Mar. 15, 2011

The Art of Self-Defense

by Michael Heffernan

Another day's stint in the free world
begins here in the donut shop. Standing in line
wondering how many cheese Danish and apple fritters
as well as donuts I should buy, while the creamy girls
in their summer dresses are licking their profiteroles,
I see myself as a boy in the summer of 1953
salting sliced tomatoes with my grandfather
in the white shirt he wore. The kitchen was big and sweet.
The breeze from the electric fan swung by us and away.
The oilcloth on the table was cool and slick.
The leaves of the tree of heaven dappled the sill.
In line in the donut shop is a man in a straw hat
between a woman in pigtails and a boy with large eyes.
Gramps was a boxer in his younger days, semiprofessional.
He watched the Wednesday night fights on our TV.
In his last autumn he taught me to box.
He set up punching bags in his basement.
He taped newspapers to the windows. He named me Spike.
He got me to shadowbox next to the coal bin.
He kept me at it hard till it felt like forever.
When the time came, he arranged a bout
with Mike Donnelly from down the street.
Mike struck the top of my head at once and down I came.
He helped me up from the floor and went home.
I was eleven. I wasn't fast or clever. This was the autumn
after the summer they fried the Rosenbergs.
Gramps walked me down to the corner to get the Free Press.
The photograph showed their bodies on the front page.
He tugged my hand and kept me from seeing it.
We mark these solitudes throughout our lives.
This is not simply about things as they are.
This is about donuts, profiteroles, and straw hats.
Things cannot be as they are in this country.

"The Art of Self-Defense" by Michael Heffernan, from At the Bureau of Divine Music © Wayne State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann, (books by this author) born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a lawyer, and Richard's two brothers followed their father into law, but Richard was more inspired by his parents' love of reading, and he decided to become an English professor. He got into Yale and studied literature there, then went to graduate school and started to write his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had died in 1939 — there wasn't much scholarly work on him.

While Ellmann was working on his dissertation, World War II broke out, and he enlisted. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services in London, and he took a leave to go visit Dublin. He wrote a letter to George Yeats, the poet's widow, totally unaware that she was famous for refusing to answer letters or grant visits. But for some reason, she changed her mind when Ellmann's letter came along, and she wrote back inviting him to visit her at 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin. She told him stories about Yeats and showed him her late husband's study. He wrote: "There in the bookcases was his working library, often heavily annotated, and in cabinets and file cases were all his manuscripts, arranged with care by his widow. She was very good at turning up at once some early draft of a poem or play or prose work, or a letter Yeats had received or written. When complimented, she said she was just a hen picking up scraps. Among the scraps were all Yeats's letters to Lady Gregory, done up in innumerable small bundles according to year, with ribbons to hold them together. I asked her about Yeats's first meeting with Joyce, and she showed me an unpublished preface to Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) in which Yeats described that singular occasion. I evinced a perhaps unexpected interest in the magical order to which Yeats belonged, the Golden Dawn; she opened a chest and took out his implements and regalia and rituals."

After Ellmann was discharged from the Navy in 1946, he got a Rockefeller scholarship to go to Ireland and continue his work on Yeats. He went back to visit George Yeats, and he said, "She produced an old suitcase and filled it with manuscripts that I wanted to examine." More than that, Mrs. Yeats gave Ellmann access to more or less all of her late husband's documents, about 50,000 of them — diaries, letters, notes, poems. Ellmann said, "It is hard to know how revolutionary my ideas are, but I do feel that I shall produce the definitive book on Yeats for many years to come." And so he put together the first comprehensive work on W.B. Yeats. He published it as a critical biography called Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948). In it, Ellmann wrote: "If he was reticent in public, Yeats was indiscreet in private. He confided almost everything to his manuscript books, diaries, and letters, and from them another picture can be elicited, which joins together the disparate fragments and episodes of his life, and reveals him in quite a different light, the embroidered coat removed. But this picture is one which few residents of his home town would recognize, for in Dublin he is too often a subject for anecdotes which reduce him to a pompous, lifeless man, incapable of having written a good line of even of having existed."

He followed up his first book with The Identity of Yeats (1954). He considered himself a Yeats scholar, and when he was looking for a new angle on the poet, he remembered the unpublished preface Yeats had written about his meeting with James Joyce. Ellmann said he was struck by "Joyce's impudence with his distinguished and much older contemporary." So he decided to write an article about the relationship between Yeats and Joyce. From there, he found himself fascinated by Joyce, and decided to attempt a biography of him. In 1959, he published James Joyce. It won the National Book Award, and Anthony Burgess called it "the greatest literary biography of the century."

Ellmann published many more studies of Yeats, Joyce, and other Modernists. After 20 years of research, Ellmann finished his last great biography, Oscar Wilde (1987), just before he died. It was published posthumously and won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Ellmann wrote about Wilde: "As for his wit, its balance was more hazardously maintained than is realized. Although it lays claim to arrogance, it seeks to please us. Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company. Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on his way to the loss of everything jollies society for being so much harsher than he is, so much less graceful, so much less attractive. And once we recognize that his charm is threatened, its eye on the door left open for the witless law, it becomes even more beguiling. He is not one of those writers who as the centuries change lose their relevance. Wilde is one of us. His wit is an agent of renewal, as pertinent now as a hundred years ago. The questions posed by both his art and his life lend his art a quality of earnestness, an earnestness which he always disavowed."

