Dec. 29, 2004


by William Baer

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Poem: "Snowflake" by William Baer, from Borges and Other Sonnets. © Truman State University Press. Reprinted with permission.


Timing's everything. The vapor rises
high in the sky, tossing to and fro,
then freezes, suddenly, and crystallizes
into a perfect flake of miraculous snow.
For countless miles, drifting east above
the world, whirling about in a swirling free-
for-all, appearing aimless, just like love,
but sensing, seeking out, its destiny.
Falling to where the two young skaters stand,
hand in hand, then flips and dips and whips
itself about to ever-so-gently land,
a miracle, across her unkissed lips:
as he blocks the wind raging from the south,
leaning forward to kiss her lovely mouth.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and novelist Robert Ruark, born in Wilmington, North Carolina (1915). He started out as a newspaper columnist who wrote about his travels around the world. He claimed to be able to write a column in eleven minutes. He once finished sixteen columns in a single day.

He said, "There was a time, when I would go anywhere, eat airline elephants on horseback, slug athletes, enjoy being jailed, and wrestle with leopards, all for love of the newspaper business."

He went on to write several novels, including Something of Value (1955) and The Old Man and the Boy (1957).

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard, born in Bridgeport, Connecticut (1956). He's the author of several novels, including Lights out in the Reptile House (1990) and Kiss of the Wolf (1994). He published his first short story in the Atlantic magazine when he was just nineteen years old.

His novel Project X came out this year.

It's the birthday of novelist William Gaddis, born in Manhattan (1922). He went to Harvard University, where he was the editor of the Lampoon magazine until he got expelled after a run-in with the campus police. So he got a job as a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine. He said, "It was terribly good training, a kind of post-graduate school for a writer."

He became friends with some of the beat writers of the era, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and decided to go on the road like they had. He traveled to Panama, where he worked as a crane operator on the Panama Canal. Then he went to Costa Rica, which was in the midst of a civil war. A young captain recruited him for the fight, but his rifle was stolen by the end of day.

He finally made his way back to New York City on a Honduran banana boat, and when he arrived in the city he wore a white Panama suit and his arm was in a sling, even though there was nothing wrong with it. He later said, "I was preparing my arm to write explosively when it was released from its bandage like a bird from a cage."

The book he eventually wrote was The Recognitions (1955), about an aspiring painter who sells out his talent to become a forger of Dutch masterpieces. The book was almost a thousand pages long, and it made references to art history, theology, mythology, and literature. Gaddis said, "I saw myself as a prophet...I spent seven years writing that novel. When I finished it, I thought well, I guess this will change the world. It didn't... I thought I would win the Nobel Prize... Nothing happened."

Gaddis was devastated at the reception of his book. He had to take jobs writing speeches for corporate executives to support himself. He took twenty years to write his next novel J.R. (1975) about an eleven-year-old boy who builds a financial empire that he manages from his grade school's public phone booth. It won the National Book Award. Critics went back and reread his first novel and began to call it a masterpiece.

Gaddis went on to write several more novels, including A Frolic of His Own (1994), which also won the National Book Award. But even though he's been called one of the most important writers of the 20th century, his books have never sold very well. He once received a royalty check for four dollars and thirty-five cents.

He died in 1998. His last novel Agape Agape was published after his death in 2002.

William Gaddis said, "There have never in history been so many opportunities to do so many things that aren't worth doing."

It was on this day in 1916 that James Joyce published his first novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's the coming of age story of a boy named Stephen Dedalus, growing up in Ireland near the end of the 19th century, who over the course of the book turns his back on his family, his church, and eventually his country, resolving by the end of the book to leave Ireland and become a writer.

Joyce had tried to leave Ireland himself after he finished school, but he was forced to return for his mother's funeral. He started writing for various Irish journals, and in 1904 he wrote an essay called "Portrait of an Artist", about his own development as a writer. He sent it out for publication, and when it came back rejected, he sat down at the table and sketched out a framework for a long autobiographical novel called Stephen Hero. He estimated that the book would have fifty chapters and be about 1,000 pages long.

He began writing after he had left Ireland for the second time and moved to Trieste. He had written about 900 pages of Stephen Hero before he decided that it was too conventional, too Victorian. In a fit of disgust he destroyed most of the manuscript. Only a short fragment was ever found. He started over again, and in the new version of the novel, he concentrated less on the events of the main character's life and more on his developing consciousness.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins when Stephen Dedalus is a baby, listening to his father tell a story: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo." As Stephen Dedalus grows older, the language of the novel grows more and more sophisticated. It ends with Stephen Dedalus as a young man, vowing to leave Ireland and to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Joyce spent ten years writing the novel, while also struggling to support his family teaching English. Two years before he finished the novel, he took a trip back to Ireland, where he was so disgusted by the prudery and censorship of the publishing industry that he resolved never to return to his home country again. And he never did.

In 1914, he learned than an American named Ezra Pound had developed an interest in his work, and wanted to publish something by him in a new magazine called The Egoist. Joyce sent Pound the just finished manuscript for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it was serialized there. When he published the complete novel on this day in 1916, he was celebrated as one of the most promising new writers in the English language.

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