Dec. 8, 2012

Winter Happiness

by Jack Gilbert

Pride, pride, pride, pride, pride,
pride and happiness. Winter
and empty fields and beyond the trees
the Aegean. The night sky
bright in the puddles of this lane.
Such dear loneliness. Going along
to no man's clock. No one who knows
my middle name for a thousand miles.
My youth gone and death unable to find me.
Thinking back to childhood. Astonished
that I could find the way here.

"Winter Happiness" by Jack Gilbert, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (books by this author), born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He's best remembered today for his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1944), the tale of a henpecked husband who fantasizes about a life of daring adventure. As a young man, Thurber's own fantasy had been a little more tame: he dreamed of working as a staff writer for a new magazine called The New Yorker. He began submitting pieces to the magazine in 1926, when it had only been in print for about a year. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to think The New Yorker must have a rejection machine." He persisted, and the first story that was accepted was so impressive that editor Harold Ross offered him a job.

But the story must have impressed Ross a little too much, because instead of getting the staff writer position he longed for, Thurber found himself higher up the ladder as an administrative editor. Unhappy, he tried to get himself demoted by making mistakes on purpose, but it didn't work. He gave up and just kept submitting pieces to the magazine. When Ross found out how badly he wanted to write, he gave him the position and put him in an office with E.B. White. The two men became good friends, and collaborated on a self-help parody called Is Sex Necessary? (1929), which featured Thurber's cartoons.

James Thurber said: "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility."

It's the birthday of poet and short-story author Delmore Schwartz (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1913). He studied philosophy, and wanted to become a poet, and one summer while he was in college, he locked himself in his apartment for a month and wrote a short story. It was called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," and it was published as the lead piece in The Partisan Review. In the story, which is based on Schwartz's life, the main character watches his parents' courtship unfold on a movie screen. When his father proposes, the author begs them to reconsider, to never marry and have children. Schwartz also gave the title to his first collection of poetry and short stories, which he published in 1938 to great acclaim from literary luminaries like Pound, Eliot, and Nabokov.

Schwartz was one of the most promising writers of his generation, but he fell into the abyss of alcohol abuse and mental illness. He began spending his days drinking at the White Horse Tavern in New York and collecting little bits of quotations in a journal. He died of a heart attack in 1966, and no one claimed his body for three days.

It's the birthday of nonfiction author Bill Bryson (books by this author), born in Des Moines, Iowa, on this day in 1951. He's written books about travel, language, Shakespeare, history, and science; he travels so much that his wife made him promise to write at least one book from home. That book came out in 2010; it was At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The book's topics are divided up by room, just like a house.

Bryson published another book in 2010. Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society. Bryson edited and introduced the book, which is a collection of articles and essays celebrating the Royal Society's 350th anniversary. Bryson has described himself as a "cheerleader for science," and told The New Statesman: "Science has been quite embattled. It's the most important thing there is. An arts graduate is not going to fix global warming. They may do other valuable things, but they are not going to fix the planet, or cure cancer, or get rid of malaria."

On this date in 1660, a professional female actress appeared on the English stage in a production of Othello. It's one of the earliest known instances of a female role actually being played by a woman in an English production. Up until this time, women were considered too fine and sensitive for the rough life of the theater, and boys or men dressed in drag to play female characters. An earlier attempt to form co-ed theater troupes was met with jeers and hisses and thrown produce.

But by the second half of the 17th century, the King's Company felt that London society could handle it. Before the production, a lengthy disclaimer in iambic pentameter was delivered to the audience, warning them that they were about to see an actual woman in the part. This was, the actor explained, because they felt that men were just too big and burly to play the more delicate roles, "With bone so large and nerve so incompliant / When you call Desdemona, enter giant."

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
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