the lies her father told her about his life, but she believes that if she hadn't believed his lies, she would probably never have become a writer. She said, "The myth of my father gave me courage."

Mary Gordon's novel Pearl comes out next month.

It's the birthday of the great humorist James Thurber, born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He was one of the most important early staff writers for the New Yorker magazine, but he had a lot of trouble getting started there. He started submitting humor pieces to the New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe the New Yorker must have a rejection machine."

He took a job at the New York Evening Post, but he knew he wanted to write humor, so he kept at it. He was living in a basement apartment with his first wife. She thought that after twenty of his humor pieces had failed to find a publisher he should probably give up. But one night, he set his alarm clock to go off forty five minutes after he'd fallen asleep, and he woke up in sleepy daze and wrote the first thing that came to mind: a story about a man going round and round in a revolving door, attracting crowds and the police and eventually setting the world record for revolving door laps. It was the first piece of his published in the New Yorker.

After Thurber published a few more pieces in the magazine, the editor Harold Ross asked him to come down to the office. Thurber was hoping he'd get a job as a staff writer, but Ross hired him instead as an administrative editor. For the first two months on the job, Thurber worked seven days a week, editing factual copy for all the most boring parts of the magazine. He hated the job, so he started making mistakes on purpose, hoping that Ross would demote him to working on "Talk of the Town," the humor section of the magazine. When that didn't work, he started submitting his own pieces without Ross's knowledge.

One day Ross barged into his office and said he'd found out Thurber had been writing for the magazine in secret. Ross said, "I don't know how in the hell you found time to write. I admit I didn't want you to. I could hit a dozen writers from here with this ashtray. They're undependable...[but] if you're a writer, write! Maybe you've got something to say." So Thurber became a staff writer, and began sharing an office with E. B. White.

In addition to writing, Thurber was constantly doodling on pieces of paper and throwing them away, and he liked to fill up all the pages of office memo pads with sketches and then put them back on the shelf, in hopes of driving someone crazy. He said, "It was E. B. White who got the mad impetuous idea that my scrawls should be published and, what is more, paid for with money." His first cartoon was rejected because the art editor said seal's whiskers didn't look like that. E. B. White defended the drawing and said that it wasn't a seal in the drawing but a "Thurber seal."

Thurber went on to write for the magazine for more than thirty years, and his style of writing and sense of humor helped set the tone for the magazine as a whole. William Shawn said, "There will never be an issue of the New Yorker of which Thurber is not a part." He became famous for writing stories and drawing cartoons about a certain type of exasperated man. E. B. White said, "These 'Thurber men'...are frustrated, fugitive beings; at times they seem vaguely striving to get out of something without being seen (a room, a situation, a state of mind), at other times they are merely perplexed and too humble, or weak, to move."

Thurber is best known for his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1944), about a man who imagines he is a soldier, a deadly marksman, a world famous surgeon, and a condemned man facing a firing squad, all while running errands for his overbearing wife. The word "Mitty" has entered the lexicon, defined as a perpetual daydreamer.

Thurber had poor eyesight for most of his life, which made him terribly clumsy. He said, "I once tried to feed a nut to a faucet, thinking it was a squirrel." He went completely blind later in life, but he said, "At least, I have been spared the sight of television."

He published more than thirty books of short pieces. Most of his work is collected in Writings & Drawings (1996).

James Thurber said, "There is no substitute for the delight of writing...If I couldn't write, I couldn't breathe."

And, "The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself."

It's the birthday of the novelist John Banville, born in Wexford, Ireland. He's the author of many novels, including The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Shroud (2002).

He's one of the most experimental of contemporary Irish novelists. He said, "I don't think any novelist is happy being just a novelist...We should be poets. We should be composers. We should be painters. We should be making language do things that the novel won't allow you to do. This is what I've been trying to do for a long time."

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