The Irish Studies scholar John V. Kelleher met Ellmann in the spring of 1946, and they traveled to Ireland together a couple of months later. Ellmann was on his way to do more work on Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Kelleher said, "It was on shipboard that I really got to know Dick and to appreciate his charm and tact." He remembered an anecdote about his friend: there was a rude woman on board the ship who accosted Kelleher because American college students were playing a game with her and couldn't come up with the name of Bonar Law, a British Prime Minister for less than a year in the 1920s. Kelleher suggested that it might be equally hard for British students to come up with the name of President Benjamin Harrison. The woman was so offended that the scholar was comparing an American president to a British prime minister that she stormed off, and Kelleher was equally angry. He wrote: "A little later, though, I saw her indignantly laying the case before Dick. He soothed her. He listened smilingly and a little pensively, then began to chuckle softly — not at her, not at me, not at the questions, but at the situation. The things people get themselves involved in. Presently she began to laugh too. By the next afternoon she had forgiven me almost fully, though for what I could never quite figure out. That was the first time I saw Dick's tact in operation. It was wholly personal, quite instinctive, and as far as I could observe it always worked."

Richard Ellmann said, "Modern writers, for all their variety, were in some sense engaged in a communal enterprise of an imaginative kind."

It was on this day in 1956 that the musical My Fair Lady opened on Broadway, starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. The musical was based on the play Pygmalion by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Pygmalion is the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics living in London. He makes a bet with a friend that he can take a random cockney-speaking flower seller named Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a perfect lady by teaching her how to speak well. Shaw got the title from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who makes a statue of a woman who is so beautiful that he falls in love with her. Shaw wrote the play specifically for a famous British actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, even though she was 49 years old and his main character, Eliza Doolittle, was supposed to be a young woman.

Pygmalion ends with Eliza furious with Higgins, who teaches her to be a lady but then treats her badly once his project is over and he wins his bet. She tells him that he is a tyrant and a bully and that she will marry a young man who adores her. Higgins is too self-absorbed to believe she will leave him, ordering her to buy him a tie and order a ham, but she walks out on him. Shaw was adamant that the play end that way. He wrote an afterword explaining why Eliza would have married the young man, not Henry Higgins, despite the romantic tension between them. Shaw wrote the afterword after he learned that his leading man was softening the ending of the play by having Henry toss a bouquet of flowers to Eliza at the last moment, suggesting to the audience that maybe they had a future together after all. Shaw fought for his ending over and over, but ultimately he lost.

He agreed to let the Hungarian film producer and director Gabriel Pascal make some of his plays into films, but he insisted that no one would turn Pygmalion into a musical — he had been horrified at the operetta based on his play Arms and the Man. So Pascal produced a nonmusical film of Pygmalion (1938), and Shaw collaborated on it as a writer. The film was a success and won an Oscar for best screenplay.

Shaw died in 1950, and Pascal suggested to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe that they adapt Pygmalion into a musical now that the playwright wasn't around to be disgusted. Pascal died soon after, and Lerner and Loewe didn't think it would make a good musical, because there was no love story. So they did what others had done before — ended the musical with the implication that Eliza and Henry would end up together. They wrote a lot of Shaw's witty dialogue straight into their songs, and they found an unknown actress in her first play, Julie Andrews, and convinced her to audition for the role of Eliza. She starred with Rex Harrison, and the Broadway musical ran for more than 2,700 performances, which at the time was the longest run of any Broadway show. My Fair Lady was made into a film in 1964, and a remake is expected to begin production later this year.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet Susan Stewart (books by this author), born in York, Pennsylvania (1952). Her books of poetry include Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), The Forest (1995), and Columbarium (2003). She calls herself "one of the slowest poets."

She wrote: "We had been ruined by history, by fate, by bad judgment and bad weather — a family with a fall. And when you are part of a family with a fall you know who fought in the French and Indian War, and who fought in the wars after that, and who started a school, and who converted the Persians, and who could hear a piece of music once and commit it instantly to memory — for these are the great dead of which you are merely a shadow."

Today is the ides of March. The term "ides" refers to an event in a lunar calendar; the "ides" marked a full moon and noted the 15th of the month in March, May, July, and October, and the 13th in the other eight months. But when the lunar calendar became different than the monthly calendar, and the full moon was no longer always on the 13th or the 15th, the phrase went out of use.

Two thousand and fifty-five years ago on this day, in 44 B.C., the Roman emperor Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by senators who called themselves the Liberatores (Liberators) and claimed they were preserving the integrity of the Roman system. In modern usage, it was Shakespeare who popularized the phrase "the ides of March" in his play Julius Caesar. Caesar is in front of a crowd of people, and he says, "Who is it in the press that calls on me? / I hear a tongue shriller than all the music / Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear." And a soothsayer replies, "Beware the ides of March."

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Ben Okri (books by this author), born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). When he was 14 years old, he stayed in the house during a rainstorm while the rest of his family was out. He was bored, so he spent an hour drawing a still life and 10 minutes writing a poem. His drawing was bad and his poem was good, and that was the day he decided to become a writer. He's the author of many novels, including The Famished Road (1991), about a spirit child in a Nigerian village, which won the Booker Prize.

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