Jul. 7, 2010

Minor Seventh

by Jeffrey Bean

Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night
hawk's ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian
trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi, turning into urban
blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief.
The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks
crawling up Mt. Hood. Chainsaws, see-saws, sneakers,
squeaking in high school gyms. Have you driven a ford lately?
Field hollers. Sorrow. Fat fathers riding their mowers' thick
Chords. Throngs of Santa Clauses all across Wisconsin ringing
bells in snow in front of Wal-Marts. Musac at Costco, Osco,
Piggly Wiggly, Winn-Dixie. Arawaks' shouting, the Santa
Maria creaking onto shore. Cell phones, car alarms, laptops,
the air raid siren's range. Achy Breaky Heart in the flamingo
light of roller rinks. The wheeze of progress. The forests of
Mississippi echoing with Me and the devil was walking side by side.
Grind of church organs, cotton gins, sledge hammers
knocking into granite. No one listening to Monk play
Crepuscule with Nellie at The Open Door. Toyotas starting,
crows screaming, a rabbit snatched by an owl. Gimme a pigsfoot
and a bottle of beer
. Reverend Dimmesdale speaking in tongues
of flame. Michael Buffer crooning Let's get ready to rumble!
Chants at NBA games. Weeping. St Louis woman, where's your
diamond ring?

"Minor Seventh" by Jeffrey Bean, from Diminished Fifth. © David Robert Brooks, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer David McCullough (books by this author) — three-time presidential biographer, the winner of two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of the best-selling historians of all time — born in Pittsburgh (1933). As a kid, he learned about presidential politics early and often and in raised voices. He said: "My father was totally against FDR. My mother thought FDR could do no wrong. They were both quite hard of hearing ... the decibel level at our dining room was high."

He wanted to be a painter. But when he got to Yale in the 1950s, John O'Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were there on campus, and he decided to major in English instead. He worked in journalism for a decade. Then, in 1968, he published his first book, The Johnstown Flood, inspired first by seeing some photographs at the Library of Congress. The photos depicted the disaster — which happened close to his hometown — so differently than he'd learned about in school. He then wrote a book on the Panama Canal, which President Jimmy Carter used as a key reference book in negotiating the Panama Canal treaties.

Then McCullough wrote three biographies about U.S. presidents. The first, about Teddy Roosevelt — called Mornings on Horseback (1981) — won the National Book Award. The second, on Harry Truman, took him 10 years to research and write. Truman (1993)won the Pulitzer Prize.

The third presidential biography he wrote was about John Adams. There were no interviews or photographs around to help him with his research, but he read all of Adams' diaries and the letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, more than a thousand of them.

McCullough wanted to try to get inside the head of John Adams, not just to read what Adams wrote, but also to read what Adams read for pleasure in the 18th century. He read classics in English, stuff by Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope. He said reading these books allowed him to "marinate" his head in John Adams' thoughts and vocabulary.

When John Adams was published in 2001, it became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history. McCullough won another Pulitzer Prize for it. His most recent book, 1776 (published in 2005), was also a huge best-seller.

David McCullough, who said: "You can make the argument that there's no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past. They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don't know how it's going to come out. They weren't just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can't understand them if you don't understand how they perceived reality."

And, "Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."

It's the birthday of painter Marc Chagall, born in Vitebsk, Russia (1887), the eldest of nine children in a poor Jewish family. His father worked at a salt herring factory. He wanted to be an artist, and he moved to St. Petersburg, where he failed his first entrance exams but eventually got accepted to art school.

Chagall said, "I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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