Aug. 16, 2005

A Country Story

by Kenneth Fields

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Poem: "A Country Story" by Kenneth Fields, from Classic Rough News. © The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Country Story

"When I was a little girl back in East Texas,"
My mother's mother, Beulah, used to tell,
"There was an outbreak of the German measles,
Mama was pregnant, so I went away
To a neighbor lady's, three or four miles from home
When the first signs showed. I was just eight, and sick,
And lonesome for Mama. One day she came for me.
My little sister had broken out, and Mama
Figuring she would die, and the baby, too,
Wanted us all together for those last weeks.
She wanted me home with her. As it turned out
My sister had been reading by the fire
And broke out from the heat, and it was me
That carried the measles home. After Mama died
I used to think of seeing her out the window
Talking to the neighbor lady on that day,
Crying and wiping her eyes with her apron hem."

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1977, Elvis Presley died at 42 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began his singing career by performing hymns and gospel tunes with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, at concerts and state fairs. His parents bought him his first guitar when he was 11. He was 18 when he walked into a Memphis studio and paid $4 to record "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" as a present for his mother.

It's the birthday of the man who created the True Story, and True Romance magazines, Bernarr Macfadden, born in Mill Spring, Missouri (1868). His parents both died when he was a boy, his father of alcoholism and his mother of consumption. His uncle sold him off as an indentured servant to work on a farm. After he almost died of malnutrition, he became obsessed with his health. He started doing daily exercises and became a vegetarian. When he was eighteen, he ran away from the farm and eventually set up his own business in New York City, teaching people to exercise and eat right.

He invented a muscle-building machine, and wrote a pamphlet to advertise it. The pamphlet grew into his first magazine, Physical Culture, which came out in March 1899. His first editorial was titled, "Weakness Is a Crime, Don't Be a Criminal." His magazine was such a success that he became one of the first health and fitness gurus.

Readers of Physical Culture often wrote letters to the magazine asking for advice on their love lives or describing unhealthy experiences they regretted. McFadden got the idea to publish these letters in a separate magazine called True Story. It was the first true confessions magazine, published in 1919. When other popular women's magazines were publishing articles about the love lives of duchesses and princesses, True Story published articles about the love lives of secretaries and shop girls. It was one of the most popular magazines of its time.

It's the birthday of author and editor William Maxwell, born in Lincoln, Illinois (1908). He grew up in a small town in Illinois. His father was a fire insurance salesman, and was on the road for days at a time. With his father gone so much, Maxwell became especially close to his mother. He said, "She just shone on me like the sun." When he was ten years old, his mother caught influenza and died during the epidemic in 1918. He wrote, "It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it... the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away." His family moved to Chicago a few years later. Though he never lived in Lincoln, Illinois again, he never forgot it and he wrote many of his short stories about his childhood there with his mother.

After college he moved to New York and got a job at the New Yorker. He started in the art department, where he persuaded John Updike to give up drawing cartoons and start writing fiction. Maxwell worked at the New Yorker for forty years, editing fiction by John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Vladimir Nabokov. He said that what made him a good editor was that he himself hated being edited, and so he changed very little. Eudora Welty said, "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."

While editing the stories of others at the New Yorker, Maxwell was writing his own fiction. He wrote many novels, including They Came Like Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980).

Most of his short stories are collected in All the Days and Nights (1995). Almost all of his novels and stories were inspired in one way or another by the memory of his mother's death. He was asked later in his life what he what say to his mother if he could tell her anything. He said, "I would tell her, 'Here are these beautiful books that I made for you.'"

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