Sep. 6, 2011

Henry James

by June Robertson Beisch

"Poor Mr. James," Virginia Woolf once said:
"He never quite met the right people."
Poor James. He never quite met the
children of light and so he had to invent them.
Then, when people said: No one is like that.
Your books are not reality, he replied:

So much the worse for reality.

He described himself as "slow to conclude,
orotund, a slow-moving creature, circling his rooms
slowly masticating his food."

Once, when a nephew asked his advice
on how to live, he searched his mind.
Number One, be kind, he said.
Number Two, be kind and
Number Three, be kind.

"Henry James" by June Beisch, from Fatherless Woman. © Cape Cod Literary Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Alice Sebold (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She grew up near Philadelphia — and she says that she was the "weird" one in an otherwise normal, suburban, middle-class family. Her older sister was smart and talented, but Alice fell between the cracks. She was turned down by the University of Pennsylvania even though her father was a professor there.

She ended up at Syracuse, and during her first semester of college, she was attacked and raped near campus. Sebold tried to piece her life back together — she helped bring her rapist to trial and got him convicted with a maximum sentence; and she went back to college, where she was mentored by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher in the creative writing program. But after graduation, she floated around all over the country, did too many drugs, worked a series of jobs, and made halfhearted attempts to write but never finished anything. When she was in her 30s, she got a job as the caretaker of an arts colony in California. It was there, in a cinderblock house in the woods with no electricity, that she finally started to write seriously. She applied to graduate school and wrote a memoir, Lucky (1999).

Her breakthrough was her first novel, The Lovely Bones (2002), the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and narrates the whole novel from heaven while looking down on her family and murderer. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.

It's the birthday of writer Robert Pirsig (books by this author), born in Minneapolis (1928). He was an extremely bright child, with an off-the-chart IQ. He went to college at the age of 15, planning to study science, but, he said, "Science could not teach me how to understand girls sitting in my class, even." He failed out of school, joined the Army, then went to India.

He ended up studying philosophy, and became a professor. As a young father and professor, he began having anxiety attacks, acting out in class and forgetting where he was going. He spent three days sitting in his living room in a bizarre state of mind. He said: "A kind of chaos set in. Suddenly I realized that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either — in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to." Things went downhill. He couldn't cope with life and turned violent. He ended up in mental institutions and underwent electroshock therapy. His wife left him.

A few years later, he decided to write an essay about motorcycling, so he set off on a cross-country road trip with his son, Chris. He ended up writing much more than an article — he wrote an 800,000-word book about his personal philosophy, which he called the Metaphysics of Quality. He edited down his manuscript and sent it out, but it was rejected by more than 100 publishers. Finally, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) was published, and it became a best-seller, selling more than 5 million copies.

Pirsig wrote: "The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value."

It's the birthday of writer and activist Fanny Wright (books by this author), born in Dundee, Scotland (1795). She published her first book when she was 18. She and her sister visited the United States in 1818, where they traveled alone throughout the new country. A few years later, Wright published Views of Society and Manners in America (1821). She settled in America and became an outspoken champion of radical political views: She opposed slavery, supported workers' rights and sexual freedom, fought for access to public education, and worked to get religion out of politics. She had plenty of enemies — she was labeled "the great Red Harlot of Infidelity," "the whore of Babylon," and "Priestess of Beelzebub." Most frequently, her critics just described her as "masculine." One acquaintance wrote of Wright: "In person she was masculine, measuring at least 5 feet 11 inches, and wearing her hair a la Ninon in close curls, her large blue eyes and blonde aspect were thoroughly English, and she always seemed to wear the wrong attire."

It's the birthday of activist Jane Addams (books by this author), born in Cedarville, Illinois (1860). She is probably best known as the founder of Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. Her work as a social activist earned her the first Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a woman, in 1931. She was also a philosopher, in the same school of Pragmatism made famous by the likes of William James and John Dewey. She published 500 articles and wrote more than 10 books, including Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922), and The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932). Just as James and Dewey looked at the practical outcome of an idea and tried to get beyond artificial divides in theory, Jane Addams focused her philosophy on the practical outcomes of social work in society and tried to develop theories that would be as inclusive as possible.

In Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), she wrote: "Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics. We continually forget that the sphere of morals is the sphere of action, that speculation in regard to morality is but observation and must remain in the sphere of intellectual comment, that a situation does not really become moral until we are confronted with the question of what shall be done in a concrete case, and are obliged to act upon our theory."

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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
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