Dec. 7, 2011

Boston Ancestors

by Susan Minot

I hear them behind me
crossing Persian rugs on heel-less shoes,
drinking Dubonnet, eating nuts
(from the pantry the smell of stew),
talking about naval battles
and varsity crew,
their voices raspy with cigars
in underheated rooms.

Someone sewed their eyes shut
with needlepoint thread
and when they speak
they make up for it
in booming tones.

It is somewhere
out of them
alive or dead
I have sprung.
Yet not a person there seems to recognize
Not one.

"Boston Ancestors" by Susan Minot, from Poems 4 A.M. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the woman who said: "It is a solemn and terrible thing to write a novel." That's the novelist Willa Cather (books by this author), born in the village of Back Creek near Winchester, Virginia (1873). When Cather was nine years old, she and her family left their home in Virginia to homestead in Nebraska, and the Nebraska prairie is the setting of her great novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918).

But Cather's productive years as a writer were spent not in Nebraska but in New York City. She moved there in 1906 when she was offered a job as managing editor at McClure's magazine. She lived with Edith Lewis in a studio apartment at 60 Washington Square South, in a red-brick row house, on a block called "Genius Row" because over the years its tenants included Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, O. Henry, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos. Despite living in the midst of it, Cather seems to have stayed at the periphery of the Bohemian community of Greenwich Village.

Willa Cather worked at McClure's for five years, but it was stressful work, and she was not writing much of her own fiction. In December of 1908, she got a letter from her mentor, the writer Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett wrote: "My dear Willa, — I have been thinking about you and hoping that things are going well. I cannot help saying what I think about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now. I do think that it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should — when one's first working power has spent itself nothing ever brings it back just the same, and I do wish in my heart that the force of this very year could have gone into three or four stories. [...] I want you to be surer of your backgrounds, — you have your Nebraska life, — a child's Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call the 'Bohemia' of newspaper and magazine-office life. These are uncommon equipment, but you don't see them yet quite enough from the outside [...] You need to dream your dreams and go on to new and more shining ideals, to be aware of 'the gleam' and to follow it; your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up."

It took Cather awhile to take Jewett's advice. A couple of years later, she quit her job at McClure's, but even then she did not dig into her own background for her work. Instead, she published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), which she later admitted was a forced effort. After she published her first novel about Nebraska, O Pioneers! (1913), she knew she had found her place as a writer. She compared writing O Pioneers! to writing Alexander's Bridge: "Here there was no arranging or 'inventing'; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong.”

Cather followed up O Pioneers! with My Ántonia (1918), another novel set in the prairies of her childhood. An interviewer asked Cather if My Ántonia was so good because it was rooted in the Nebraska soil. She said: "No, no, decidedly no. There is no formula; there is no reason. It was a story of people I knew. I expressed a mood, the core of which was like a folksong, a thing Grieg could have written. That it was powerfully tied to the soil had nothing to do with it. Ántonia was tied to the soil. But I might have written the tale of a Czech baker in Chicago, and it would have been the same. It was nice to have her in the country; it was more simple to handle, but Chicago could have told the same story. It would have been smearier, joltier, noisier, less sugar and more sand, but still a story that had as its purpose the desire to express the quality of these people. No, the country has nothing to do with it; the city has nothing to do with it; nothing contributes consciously. The thing worth while is always unplanned. Any art that is a result of preconcerted plans is a dead baby."

Cather's other novels include The Song of the Lark (1915), One of Ours (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

It's the birthday of linguist and writer Noam Chomsky (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1928). He said, "We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas."

It's the birthday of novelist Susan Minot (books by this author), born in Boston (1956). She was one of seven children, and they grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a town on the Massachusetts coast. Her father came from old money, descended straight from the Boston Brahmins, and her mother was a lively Irish-Catholic woman. Susan Minot said: "I didn't like what was going on. I didn't like being stuck in a house. Too many people around. One of the reasons I became a writer is that I had to go into a room and sit down in order to know what was going on in my head."

Her father was an alcoholic, and when she was a senior at Brown, her mother died in a car crash. Her sister Eliza was seven years old, and so after Susan graduated from college, she moved back home to be with her sister. She figured that writing would be a nice flexible job that she could do while Eliza was at school.

In 1986, she published Monkeys, a book of connected stories drawing heavily on her own life — it tells the story of a family of seven children raised in an upper-class New England family, with an alcoholic father and a warm Irish-Catholic mother who dies in a car crash.

Susan Minot went on to write several other novels, including Evening (1998), and most recently, Rapture (2002). She also wrote a book of poems, Poems 4 A.M. (2002).

She said: "The word dysfunction has, I think, served its purpose and now has lost its meaning. Every family, like every person, is imperfect, after all. The idea that there is a Family somewhere who functions is an odd concept. In my youth I was running from my family to try to find out who I was — their influence distracted me. Now I see what a powerful hold they have, no matter what."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7th "a date which will live in infamy," because it was on this day in 1941 that Japanese planes attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attack, and the United States joined World War II, which it had stayed out of the war for more than two years, adhering to its policy of neutrality in Europe's affairs.

It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of Earth, a photo that came to be known as "The Blue Marble." Photographs of Earth from space were relatively new.

In 1948, the astronomer Fred Hoyle said, "Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available — once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes plain — a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose."

 The photograph captured on this day thirty-nine years ago was the first clear image of the Earth, because the sun was at the astronauts' back, and so the planet appears lit up and you can distinctly see blue, white, brown, even green. It became a symbol of the environmental movement of the 1970s, and it's the image that gets put on flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

The crew of Apollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from Earth when they took the Blue Marble photo. It was the last time that astronauts, not robots, were on a lunar mission — since then, no people have gotten far enough away from Earth to take a photo like it.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “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
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “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
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show