Apr. 28, 2006

Once In New York

by Tim Nolan

FRIDAY, 28 APRIL, 2006
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Poem: "Once In New York" by Tim Nolan. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Once In New York

I spoke to Greta Garbo—I said—
"Good evening"—she said—"Good evening"

I was a young man-she was an old lady—
but she was beautiful in her actions—

rushing across the lobby—she was as fleet
as a doe-turning in the dark forest—

wary of everyone in the woods—but not me—
she was not wary of me—I was harmless—

Then I knew the quick connection to something
rare and passing—the only living example—

Helen—long after the Greek men found their way
toward home—and tried to remember her voice again.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1789 that a mutiny broke out on a British cargo ship called the HMS Bounty. It was the most notorious mutiny in naval history. William Wordsworth wrote a poem about the story called "The Borderers" (1795), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) was partly inspired by the events following the mutiny. But the work that did the most to popularize the story was the novel Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall.

In that novel, and the several movie adaptations, the villain of the story was Captain Bligh, who was so brutal in his command of the ship that he actually had a man whipped to death with a cat-o'-nine-tails and ordered the whipping to continue even after the man was dead. In that fictional version of the story sailors under his command had no choice but to rebel against him.

But historians argue that Bligh wasn't any stricter than the average sea captain, and that the cause of the mutiny was that the men missed the women they had met on the island of Tahiti.

In fact, historians suggest that Captain Bligh was the hero of the story. On this day in 1789, a few days after leaving the island, 11 crew members burst into Bligh's cabin and forced him out on the deck, dressed only in his night shirt. They placed him in a small lifeboat, and they were shocked when seventeen other members of the ship volunteered to go with him. They were given a hundred and fifty pounds of bread, twenty pounds of pork, five quarts of rum, three bottles of wine, and twenty-eight gallons of water. Bligh and his remaining loyal sailors were then set adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Bligh's boat was a little more than twenty feet long and seven feet wide. It had one sail and six oars. It barely stayed afloat, weighed down by so many men and supplies. Barely six inches of its sides were exposed above the water. Bligh navigated to the nearest island, but when they ran aground, the local islanders began pelting them with rocks. Bligh and his crew were only able to escape after throwing some of their clothing overboard, which distracted the islanders. After that, Bligh decided that their only chance of survival was to sail to the nearest colonized island, about 3,900 miles to the west to the island of Timor.

It's the birthday of Harper Lee, (books by this author) born Nelle Harper in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). She's the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel about a girl named Scout growing up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Scout, her brother Jem, and her best friend Dill spend all their time trying to uncover the mystery of Boo Radley. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, takes on the case a black man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white girl. The title of the novel comes from something Atticus Finch says to his daughter: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, which had a population of about 7,000, and it was the model for the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her father was a lawyer, like Atticus Finch. She was a little girl when she became friends with the writer Truman Capote. When she was still young, Lee's father bought her a typewriter, and she and Capote set up a little office in the tree house in her backyard. Capote convinced Lee to start writing with him for two or three hours every day.

Lee went to law school at the University of Alabama, and after she graduated she worked as a reservation clerk for an airline in New York City. She spent all day at work, and then came home to write for four hours every evening. In the mid '50s, Lee started working on a novel about the trial of a black man in a small town in Alabama.

In December of 1956, she celebrated with a family she knew in Manhattan. Their gift to her that year was a loan so that she could take a year off from her job and write whatever she wanted. It was during that year that Lee wrote most of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was published in July of 1960. It was priced at $3.95, and it sold more than two and a half million copies in less than a year. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Today, To Kill a Mockingbird sells about a million copies every year, and it's sold over thirty million copies since its publication. In 1963, just three years after its publication, it was taught in eight percent of U.S. public middle schools and high schools, and today that figure is closer to eighty percent. Only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Huckleberry Finn are read by more high school students.

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