Aug. 7, 2011

The Party

by Reed Whittemore

They served tea in the sandpile, together with
Mudpies baked on the sidewalk.
After tea
The youngest said that he had had a good dinner,
The oldest dressed for a dance,
And they sallied forth together with watering pots
To moisten a rusted fire truck on account of it
Might rain.

I watched from my study,
Thought of my part in these contributions to world
Gaiety, and resolved
That the very least acknowledgment I could make
Would be to join them;
                                         so we
All took our watering pots (filled with pies)
And poured tea on our dog. Then I kissed the children
And told them that when they grew up we would have
Real tea parties.
"That did be fun!" the youngest shouted, and ate pies
With wild surmise.

"The Party" by Reed Whittemore, from The Feel of Rock. © Dryad Press, 1982. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At 7:15 in the morning on this day in 1974, a slight figure dressed in black stepped off of the edge the World Trade Center's north tower and onto a wire he'd secretly strung across to the south tower. For the next 45 minutes, Philippe Petit [PDF] walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers a total of eight times as crowds gathered below to watch him span the void. Suspended a quarter of a mile in the air, Petit knelt and lay down on the wire, once even looking down to the courtyard below as he reveled in the culmination of six years of planning what he called "le coup." Told that police planned to send a helicopter to pluck him from his perch, Petit finally surrendered himself to the waiting NYPD, later claiming that their rough treatment of him was the most dangerous part of his stunt.

Petit's astonishing high-wire act made him an instant celebrity and garnered affection for the brand-new buildings, which had been criticized for a lack of character. A number of writers count Petit's performance as an inspiration, including Paul Auster, who translated Petit's book On the High Wire from French and helped him find a publisher. Recently, Petit served as muse to Colum McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award, took as its central, driving image that of a man balancing between two towers, seeming to walk on air.

It was a bright, sunny Saturday, this day in 1965, when 40 Hell's Angels rolled up to Ken Kesey's (books by this author) home in La Honda, California. Kesey, the writer who'd become famous three years before with his best-seller One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, had already crossed the country in a Day-Glo bus with his band of "Merry Pranksters," offering to "turn on" anyone interested along the way to the then-legal drug LSD. Their physical journey was over, but their "trip" on psychedelic drugs was ongoing; Kesey and the Pranksters frequently hosted all-night happenings they called "acid tests."

It was to such an event that Kesey invited the Hell's Angels, to whom he'd been introduced by the writer Hunter S. Thompson. Widely feared for their violent and unpredictable behavior, the notorious motorcycle gang rolled up to Kesey's compound in the redwoods to see a cheery banner that proclaimed in red, white, and blue, "The Merry Pranksters welcome the Hell's Angels." The neighborhood was less enthusiastic about their arrival; that night, police cars parked on the edge of the property in case trouble spilled past its borders.

The unlikely friendship forged that day was documented in Thompson's book Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, as well as in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Allen Ginsburg, who was present at that first meeting, composed a poem about the event. He titled it simply, "First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels."
      Cool black night thru redwoods
      cars parked outside in shade
      behind the gate, stars dim above
      the ravine, a fire burning by the side
      porch and a few tired souls hunched over
      in black leather jackets. In the huge
      wooden house, a yellow chandelier
      at 3 A.M. the blast of loudspeakers
      hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles
      Jumping Joe Jackson and twenty youths
      dancing to the vibration thru the floor,
      a little weed in the bathroom, girls in scarlet
      tights, one muscular smooth skinned man
      sweating dancing for hours, beer cans
      bent littering the yard, a hanged man
      sculpture dangling from a high creek branch,
      children sleeping softly in their bedroom bunks.
      And 4 police cars parked outside the painted
      gate, red lights revolving in the leaves.

Today marks the creation of the Badge of Military Merit by General George Washington in 1782. The award, a "Figure of a Heart in Purple Cloth or Silk edged with narrow Lace or Binding," was given for "any singularly meritorious Action." The distinction fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War, but was reinstated by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932. It was renamed the Purple Heart, and awarded to soldiers wounded or killed in the line of duty.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut received the medal after serving in World War II. Taken as a POW in the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was in Dresden during the bombings and found shelter in an underground former meat locker called "Slaughterhouse-Five." This experience inspired his famous 1969 novel of the same name, a book that came to symbolize the anti-Vietnam War movement and made Vonnegut a counterculture hero.

