Jul. 16, 2011

The Schoolboy

by William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
Oh, what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?

O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care's dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

"The Schoolboy" by William Blake, from Songs of Experience, 1794. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Tony Kushner (books by this author), born in Manhattan (1956). One of his friends became sick with AIDS in the mid-1980s, a time when the disease was only first beginning to be identified. Kushner had a dream about an angel coming through the roof of his friend's bedroom, and he wrote a poem about it called "Angels in America." A couple of years later, he started writing a long play about the AIDS virus, and a group of characters living in Reagan-era New York, including a married Mormon man who realizes he is gay; Roy Cohn — the lawyer who prosecuted supposed communists during the McCarthy era; a former drag queen who becomes Cohn's nurse; the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; and an angel. It was in two parts, called "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika," and the whole play was called Angels in America. It won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards.

Kushner has written many plays since then, including Homebody/Kabul (2001) and The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (2009).

Earlier this year, the City University of New York announced that they would issue an honorary degree to Kushner — and then decided to revoke that honor because a pro-Israel member of the board of trustees took issue with Kushner's critique of Israeli policy. Kushner, who is Jewish, was outraged, as was just about everyone associated with CUNY. Several past recipients of honorary degrees, including the writers Michael Cunningham and Barbara Ehrenreich, declared that they were returning their degrees in protest. Soon after, a higher authority at CUNY stepped in and announced that the university had decided to award him the degree after all.

Tony Kushner said: "I think that's what theater is about. You believe it and you don't believe it simultaneously, which engages a certain part of your brain that has to do with being skeptical about the nature of what you're experiencing in life. That's why theater is important. You learn to go out into the world after you see a play that you really loved and look at politics and love and all sorts of other human phenomena in the same way. It's real and yet it isn't."

It's the birthday of the novelist who said, "I feel I could get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman." That's Anita Brookner (books by this author), born in London (1928). She writes novels about lonely characters, so everyone wrongly assumes that she is writing about herself. She said: "Well, I am a spinster. I make no apologies for that. But I'm neither unhappy nor lonely. I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they're people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal."

She did have a lonely childhood — she had no brothers and sisters, and her parents were unhappy. Her father was an unsuccessful businessman. Her mother had given up a successful career as a singer to marry her father and was never sure that it was a good decision. Anita loved reading and art. Her father gave her two Dickens novels every year for her birthday and Christmas until she had read every single one. The Brookners lived near an art museum, and she spent every Sunday afternoon there looking at paintings.

She went to college and graduate school to study art history, which worried her parents — they were concerned that she would never find a husband if she became an academic. When she insisted anyway and got offered a scholarship to study in Paris, her parents disowned her. But she loved Paris. She said: "I lived in a hotel, which is an ideal existence. You have no responsibilities. You eat out; you don't make your bed. You go off to work every morning — and I was completely immersed in the work. I've never been so happy."

She moved back to Britain and became an art historian and professor. For many years, she was a popular and respected teacher, but when she was in her 50s, she started to worry about what she would do after she retired. She liked to read fiction, so she decided to try writing a novel. Her first novel, A Start in Life (1981), was published when she was 53. After that, for many years she published exactly one new novel every summer. She writes her novels out in longhand, then types them up, and writes only one draft. Overall, she has published 24 novels in the past 30 years. She said, "My real work was as a teacher and an academic, and I loved it. This is really just filling the time."

Her novels include Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker Prize; Undue Influence (1999); The Rules of Engagement (2003); and most recently, Strangers (2009).

She said, "I suppose what one wants really is ideal company and books are ideal company."

It was on this day in 1951 that The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (books by this author) was published. After he finished the manuscript, Salinger sent a copy to Robert Giroux, who was then a young editor at Harcourt, Brace. Giroux thought the novel was brilliant and agreed to publish it. He showed Catcher in the Rye to his boss, Eugene Reynal, who didn't like it at all. Giroux described their meeting: "Gene said, The kid is disturbed. I said, Well, that's all right. He is, but it's a great novel. He said, Well, I felt that I had to show it to the textbook department. The textbook department? He said, Well, it's about a kid in prep school isn't it? I'm waiting for their reply. I said, It doesn't matter what their reply is, Gene. We have a contract for the book. [...] The textbook people's report came back, and it said, This book is not for us, try Random House." The whole situation upset Robert Giroux so much that he quit Harcourt, Brace, and got a job with Farrar, Straus, & Company — which is now known as Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Salinger had to find a new publisher, and Little, Brown made him an offer. Salinger turned out to be a difficult author to work with. He wanted his friend Michael Mitchell to design the cover. He wanted the jacket redone because he thought his photograph on the back was too large. He told Little, Brown that they couldn't sent out any promotional copies because he didn't want any publicity. They eventually managed to convince Salinger to change his mind on most counts, but he wasn't happy about it.

Despite Salinger's hesitations about publicity, The Catcher in the Rye was a sensation. It became a best-seller almost immediately, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list after two weeks. It has sold more than 65 million copies.

The Catcher in the Rye begins: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

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




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