Apr. 10, 2011

Gnostics on Trial

by Linda Gregg

Let us make the test. Say God wants you
to be unhappy. That there is no good.
That there are horrors in store for us
if we do manage to move toward Him.
Say you keep Art in its place, not too high.
And that everything, even eternity, is measurable.
Look at the photographs of the dead,
both natural (one by one) and unnatural
in masses. All tangled. You know about that.
And can put Beauty in its place. Not too high,
and passing. Make love our search for unhappiness,
which is His plan to help us.
Disregard that afternoon breeze from the Aegean
on a body almost asleep in the shuttered room.
Ignore melons, and talking with friends.
Try to keep from rejoicing. Try
to keep from happiness. Just try.

"Gnostics on Trial" by Linda Gregg, from Too Bright To See and Alma. © Graywolf Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1916, the Professional Golfers' Association of America — the PGA — was created in New York City. There were 35 original members.

Rodman Wanamaker, the adventurous son of a man who owned a chain of department stores, convinced the golfers that equipment sales would increase if they formed an association.

Six months later, the group held the first PGA Championship in Bronxville, New York. Wanamaker donated the $2,500 for the purse, and he donated the trophy too. Today, the best golfers in the world still compete for the Wanamaker Trophy.

It's not the original one, though. That trophy was lost after Walter Hagen won his seventh PGA Championship at Olympia Fields in Chicago. He claimed he left it in a cab while on his way to a nightclub. But five years later, the lost Wanamaker trophy was found in an unmarked case in the basement of the company that made Walter Hagen's line of golf clubs.

The first law regulating copyright in the world was issued in Great Britain on this day in 1710, making it possible for authors to truly own their own work. It read, in part:

"... the Author of any Book or Books already Printed, who hath not Transferred to any other the Copy or Copies of such Book or Books, Share or Shares thereof, or the Bookseller or Booksellers, Printer or Printers, or other Person or Persons, who hath or have Purchased or Acquired the Copy or Copies of any Book or Books, in order to Print or Reprint the same, shall have the sole Right and Liberty of Printing such Book and Books for the Term of one and twenty years ..."

On this day in 1912 the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England with 2,228 passengers and life boats for only half that many.

On this day in 1925, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) was first published in New York City. Fitzgerald had already published This Side of Paradise (1920), his debut novel, to critical acclaim. And Fitzgerald had been writing highly sellable short stories since then to earn quick money for his lifestyle and his family — he and his wife Zelda had a daughter.

But Gatsby was a purely creative endeavor, and he knew it was good. While working on it, he told his editor, Max Perkins, "I feel an enormous power in me now, more than I've ever had."

The book was almost called Trimalchio in West Egg, and when the publisher rejected that title, it was almost called Under the Red, White, and Blue, or possibly Gold-Hatted Gatsby. And when it was finally agreed that The Great Gatsby should be the title and it couldn't be changed, Fitzgerald wrote a letter to Perkins, saying, "I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all."

The New York Times reviewed the book nine days after it came out, under the headline "Scott Fitzgerald Looks Into Middle Age." The reviewer, Edwin Clark, wrote of the book and the writer: "It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well — he always has — for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected."

Still, for a long time it didn't sell very well.

It's the birthday of Joseph Pulitzer, who was born in Makó, Hungary (1847). He came to America when he was 18. By the time he was 31, he had bought the St. Louis Dispatch, and later he bought The New York World, and went head to head with William Randolph Hearst for readers.

When he died in 1911, he left Columbia University $2 million to found a school of journalism and start the Pulitzer Prizes. He envisioned the Pulitzer Committee would be made up of newspaper publishers, scholars, and "persons of distinction." Today that is exactly what it is, with close attention given to professional excellence, and diversity in gender, ethnic background, and geographical location. Every year, the Committee gives awards in 21 categories to what they deem as the best contributions in American journalism, fiction, drama, poetry, photography, and music.

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux (books by this author), born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). His book The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975) was a rarity for the American market: a travel book that became a best-seller. It was followed by The Old Patagonian Express (1979).

Paul Theroux wrote, "Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation — and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind."

He said, "Tourists don't know where they've been; travelers don't know where they're going."

It's the birthday of the poet and short-story writer Stuart Dybek (books by this author), born in Chicago (1942). The stories in his collections Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (2003), The Coast of Chicago (2004),and I Sailed with Magellan (2003) are noted for the lyricism, their urban realism, and their nostalgia for adolescence.

He was an indifferent student. He was instead obsessed with jazz, and played the saxophone. One day he wrote the line "the tree scraped skies," which excited him so much he read it to his mother. She had the flu and vomited.

He went to Loyola to become a doctor but switched to English eventually. He was a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Public Aid for two years. Eventually, he went to the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and he committed his life to teaching and writing. He taught English at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for 30 years. Now he teaches at Northwestern University.

His short story "We Didn't" is about a young man who does not make love to his old girlfriend. It is often anthologized, to be read by college students just beginning to write fiction. Here is the first paragraph:

"We didn't in the light; we didn't in the darkness. We didn't in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn't in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you'd slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father's rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent's meat market. We didn't in your mother's Buick Eight, where a rosary twined the rearview mirror like a beaded, black snake with silver, cruciform fangs."

It's the birthday of the writer Anne Lamott (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1954). She had already written three novels when she got pregnant and decided to keep the baby, even though the baby's father left when she told him that. Her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993) was about her struggles with motherhood and her Christianity. It got rave reviews.

Her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) is often quoted and referenced by writers both beginning and seasoned. The title is from her father's advice to her 10-year-old brother, who was struggling with a report on birds that had to be completed in one evening.

She wrote, "[He] put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"

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




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