Jul. 15, 2011

Mother, Summer, I

by Philip Larkin

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

"Mother, Summer, I" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems. © Noonday. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Russo (books by this author), born in Johnstown, New York (1949). He grew up in Gloversville, a New York town that had once been the glovemaking capital of America. Most of his extended family worked in the local tanneries, but the town's industry was dying by the time Russo was growing up. When it came time to go to college, Russo wanted to be an academic, and he chose the University of Arizona mostly because he wanted to get as far away from Gloversville as possible. He came home in the summers to work construction with his father, and he was surprised to discover that he actually liked construction work — the camaraderie of the long days, followed by nights at the bar.

Russo went the route of an academic and got a Ph.D. While he was working on his dissertation, he decided to try some fiction classes to break up the monotony of an academic thesis. He ended up writing a novel about a middle-aged woman in Arizona. His professor told him that it was terrible, but that the one good part was a scene set in a small East Coast town. He destroyed the novel and accepted a teaching position in Illinois. He started a second novel, this time about life in a small tannery town in New York, called Mohawk (1986). He went on to write many novels about small-town life, including Nobody's Fool (1993); Empire Falls (2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Bridge of Sighs (2007); and most recently, That Old Cape Magic (2009). Even though he is a successful novelist and screenwriter, he believes that is only one version of himself. He said: "There is another Richard Russo who is still in Gloversville, sitting on a barstool. Someone very different. Someone angrier. Certainly not a writer. I doubt we would like each other very much."

He said: "Novelists — especially novelists who paint on a broad canvas — are generally not given to undue anxiety, I think. The task is so enormous that if we ever really thought about what we were letting ourselves in for, we'd never begin. Early on we learn to worry only about what we do today. If I get my two or three pages written on Monday my day's work is done. It's useless to worry about Friday or four years from Friday. Pages need our attention; books take care of themselves."

It's the birthday of novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (books by this author), born in Dublin (1919). She had a happy childhood, with two loving parents, and she was a gifted student. She wanted to be a writer, and after being accepted to Oxford, she seemed well on her way. Then World War II broke out, and after graduating, instead of pursuing a doctorate, Murdoch joined the service. She ended up working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, caring for refugees from all over Europe. It was during the war that she met her mentor, the French surrealist writer Raymond Queneau, and also Jean-Paul Sartre. She wrote to Queneau: "I am now at Graz working at the studentenheim. I love this camp. Why didn't I come here months ago instead of hanging around in HQs waiting to be promoted? [...] There is much life here — quite mysterious to me still, like fishes in a dark aquarium, but very moving and obscurely significant. Most of the students are Yugoslavs, but there are also lots of Poles & Ukrainians & some Albanians, White Russians, Lithuanians, Jews various & others. About 300 in all. German is the main mode of communication; I find I can talk it enough for practical purposes, aber schrecklich, but as their German is dreadful too we understand each other very well in a happy indifference to tenses genders & cases. Some of them talk French but so horribly I can't bear it & we soon fall again to murdering German cheerfully together. The main factor in our lives tho' is food. The camp is now on a real starvation diet & my God how can those children study on 200 grammes of bread & one plate of stew & some coffee per day? Improvements soon I hope — but meanwhile heartbreaking ..."

After the war, she went back to Cambridge and became a philosophy teacher. She published essays, including writing on Sartre, and in 1954 she published her first novel, Under the Net. She went on to publish 25 more novels, many of them using philosophical ideas, but always with plots and characters modeled on her own life in academic, middle-class Britain.

In her final years, Murdoch thought she was suffering from severe writer's block, but finally realized that in fact she was slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. She continued to write, but her vocabulary grew simpler, and she started talking freely about her novels, which she had never done before. She died in 1999 at the age of 79.

She said, "Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."

It was on this day in 1838 that Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered "The Divinity School Address" at Harvard. There were about 100 people in the audience, including six of the seven graduates of Harvard Divinity School, as well as faculty, ministers, and former graduates. Emerson had graduated from Harvard Divinity in 1826, and the graduating students had chosen him as the speaker for this event. The year before, he had given a lecture called "The American Scholar" to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society. It was controversial but popular, and the students were eager to have him back.

Emerson had been a Unitarian minister, but he had resigned a few years earlier. He was skeptical of the Communion ritual, and of the whole concept of public prayer — he felt it should be a private, individual expression. Emerson was becoming more interested in Transcendentalism, and in 1836, two years before his Divinity School address, he had laid out his philosophy in his now-famous essay Nature. But Nature was not a big seller at the time — it took more than 12 years to sell out of its first edition of 500 copies.

This time his lecture was too controversial for the authorities at Harvard. Emerson denounced the current state of Christianity, saying that as it was practiced, "Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power. What a cruel injustice it is to that Law, the joy of the whole earth, which alone can make thought dear and rich; that Law whose fatal sureness the astronomical orbits poorly emulate, that it is travestied and depreciated, that it is behooted and behowled, and not a trait, nor a word of it articulated. The pulpit in losing sight of this Law, loses its reason, and gropes after it knows not what. And for want of this culture, the soul of the community is sick and faithless. [...] The true Christianity — a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man — is lost."

Many in the audience were incensed by Emerson's speech, particularly the older faculty and ministers. Andrew Norton, a powerful Harvard theologian, declared the lecture "the latest form of infidelity." It was 30 years before Emerson was invited back to speak at Harvard. But there were younger audience members who were inspired by the lecture, like the minister Theodore Parker, who went home and wrote in his journal: "Proceeded to Cambridge, to hear the valedictory sermon by Mr. Emerson. In this he surpassed himself as much as he surpasses others in the general way. I shall give no abstract. So beautiful, so just, so true, and terribly sublime was his picture of the faults of the Church in its present position. My soul is roused, and this week I shall write the long-meditated sermons on the state of the Church and the duties of these times."

Two weeks later, Emerson wrote a letter to a friend and mentor, an older minister named Henry Ware, who had been critical of Emerson's speech. Emerson wrote: "What you say about the discourse at Divinity College, is just what I might expect from your truth and charity, combined with your known opinions. I am not a stock or stone, as one said in the old time; and could not but feel pain in saying some things in that place and presence, which I supposed might meet dissent, and the dissent, I might say, of dear friends and benefactors of mine. Yet, as my conviction is perfect in the substantial truth of the doctrine of this discourse, and is not very new, you will see, at once, that it must appear to me very important that it be spoken; and I thought I would not pay the nobleness of my friends so mean a compliment, as to suppress my opposition of their supposed views out of fear of offense. I would rather say to them, these things look thus to me; to you, otherwise. Let us say out our uttermost word, and be the all-pervading truth, as it surely will, judge between us. [...] I heartily thank you for this renewed expression of your tried toleration and love."

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