Jun. 21, 2010

It's Sweet to Be Remembered

by Charles Wright

No one's remembered much longer than a rock
                                                      is remembered beside the road
If he's lucky or
Some tune or harsh word
                                     uttered in childhood or back in the day.

Still how nice to imagine some kid someday
                               picking that rock up and holding it in his hand
Briefly before he chucks it
Deep in the woods in a sunny spot in the tall grass.

"It's Sweet to Be Remembered" by Charles Wright, from Sestets. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the summer solstice, and the first day of summer. It is the longest day and the shortest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere, not because the planet is closer to the sun than on other days of the year, but because it is tilted on its axis so that the northern part receives more direct sunlight.

On this day in 1952, Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) sent a letter from his home in Cuba to his friend, the editor and writer Harvey Breit. He complained about having to sit for a photograph for LIFE magazine, bareheaded under the sun for two or three hours. He wrote: "On the Pilar in the hot months I always put a couple of thicknesses, or three, of folded paper towels on my head and the tennis eye shade holds them on when I am steering up on the flying bridge. If I have to fight a big fish in the sun any length of time they keep sloshing me with buckets of salt water. That keeps your head cool. But sitting in one place out in the sun in June in these latitudes without a hat is no good."

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan, (books by this author) born in Aldershot, England (1948). His father was a Scottish soldier in the British army, and McEwan grew up in various places around the world, including Singapore and North Africa. He later said: "It was a very fractured background in that respect, and I think my early fiction was unlike mainstream British fiction in that it wasn't located in place. ... I had not come from the usual roots of the English class or educational system. ... I must be the only writer in Britain who did not go to Oxford."

He liked to read, but he'd never even thought of being a writer until he heard about a creative writing program in East Anglia, taught by the writer Malcolm Bradbury, that would allow him to write fiction for credit. As soon as McEwan began to write, he found it came rather easily to him. He wrote 20 short stories in his first year at the program, most of which he later published. He said it was like blowing a lid off a tin. He didn't know he'd been holding so much material inside until he started letting it out.

At that time, most English fiction was tasteful and polite. McEwan said, "Contemporary English fiction was so nicely modulated and full of observation about class and furniture. ... I wanted much more vivid colors. I wanted something savage." He filled his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1975), with short stories about incest, infanticide, and bestiality. His first novel, Cement Garden (1978), is about a group of children who hide their dead mother in the basement by covering her with cement, so they can go on living without parents. His novel The Innocent (1988) featured one of the lengthiest scenes of human dismemberment in contemporary literature. Critics in England were shocked and started calling him Ian Macabre.

His big breakthrough novel was Atonement (2001), which was made into a film in 2007. His most recent novel is Solar (2010).

McEwan said: "I want something to happen in my stories, and I want to sort of push them to the edge. ... Most threats in life come from the unpredictable, random, cruel behavior of other people."

It was on this day in 1956 that the playwright Arthur Miller (books by this author) refused to name communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee. For years, Miller had watched as the committee had been investigating high-profile writers and filmmakers and intellectuals, forcing them to name names or be prosecuted for contempt.

His friend the stage director and filmmaker Elia Kazan, who had directed the Broadway production of Miller's Death of a Salesman, had been approached by the committee and asked to name names, and he cooperated with the government. Miller was shocked and broke with him over it. He later wrote: "I felt my sympathy going toward him and at the same time I was afraid of him. Had I been of his generation, he would have had to sacrifice me as well."

Miller saw parallels between the McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, so he soon began writing his play The Crucible, about a farmer named John Procter who prefers to die rather than give a false confession that he is a witch. When The Crucible opened in 1954, it was not a big success. Miller said that on opening night, people he had known and worked with for years treated him like a stranger. After the play had its premiere, he learned that he had been denied a passport by the government. Two years later, on this day in 1956, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. When he refused to name names, he was charged with contempt and sentenced to a month in jail. He challenged the conviction and won his appeal. In 1958, The Crucible was revived off Broadway, and it ran for more than 600 performances. Today it remains one of Miller's most produced plays, second only to Death of a Salesman.

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