Jul. 20, 2011

A Green Cornfield

by Christina Rossetti

The earth was green, the sky was blue:
I saw and heard one sunny morn
A skylark hang between the two,
A singing speck above the corn;

A stage below, in gay accord,
White butterflies danced on the wing,
And still the singing skylark soared,
And silent sank and soared to sing.

The cornfield stretched a tender green
To right and left beside my walks;
I knew he had a nest unseen
Somewhere among the million stalks.

And as I paused to hear his song
While swift the sunny moments slid,
Perhaps his mate sat listening long,
And listened longer than I did.

"A Green Cornfield" by Christina Rossetti. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch (books by this author), born in 1304 in Arezzo, Tuscany. As a teenager, he developed what he later called "an unquenchable thirst for literature," in spite of his father's insistence that he study law. He loved classical literature above all, and he was also a devout Catholic; he saw continuity in the ideals of the classics and the Bible, and managed to combine the best of both into one worldview. That's why he's considered the father of European humanism. When his father died in 1326, Petrarch left his law studies and went to Avignon, where he worked in clerical positions that allowed him time to work on his own writing. In 1341, Rome and Paris both wanted to crown him their poet laureate; with his love of the classics, Rome was really his only choice. He was crowned on April 8, on Capitoline Hill, the first poet laureate in a thousand years, and when the ceremony was done, he place his laurel wreath in St. Peter's Basilica, on the apostle's tomb.

On April 6, 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, he first saw a woman we know only as "Laura." We don't know why she rejected him, or if they even spoke at all, and we don't know anything about who she is. He revealed nothing about her, but wrote a series of poems about her over the course of 40 years, not in Latin but in everyday Italian. His unrequited love for her is central to the collection, but he was also pondering religion, poetry, and politics. Out of the 366 poems in the collection, 316 of them were in sonnet form, and he gave his name to that particular style of sonnet, which we now know as "Italian" or "Petrarchan." As a body of work, Il Canzoniere, or "The Songbook," as the collection is called, traces not only his feelings for her, but also the evolution of his own spiritual life and his renunciation of the world in favor of trust in God.

The plague, known as the Black Death, claimed many of his friends in 1348. Laura was one of its victims. She died on April 6, 21 years to the day after he first saw her. Petrarch himself died in 1374, with his head resting on a manuscript by Virgil.

Today is the birthday of novelist Thomas Berger (1924) (books by this author), born in Lockland, Ohio, which is just north of Cincinnati. He graduated from high school when he was 15, and he had some idea of becoming a writer. He left college in 1943 to join the Army, and when the war ended, he was with the occupying forces in Berlin. He came home in 1946, finished school, and moved to New York. "I always wanted to come East because I used to be a cultural snob; then, too, I wanted to get away from home and make my own way," he told the Cincinnati Inquirer. "Intellectually, New York is more sophisticated than any other section of America that I know of, including Cincinnati. No patriotism to one's home town can blow that fact away."

He published his first novel, Crazy in Berlin, in 1958, after a rough start. "It requires little courage nowadays for me to discard an unsuccessful piece of work," he told Richard Schickel in 1980. "The real nerve was required in 1956, when after two and a half years of writing I suddenly understood that there was only a handful of pages of Crazy in Berlin worth preserving, and I discarded the manuscript and started over." He went on to write three sequels. He became a heavy-hitter with Little Big Man (1964), but even that took some time. No one really paid much attention to the book, an account of the Old West as told by a white man who claims to have survived Custer's last stand, until the movie version came out in 1970, and audiences rushed to read the novel.

John Romano, of the New York Times Book Review, said, "Thomas Berger belongs, with Mark Twain and [H.L.] Mencken and Philip Roth, among our first-rate literary wiseguys."

It's the birthday of Cormac McCarthy (1933) (books by this author), born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island. His novels tend to follow the Southern Gothic tradition, and he's been compared to William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. Richard Woodward, of the New York Review of Books, wrote, "A man's novelist whose apocalyptic vision rarely focuses on women, McCarthy doesn't write about sex, love or domestic issues." He's known for his "Border Trilogy": All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). Blood Meridian (1985) commonly turns up on "Best Novels of the 20th Century" lists, and The Road (2006) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

He grew up outside Knoxville; his dad was a lawyer who used to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The McCarthys lived in a big white house on a fair-sized bit of land and were considered rich, since most of their neighbors lived in shacks. He had a remarkable number of hobbies as a kid, but reading and writing weren't on the list until his early 20s. He sent his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), to Random House, because that was the only publisher he'd ever heard of. Somehow, the manuscript found its way to William Faulkner's former editor, Albert Erskine. Erskine bought the book and was McCarthy's editor for 20 years.

McCarthy likes to be left alone, and he grants very few interviews. When he does, he rarely wants to talk about his work, preferring one of the hundreds of other subjects he's interested in. "Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list." He's said that he doesn't understand authors who don't want to tackle "life and death" themes, and that he much prefers the company of scientists to that of writers.

On this day in 1977, the Central Intelligence Agency released 20,000 documents revealing that they had engaged in mind-control experiments. They released the documents after a request under the Freedom of Information Act, and the revelation triggered a Congressional hearing in August. The program was named MK-ULTRA; it began in the early 1950s and ran at least through the late 1960s.

MK-ULTRA had its roots in Operation Paperclip, a program to recruit former Nazi scientists who had conducted studies on torture and brainwashing. Operation Paperclip spawned several secret government programs involving mind control, behavior modification, hypnosis, and the like. It's not clear whether the CIA's real aim was to produce a "Manchurian candidate" who could be brainwashed to carry out various tasks, or whether these off-the-wall "operations" were a smoke screen to keep attention away from their real mission: to come up with better torture and interrogation techniques. The program received 6 percent of the CIA's operating budget without oversight or accounting.

Since then-director Richard Helms ordered all the MK-ULTRA documents destroyed in 1973, the investigation had to rely on sworn testimony and the 20,000 remaining documents, which had escaped destruction because they were stored in a different warehouse. The limited information that was available at the Congressional hearings revealed that "chemical, biological, and radiological" methods to achieve mind control were studied. This involved, among other things, administering drugs like LSD, heroin, amphetamines, and mescaline to people without their knowledge or consent; they also used, according to the Congressional report, "aspects of magicians' art." In one project, called Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA set up brothels in San Francisco, gave patrons LSD, and filmed their responses through hidden cameras. They figured that even if subjects got suspicious, they would be too embarrassed to report anything to the authorities. In other experiments conducted at McGill University in Montreal, subjects — who had come to the institute thinking they were to be treated for anxiety or post-partum depression — were put into drug-induced comas and exposed to tape loops for weeks at a time; others were given electroconvulsive therapy at 30 to 40 times the normal dose. Many subjects suffered lasting damage.

The CIA had the assistance of nearly a hundred colleges and universities, pharmaceutical companies, research foundations, hospitals, and prisons in conducting the MK-ULTRA project. Some evidence suggests that Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was one of the subjects; Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, volunteered for the LSD tests at a Veterans Administration hospital when he was a student at Stanford. The official CIA position is that they no longer conduct mind-control experiments, although at least one veteran of the agency has said that the tests continue.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
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  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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