Nov. 27, 2011

Hear My Prayer, O Lord...

by Barbara Hamby

Hear my prayer, O Lord, though all I do all day is watch
old black-and-white movies on TV. Speak to me
through William Powell or Myrna Loy, solve the mystery
of my sloth. Show me the way to take a walk or catch
a cold, anything but read another exposé
of the Kennedys. Teach me to sing or at least play
the piano. For ten years I took lessons, and all
I learned was to hate Bach. Shake me up or down. Call
me names. Break my ears with AC/DC—I deserve far
worse. Rebuke me in front of my ersatz friends. Who cares?
They don't like me much anyway. Make me fat in lieu
of thin. Give me a break or don't. I'm a hundred million
molecules in search of an author. If that's you, thank you
for my skin. Without it I'd be in worse shape than I'm in.

"Hear My Prayer, O Lord..." by Barbara Hamby, from All-Night Lingo Tango. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the 85th anniversary of the first Macy's Day Parade, hosted on this day in 1924 in New York City. Although held on Thanksgiving, as has been the tradition ever since, the event was originally called Macy's Christmas Parade, since it officially welcomed Santa Claus and ushered in the holiday season.

That wasn't the only thing that's changed since the original event. An advertisement appearing the day before promised it to be "a tremendous pageant of tableaux, comedians, tragedians, elephants, bears, camels, monkeys, clowns, brass bands, and everything that makes a real Circus Parade so dear to everybody." The store delivered on the claim, leading a throng of Macy's employees and professional entertainers on a six-mile path from Harlem to the store's location on 34th Street in Herald Square. (Today the trek is closer to two miles.) With them were floats depicting nursery rhyme favorites like the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood, as well as four bands and the promised animals, borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.

What was not included in the spectacle were giant balloons — they weren't introduced until the fourth annual parade, when Goodyear Tire manufactured a 21-foot caricature of the singer Eddie Cantor, a 60-foot dinosaur, and the first licensed character balloon, Felix the Cat. Having no plan to deflate the balloons, Macy's simply released the balloons at the end of the parade — they promptly popped. The following year Macy's designed their five balloons with slow-release valves and a return address, so they would float off and descend slowly, to be found by lucky, far-off scavengers and returned for a $100 prize. Of those five launches, one balloon landed in the East River, one drifted out to sea, and a third was destroyed by Long Island neighbors battling for the reward.

It's the birthday of writer James Agee (books by this author), born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. Today, he is best remembered for his two books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the classic profile of three sharecropper families, photographed by Walker Evans, and A Death in the Family (1958), his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on his own father's tragic passing. The former was practically unread when it was published; the latter was published posthumously. What Agee was at least modestly known for during his lifetime was his film criticism, which he wrote for Time magazine and The Nation.

"You must be in tune with the times and prepared to break with tradition," Agee wrote, and his reviews followed his own advice. As he promised at the outset of his weekly column in The Nation in 1942, "As an amateur, then, I must as well as I can simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen, where the proof is caught irrelevant to excuse, and available in proportion to the eye which sees it and the mind which uses it." He did so, calling it as he saw it week in and week out, with little attention to popular sentiment or previous critical success — or failure. An article he wrote for Life magazine proclaimed silent film was "Comedy's Greatest Era," then a somewhat revolutionary idea, especially to an entire generation who'd never seen a silent movie and assumed them to be old-fashioned and schmaltzy. The article received one of the largest responses of any in the magazine's history; it was also single-handedly responsible for reviving and redeeming the career of silent film auteur Buster Keaton, who by then had been largely consigned to writing gags for studio scripts. "Perhaps because 'dry' comedy is so much more rare and odd than 'dry' wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton," Agee wrote. "Those who do cannot care mildly."

In 1944, two years after Agee began writing his column there, The Nation published a letter to the editor from W.H. Auden, in which the poet said: "... I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again. In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible — to me, rather unimportant — subject, that his articles belong in that very select class ... of newspaper work which is of permanent literary value. One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis."

It was only 14 years later, three years after Agee's early death in 1955, that the book Agee on Film collected much of his criticism; in the year 2000 it was reissued with introductions by filmmaker Martin Scorsese and film critic David Denby.

It's the birthday of Fredric J. Warburg — the man whose publishing house, Secker and Warburg, published writing by George Orwell, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Simone de Beauvoir.

When Secker and Warburg opened in 1935, it quickly became known as being anti-fascist and anti-communist, not an altogether popular position at the time. When George Orwell, already well known as a journalist, essayist, and novelist, parted with his previous publisher for the insertion of a preface that apologized for Orwell's pro-socialism arguments, he presented his new manuscript to Warburg. He published Homage to Catalonia and everything else Orwell wrote, including Animal Farm and 1984, and the two grew to be friends. They were close enough, in fact, that Orwell wrote negative reviews of some books that Warburg published with no apparent friction in their relationship. Writing to his publisher about his progress on his latest book — he couldn't decide whether the title would be The Last Man in Europe or Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell signed off by saying, "I have just had Sartre's book on anti-Semitism [Portrait of the Anti-Semite], which you published, to review. I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot."

As much as his professional and personal relationship with Orwell, though, Warburg is known for having successfully defended himself from a charge of obscenity for having published a novel called The Philanderer. The case was unusual in England at the time because it received an enormous amount of press, and because it charged Warburg personally. The attention was because the case was a trial by jury, rather than decided upon by a magistrate, as was the tradition in cases of its nature. Although they were likely to be found guilty by a magistrate, publishers indicted on an obscenity charge would likely pay a small fine and receive very little attention. A jury trial, on the other hand, was more winnable — but because the costs were higher, the penalties greater, and the public more likely to notice the proceedings, publishers rarely requested one. When questioned about The Philanderer before any formal charges had been made, Warburg had announced, quite unpleasantly he later admitted, that if he'd thought the book was obscene he wouldn't have published it — and that his firm would therefore "defend it with all the force at our command." Quietly submitting a guilty plea and accepting a slap on the wrist now that his firm had been charged seemed untenable.

In the month that passed before the trail began, Warburg suffered the "fearful consideration" of his colleagues, "an attitude utterly foreign to them in the normal course of business," and his wife's attempt to comfort him, which she did by assuring him the book in question was so dull that no jury would be able to finish reading it.

In fact, it was a stroke of luck that the judge assigned to the case, a Mr. Justice Stable, requested that the jury read the book in its entirety — rather than just considering the steamy excerpts given them by the prosecution — and called for a two-day recess to do so. When the jury reconvened, the judge sent them off to deliberate with a speech so inspiring that was used by a New York publisher as his Christmas card message months later. Reminding them that sex was essential to procreation, and that any blame assigned to it would therefore lie with the Creator, the judge asked the jury, "Are we to take our literary standards as being the level of something that is suitable for a 14-year-old schoolgirl? Or do we go even further back than that, and are we to be reduced to the sort of books one reads as a child in the nursery?"

The jury, unsurprisingly, responded by declaring Warburg not guilty. Although only two months later, a publisher in similar case — gone to trial following Warburg's example — received a £500 fine and a six-month prison sentence, the attention from Warburg's win and the judge's memorable speech helped inspire a change in Britain's obscenity laws.

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