Jun. 20, 2011

A Prayer for the Self

by John Berryman

Who am I worthless that You spent such pains
and take may pains again?
I do not understand; but I believe.
Jonquils respond with wit to the teasing breeze.

Induct me down my secrets. Stiffen this heart
to stand their horrifying cries, O cushion
the first the second shocks, will to a halt
in mid-air there demons who would be at me.

May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning,
I wake my dreams, my fan-mail go astray,
and do me little goods I have not thought of,
ingenious & beneficial Father.

Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.

"A Prayer for the Self" by John Berryman, from Love & Fame 1970 © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905). When she was 20, she married a writer and moved with him to Hollywood. She published a few stories in the magazine her husband edited. Then she read a Scottish book called Bad Companions (1930) by William Roughead. It contained a chapter about a court case in Edinburgh where a young girl accused her female teachers of having an affair, on no basis whatsoever. Hellman decided that the premise would make a good play. She said: "Anyone young ordinarily writes autobiographically. Yet I picked on a story that I could treat with complete impersonality. I hadn't even been to boarding school." She had a new lover, the detective writer Dashiell Hammett, whom she had met at a Hollywood restaurant, and he encouraged her to try her hand at writing drama. So at the age of 26 she wrote her first play, The Children's Hour, whichdebuted when she was 29. It is the story of two teachers, Karen and Martha, who teach at an elite all-girls New England boarding school. A malicious student spreads a rumor that Karen and Martha are lesbian lovers, and their lives fall apart. Parents pull their students out of school, Karen breaks up with her fiancé out of fear that she has damaged his reputation, and Martha commits suicide. The Children's Hour was a sensation. It was so controversial that it was banned in several cities, including Chicago, London, and Boston. But it opened to rave reviews on Broadway, and when it failed to win the Pulitzer Prize because of its content, critics objected so strongly that they formed the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as a way to honor it.

That was the beginning of Lillian Hellman's celebrity. She exaggerated many stories about her own life, but she had plenty to work with. She traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and spent time with Hemingway there. She could drink with the best of them — she told interviewers that she drank brandy all the way through opening night of The Children's Hour because she was so nervous, and ended up so drunk she had no idea what was happening and bumped into everyone in the theater. She had a series of lovers and dramatic breakups.

Hellman's relationship with Dashiell Hammett lasted until his death in 1961 from lung cancer, although their relationship was tumultuous, and they both had other affairs. When Hellman finished The Autumn Garden, which she considered her best work, she gave it to Hammett to read. She said: "He finished the play, came across the room, put the manuscript in my lap, went back to his chair and began to talk. It was not the usual criticism: it was sharp and angry, snarling. He spoke as if I had betrayed him. I was so shocked, so pained that I would not now remember the scene but for a diary that I've kept for each play. He said that day, 'You started as a serious writer. That's what I liked, that's what I worked for. I don't know what's happened, but tear this up and throw it away. It's worse than bad — it's half good.' He sat glaring at me and I ran from the room and went down to New York and didn't come back for a week." Hammett read The Autumn Garden again a few months later, after Hellmann had rewritten it, and announced that it was "the best play anybody's written in a long time. Maybe longer."

During the McCarthy hearings, Hammett — who was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party — went to jail. Hellmann offered to accompany him, but he refused. When she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, she refused to name names. She read a prepared, and now famous, speech in which she said: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."

Hellmann's later years were filled with accusations that she had exaggerated or just plain lied in stories about her experiences, her accomplishments, and her political affiliations. Her longtime rival, the novelist Mary McCarthy, said on television of Hellmann: "I think every word she writes is false, including 'and' and 'but.'" Hellmann promptly sued her, but she died before the case could be brought to court. By the time of her death, she had quit writing plays — partly because she was offended by an article that named Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller as the three greatest living American playwrights. Her memoirs — An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), Scoundrel Time (1976), and Maybe (1980) — were popular with both critics and readers, despite public challenges by Mary McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway's ex-wife Martha Gellhorn, and others.