Vonnegut downplayed his Purple Heart, claiming he received it for "a ludicrously negligible wound," and remained an avowed pacifist until his death at the age of 84. His Purple Heart is on display at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, his hometown.

At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrote about selling a three-book deal to his publisher, Seymour "Sam" Lawrence, and how he'd told him that the first would be about Dresden. "And I say to Sam now: 'Sam — here's the book.' It's so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?'"

In his 1961 novel, Mother Night, he wrote, "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too."

Three hundred and fifty years ago to this day, the Chinese literary critic Jin Shengtan (books by this author) was executed for political dissidence. Born Jin Renrui in the early 17th century in the cultural epicenter of the city Suzhou, the writer was known as an eccentric character and even an iconoclast early in his career. For one, he took the new name Shengtan, which means "Confucius sighed," a transgressive act one modern translator compared to a punk musician taking the stage name of "Jesus Wept." A young Shengtan also claimed to have written poetry while possessed by the goddess Lady of the Benevolent Moon, a trick that got his verse some recognition.

But Shengtan made his name in the literary world for annotating a collection he called Six Works of Genius. These were the major works that Shengtan declared the canon of Chinese literature. This was in opposition to the Six Classics, the books considered a cornerstone of Chinese culture and said to have been authored by Confucius himself. While these Six Classics privileged moral instruction above all else, Shengtan said his Six Works of Genius deserved attention for their literary merit alone, a concept that forever changed Chinese literary criticism. Just as revolutionary was the fact that Shengtan's six included two vernacular works — a novel and a play, genres snubbed by the orthodox literati. His annotated and heavily edited versions helped convince Shengtan's colleagues that they were forms worth studying.

Shengtan was accused of treason in 1661, not for his writing but for having spoken out against corrupt government officials. He was beheaded in a public execution along with 17 others.

It's the birthday of writer Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York (1953). Known both for her reporting and essays, Fadiman came from a famously literate household: Her father was Clifton Fadiman, the critic, essayist, and emcee of the radio quiz show "Information Please," and her mother was Annalee Jacoby, a screenwriter, World War II correspondent, and the first female editor of The Stanford Daily newspaper. Fadiman's childhood was steeped in all things literary: The windowsills and refrigerator were stacked with books, she and her brother were told stories of "Wally the word worm," and a midnight blue, 22-volume set of Trollope served as her favorite building blocks. When she was seven, Fadiman got a case of writer's cramp from working on a story about a family of puppies who rode on the back of an alligator. She was, she admits, destined to become a writer "by both genes and environment."

After scraping by in New York as a freelance writer and proofreader for three years, she got a job as a reporter at Life magazine; she quit that job nearly 10 years later, when she landed a three-part commission for The New Yorker. An old college friend was a doctor in Merced, California, a town with a large population of Hmong residents. He happened to mention the troubling culture clash at his hospital between its staff and its Hmong patients. Fadiman was intrigued and convinced The New Yorker's editor to let her write something from the perspective of both sides. By the time she filed an article about a Hmong child with epilepsy whose parents and doctors fight over her treatment, the editor who'd assigned the piece had been replaced and Fadiman's piece was killed. Eight years later, she published the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an expansion of that original article, to wide acclaim and multiple awards.

Since that publication in 1997, Fadiman has focused much of her writing energies on essays; she has published two collections of her own (Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays) and edited two more. "Essays, for me," she told the U.K.'s Guardian, "provide for the writer a chance to move into the sort of leisurely, slightly hedonistic mode that, in the 21st century, has become a luxury."

She remains a great lover of books, telling the Guardian, "I am very grateful to the electronic world for making my life easier, but there is something about holding a book — the smell and the world of association. Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love."

On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals officially and finally lifted the ban on the book Ulysses by James Joyce (books by this author). A serialized excerpt in an American literary journal had been declared obscene by the courts in 1921; when the novel was published a year later in Paris, it became a hot item on the black market. It remained outlawed until 1933, when Random House arranged to have a smuggled copy discovered by immigration officers, allowing the publisher to challenge the ban. The seized copy had been carefully doctored to include the rave reviews of important literary figures, since it would be the one submitted as evidence. The judge agreed that the book was not obscene or pornographic and struck down the ban, and an appeal a year later upheld that decision.

It's the birthday of journalist Jane Kramer (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1938). A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1964, eight of her nine books have had their origins in articles first published in the magazine. Although the most recent, The Lone Patriot (2002), was a profile of a ragtag militia in Washington state, Kramer writes most frequently on European culture and politics.

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