Mar. 16, 2011

Was A Man

by Philip Booth

Was a man, was a two-
faced man, pretended
he wasn't who he was,
who, in a men's room,
faced his hung-over
face in a mirror hung
over the towel rack.
The mirror was cracked.
Shaving close in that
looking glass, he nicked
his throat, bled blue
blood, grabbed a new
towel to patch the wrong
scratch, knocked off
the mirror and, facing
himself, almost intact,
in final terror hung
the wrong face back.

"Was A Man" by Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999. © Penguin Group, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's (books by this author) novel The Scarlet Letter was published.

When Hawthorne finished his manuscript, he read it aloud to his wife, Sophia. He said, "I read the last scene to my wife — tried to read it, rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean, as it subsided after a storm … I think I have never overcome my adamant in any other instance." Sophia was so distressed that she went to bed with a terrible headache, which pleased Hawthorne — he took it as a sign that the novel was effective.

Hawthorne sent the manuscript to his publisher, James Fields, in February of 1850. Fields went to work getting the novel typeset, and he also did what most American publishers did in those days: worked to get a version published in England at the same time. There were no American copyright laws, so it was extremely difficult for American authors to make money on their books. England, on the other hand, did have copyright laws, so if American authors could get a British version published they could make some money there. However, Fields didn't quite get everything in place by March, so by the time The Scarlet Letter was published in America, there were stolen versions all over Britain.

Fourteen years after The Scarlet Letter was published, Hawthorne had still made less than $2,000 from it. But it was a big seller. The first edition, a run of 2,500 copies, sold out in 10 days. The Scarlet Letter tells the story of the exiled Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is forced by the community to wear a large scarlet letter "A" — for "adultery" — on her chest. At the time of its publication, the book was controversial less for Hawthorne's strong critique of Puritan values than for his introduction, called "The Custom-House." "The Custom-House" set up a fictional frame for the rest of the story — the narrator (who is a lot like Hawthorne) gets a job at the Salem Custom-House, which is a boring, corrupt, and generally terrible place. One day, the narrator is so bored that he starts looking through old documents and discovers an account of the Hester Prynne scandal — the whole document is supposedly tied up with a large red cloth letter "A." The narrator decides to write a novel based on the document, but the environment of the Salem Custom-House is so awful that he isn't inspired to write anything. Only after he gets fired is he able to begin working on his novel, which is the story that follows, The Scarlet Letter.

In fact, the fictional tale told in "The Custom-House" is not far from the truth. Hawthorne did work at the Salem Custom-House, and he hated it, and was fired for political reasons. Hawthorne himself came from one of the oldest and most prominent Salem families, who had been living there since the days when it was barely a village. One of his ancestors was a judge who condemned women to death in the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem community did not take kindly to Hawthorne's depiction of them, particularly in "The Custom-House."

In the second edition, Hawthorne addressed this tension, but he refused to change anything, claiming that "the only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor." This only infuriated Salem residents more, and nothing sells books like a good controversy, so the second edition sold 1,500 copies in just three days.

In private, Hawthorne had more to say about the residents of Salem. He wrote to his old friend Horatio Bridge: "I am glad you like the Scarlet Letter; it would have been a sad matter indeed, if I had missed the favorable award of my oldest and friendliest critic. [...] As for the Salem people, I really thought I had been exceedingly good-natured in my treatment of them. They certainly do not deserve good usage at my hands, after permitting me — (their most distinguished citizen; for they have no other that was ever head of beyond the limits of the Congressional district) — after permitting me to be deliberately lied down, not merely once, but at two separate attacks, on two false indictments, without hardly a voice being raised in my behalf [...] I feel an infinite contempt for them, and probably have expressed more of it than I intended; for my preliminary chapter has caused the greatest uproar that ever happened here since witch-times. If I escape from town without being tarred-and-feathered, I shall consider it good luck. I wish they would tar-and-father me — it would be such an entirely novel kind of distinction for a literary man! And from such judges as my fellow-citizens, I should look upon it as a higher honor than a laurel crown."

It's the birthday of the man whose most famous line was "Take my wife — please": comedian Henny Youngman, born in London (1906). He said, "I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother." He grew up in New York City, and he made his first appearance at an amateur night when he was 16. His father didn't approve — he called the cops and had his son pulled off the stage, and sent him to vocational school. But Youngman persevered, and after he became a comedian he traveled an average of 500,000 miles a year to perform. He delivered one-liners while playing a 19th-century violin, telling at least 50 jokes in an eight-minute routine. He said, "If a joke is too hard to visualize, I tell the young comics, then what the hell good is it?"

He said, "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."

And, "A man says to another man, 'Can you tell me how to get to Central Park?' The guy says no. 'All right,' says the first, 'I'll mug you here.'"

And, "The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret."

And, "Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who'll give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong house, that's what it means."

And, "My grandmother is over 80 and still doesn't need glasses. Drinks right out of the bottle."

And, "A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well."

And, "I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up — they have no holidays."

And, "I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places."

And, "Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? They're worth it."

And, "You have a ready wit. Tell me when it's ready."

And, "My dad was the town drunk. Most of the time that's not so bad; but New York City?"

And, "If at first you don't succeed ... so much for skydiving."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet César Vallejo (books by this author), born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner, and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he became a socialist.

In 1920, he was at a festival in his hometown — a festival that deteriorated into lootings and arson. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail, and he spent the next four months writing the poetry that would appear in his first major collection, Trilce (1922).

After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He was sick and depressed, and he couldn't find a steady job. He wrote to his brother: "I have the desire to work and to live my life with dignity. I am not a bohemian: poverty is very painful, and it's no part for me, unlike for others. ... My will veers between the point at which one is reduced to the sole desire for death and the intention of conquering the world by sword and fire."

He wrote the poem "Black Stone Lying on a White Stone," translated by Robert Bly:

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris — and I don't step aside —
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads ...

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman(books by this author), born in New York City (1952). She mixes fantasy and magic with everyday reality in novels such as White Horses (1982), Illumination Night (1987), The River King (2001), and most recently, The Red Garden (2011).

Her parents got a divorce when she was eight years old, at a time when not many couples got divorces, and she was raised on Long Island by her working mother. She loved reading Grimm's fairy tales and Ray Bradbury novels, and watching fantasy movies like Mary Poppins (1964). She started writing stories, dividing them into two categories — fantasy and realism. It wasn't until she read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) that she realized you could "take everyday realities and transform them into something fabulous." She said the novel "changed everything for me."

She published a short story in the magazine Fiction when she was in her early 20s. The editor of the magazine asked her if she had written a novel; she lied and said she had, and began work on what would become Property Of, published in 1977.

She said, "When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure."

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




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