Aug. 5, 2011

Time with You

by Gary Soto

We're thirteen, almost fourteen,
And so much in love

We want the years to pass—
Clouds roll at super speed, rains fall,

Flowers unfold and die at the snap
Of our fingers. I want to stuff sand

Through a fat hourglass,
And rip the pages from the calendar.

Let me blow candles from my cake.
Let my puppy stretch to full size.

When we turn eighteen,
Time will become a canoe on a still lake.

"Time with You" by Gary Soto, from Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing. © Harcourt, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The New York Daily News debuted the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" on this day in 1924. Cancelled in 2010 after a run of nearly 86 years, the street-smart redhead inspired a radio show, a Broadway musical, three film adaptations, mass-marketed books, and merchandise that included everything from lunchboxes to curly wigs. Although only a fraction of this happened before the strip's creator, Harold Gray, died in 1968, it was enough to make him a millionaire.

Gray's wealth drew criticism during the Great Depression, when he used the strip to voice his populist political beliefs: namely, that the poor ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps without government intervention or assistance. This is how his character Daddy Warbucks, the tuxedoed war profiteer, had succeeded, transforming his modest machine shop into a World War I munitions factory. Gray expressed his distaste for FDR and his New Deal in the strip's storylines, prompting one left-leaning writer to label it "Hooverism in the funnies." The public didn't seem to care — in 1937, "Little Orphan Annie" was the most popular comic in the country.

Forty years later, when the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted the strip for the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, he subverted Gray's original politics. The updated Annie stumbles upon a "Hooverville" of homeless people who sing the ironic "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," and she is later saved from greedy imposter parents and the evil orphanage supervisor by FDR himself. The play — and the 1982 film — ends with a rousing chorus of the song "A New Deal for Christmas," celebrating the economic plan that the strip's creator had so despised.

Politics aside, both Gray and Meehan had hard-knock lives, at least as teenagers. Meehan's father died when he was 15, and Gray was orphaned just before finishing high school.

Although Gray credited a girl he'd met on the streets of Chicago as his inspiration for the character of Annie, he took the strip's title from that of a popular poem by James Whitcomb Riley, originally published in 1885. That Annie was based on a real orphan girl who lived in the poet's home during his childhood, earning her room and board by helping Riley's mother with the housework. The child was called Allie, short for Alice, and the poem based on her was supposed to be called "Little Orphant Allie." A simple typo changed her name to Annie, and by the time Riley requested that it be corrected, the poem was gaining popularity and he let the misprint stand.
      From the first stanza that started it all:
      Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
      An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
      An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
      An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep.

The British tabloid The Daily Mirror debuted the comic strip "Andy Capp" on this day in 1957. A pun on the word "handicap" in the dialect of northern England, where the comic is set and where its creator, Reginald "Reg" Smythe, was raised, Andy Capp is a roustabout who spends his time drinking, gambling, and fighting with his long-suffering wife, Flo.

The strip continues in syndication, despite Smythe's death in 1998, and is read in 13 languages across 31 countries. These days, Andy has kicked his smoking habit, and the Capps no longer engage in domestic violence — they go to marriage counseling.

It is the birthday of director and screenwriter John Huston, best known for films like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen, all of which he adapted from novels. Born in 1906 in Nevada, Missouri, Huston went on to make an unusual number of movies from classic literature, including Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, and the last movie he finished before his death in 1987, The Dead, from the famous James Joyce story.

Huston was friends with Ernest Hemingway — they shared a fondness for big-game hunting, boxing, drinking, cigars, and women. But Huston's films didn't all reflect his personal tastes and sensibilities; in defense of his eclectic filmography, he once said, "I never try to duplicate myself. One must avoid personal clichés."

He also said that FDR was "the only president in my time I thoroughly approved of." Huston was the director of the 1982 movie Annie.

On this day in 2009 the writer Budd Schulberg (books by this author) died at the age of 95. Known for naming names in the Red Scare of 1951, arresting the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, publishing a fictionalized account of his failed attempts to collaborate with a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald, and for founding centers in LA and New York to support young black writers, Schulberg is best remembered for a single line of dialogue. "I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody," he wrote in the screenplay for On the Waterfront.

A lifelong fan of boxing and frequent writer on the sport, Schulberg claimed to have fought with Hemingway over the subject at a party in Key West, nearly coming to fisticuffs until friends separated them.