Her health deteriorated — she was nearly blind, she had emphysema, she was confined to a wheelchair, and she hired a student to carry her up and down stairs. She died from a heart attack at the age of 79 — after flirting at a dinner party the night before.

She said: "I've come to the place where I'm not sure any writer can see the truth about his own writing, no matter how hard he tries. They're fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves."

And, "Things start as hopes and end up as habits."

In The Autumn Garden, she wrote: "So at any given moment you're only the sum of your life up to then. There are no big moments you can reach unless you've a pile of smaller moments to stand on. That big hour of decision, the turning point in your life, the someday you've counted on when you'd suddenly wipe out your past mistakes, do the work you'd never done, think the way you'd never thought, have what you'd never had — it just doesn't come suddenly. You've trained yourself for it while you waited — or you've let it all run past you and frittered yourself away. I've frittered myself away."

It's the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (books by this author), born on this day in Cleveland (1858). His parents were free mixed-race Southerners who left Fayetteville, North Carolina, for Ohio. One of his grandfathers had been a slaveholder, and Chesnutt looked white, but he always identified as black. His family moved back to Fayetteville when Charles was eight, and the boy went to a Freedmen's Bureau school for the children of freed slaves. He became a teacher, and then principal of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, which trained black teachers.

In 1880, when he was 22 years old, he wrote in his journal: "I think I must write a book. I am almost afraid to undertake a book so early and with so little experience in composition. But it has been a cherished dream, and I feel an influence that I cannot resist calling me to the task."

It took Chesnutt a few years to get there. He was an established and respected citizen in Fayetteville, but in 1883 he decided that he didn't have much of a future as a black writer in the hostile post-Civil War South. So he moved back to Cleveland with his wife and children. He passed the state bar exams and set up a stenography business, and in his spare time he wrote stories. In 1887, he published his first short story, "The Goophered Grapevine," in The Atlantic Monthly. He was the first black fiction writer to be published in The Atlantic — although the magazine assumed that he was white until he informed them several years, and many stories, later.

In 1891, Chesnutt sent a manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, who wrote back: "A writer must have acquired a good deal of vogue through magazine publication before the issue of a collection of his stories in book form is advisable." Apparently he had not acquired enough vogue, because his manuscript was rejected. He continued to publish stories, and in 1899 Houghton Mifflin finally released his first book, The Conjure Woman. Most of the Conjure Woman stories described clever slaves outwitting their cruel masters, and they were written in dialect, filled with supernatural events. The Conjure Woman was incredibly successful, and Chesnutt was welcomed as a major new voice in American fiction.

Chesnutt was trying to write a critique of racism, but it was easy to lose sight of that in the stories. William Dean Howells, one of his champions, wrote about The Conjure Woman: "As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins. In either case, the wonder of their beauty is the same; and whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader's heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in these enchanting tales."

Chesnutt switched gears for his next book, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), realistic stories of life in Ohio and North Carolina, featuring middle-class, light-skinned, mixed-race characters. The Wife of His Youth was also a big seller, and Chesnutt decided to quit his stenography business and become a full-time writer.

Chesnutt followed up these collections with three novels: The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel's Dream (1905). They sold poorly — readers considered them too angry and radical. So just six years after publishing his first book, Chesnutt's literary career was finished. He went back to his stenography business, worked as an activist, and published an occasional essay or short story.

He wrote: "We speak of the mysteries of inanimate nature. The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image."

And, "Impossibilities are merely things of which we have not learned, or we do not wish to happen."

It's the birthday of poet Paul Muldoon (books by this author), born in Portadown, Northern Ireland (1951). He said of his childhood: "The place was County Armagh, about halfway across northern Ireland, an apple growing district where some of the people who had been planted there in the Elizabethan era had come from Warwickshire and brought with them their apple plants, but also much of the language, which William Shakespeare was using and which was fossilized where I was brought up."

He published his first book, New Weather (1973), when he was 21 years old, and he has published more than 30 collections since then. His most recent book is Maggot (2010).

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




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