"The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system," he said to The New York Times about the dangers of power and greed. "I tried to do that."

Today would be the 47th wedding anniversary of actress Anne Bancroft, who died in 2005, and comedian Mel Brooks. Brooks credited his wife as having encouraged him to take his film The Producers to Broadway. The musical won him three Tonys in 2001, making him the eighth person ever to have achieved the "EGOT," the distinction of having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony.

Five months later, a ninth member joined the EGOT club: Mike Nichols. Nichols was the original director of the 1977 Broadway production of Annie.

Today in 1884, the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty's pedestal was laid. One year prior, a fundraiser for the pedestal's construction solicited art and literary works for auction; 34-year-old Emma Lazarus donated a poem for the occasion, which she titled "The New Colossus."

Devoted to the plight of Jewish immigrants, Lazarus imagined that the statue would become a symbol of hope for all Ellis Island arrivals. She wrote her verse three years before the statue was completed, and only four years before her own death. The poem was essentially forgotten for 20 years, after which Lazarus' friends lobbied to have it emblazoned on a bronze plaque and hung in the museum inside the pedestal. From there, it went on to define not just the monument but also the country's immigration policy.

"The New Colossus"
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

It's the birthday of environmental writer Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Port Royal, Kentucky (1934). Berry publishes poetry, essays, and novels, most of which reflect his concern for the natural world and the ways we interact with it. Berry continues to live and work on his farm in his hometown.

Berry said, "Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you."

He said, "You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it."

And he said, "Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."

It's the birthday of the great French short-story writer Guy de Maupassant (books by this author), born Henry-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant in Normandy (1850). Mentored by Gustave Flaubert and befriended by Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James while Maupassant toiled as a lowly government clerk, the French writer joined the ranks of his famous benefactors in 1880 when he published a collection of stories on the Franco-Prussian war. The title story, "Boule de Suif," takes its name from the main character, a prostitute hypocritically shunned by her fellow stagecoach passengers; a literal translation of her nickname is "Ball of Suet" or "Ball of Fat." The name was a compliment — an ample woman was a rarity in that time of hardship — and the portrait was deeply sympathetic.

Maupassant wrote feverishly for the next decade, completing six novels, three travel books, one book of poetry and another of plays, plus the 300 short stories for which he is best remembered. He attained that rarest achievement for a writer: fame and fortune, critical and popular success, all in his own lifetime. And yet his prosperity, complete with a private yacht he named Bel Ami (Fair Friend), could not be fully enjoyed. Maupassant felt the first effects of syphilis in his mid-20s; by his late 30s, the disease was progressing to its final stage. His eyesight weakening, his paranoia growing, Maupassant's writing became increasingly dark and preoccupied with madness. After a failed attempt to shoot himself in the head, he stabbed his own throat, and survived only to be locked in an insane asylum. The last entry in his medical report, written shortly before his death at the age of 42, said, "Monsieur de Maupassant is degenerating to an animal state."

He wrote, "A sick thought can devour the body's flesh more than fever or consumption."

And he wrote, "Great minds that are healthy are never considered geniuses, while this sublime qualification is lavished on brains that are often inferior but are slightly touched by madness."

It's the birthday of writer and editor Conrad Aiken (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). Possessed of the idea to become a poet when he was just nine years old, Aiken set about improving himself with great determination and discipline. While an undergraduate at Harvard, he gave himself a writing exercise to perform every day of the year, training himself in everything from free verse to villanelles and ballad forms. Years later, when he mentored the young writer Malcolm Lowry, Aiken issued Lowry similar exercises. Aiken produced a number of short-story collections, novels, reviews, and essays — and, as the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson poems, is credited with having established her posthumous reputation. Today, he is most appreciated for being a poet's poet; one who received many literary awards and influenced writers like his dear friend T.S. Eliot, but never achieved real popularity himself.

Some blame this on Aiken's use of formal conventions and sound, less en vogue at the time he wrote, and his preoccupation with psychoanalysis. He was a reader of Freud and plagued by fears of insanity. His life and writing had been shaped by a tragic incident when he was only 11. Hearing two gunshots silence his parents' argument, the young Aiken discovered his father had murdered his mother and committed suicide and, as he later wrote about that day in his autobiography, "finding them dead, found [myself] possessed of them forever."

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