Feb. 2, 2014


by Hayden Carruth

Spring comes and autumn goes,
Likewise in the town of sparrows.

Under the eaves and in the ivy
They wage dispute of polity.

If someone speaks, someone demurs;
They are indomitable bickerers.

One can easily imagine them
Asquabble in the copses when brave William

Led his band by, or even once
In the dust near Hannibal's elephants.

Maybe in the primeval fire
They went at it: what's his, what's hers?

Apparently they do not welcome
Finality in sparrowdom.

"Sparrows" by Hayden Carruth from Collected Shorter Poems: 1946-1991. © Copper Canyon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet and novelist James Dickey (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1923). He was a high school football star and an Air Force combat navigator who began writing poetry to girls back home in America. After the war, he attended Vanderbilt University on the GI Bill. He worked in advertising for six years — he said, "selling his soul to the devil in the daytime and buying it back at night." In 1960, he published his first volume of poems, Into the Stone and Other Poems.

He then began to write full time, publishing several more volumes of poetry, including Buckdancer's Choice, which was awarded the 1965 National Book Award. Five years later, he wrote Deliverance, the novel that would make him most famous. It was the story of four Atlanta suburbanites on a back-to-nature canoe trip that turns into a terrifying test of survival. Dickey told a reporter for The New York Times that the excitement and fear in the book "comes from being in an unprotected situation where the safeties of law and what we call civilization don't apply ... A snake can bite you and you can die before you could get treatment. There are men in those remote parts that'd just as soon kill you as look at you. And you could turn into a counter-monster yourself, doing whatever you felt compelled to do to survive." The book was turned into a highly successful film in 1972, starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. Dickey died in 1997.

It is the birthday of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (books by this author), born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia (1905). In 1917, she witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution from her balcony. A communist gang took over her father's shop, and her family was immediately reduced to poverty. After college, Rand worked as a guide in a historical museum, but when she got a visa to visit relatives in Chicago, she vowed never to return to Russia.

Within six months of living in America, Rand moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. She published her first screenplay in 1932, and that allowed her to work on novels in her spare time. Her first important novel was one that she'd planned to write about skyscrapers: The Fountainhead (1943), about an architect named Howard Roark who blows up a housing project he built because his design was corrupted by the influence of others. When he is put on trial, he explains his philosophy that, in order to achieve greatness, individuals have to be allowed to realize their own personal vision, and not be tied down by the concerns of society. These ideas became the basis of Rand's philosophy, called Objectivism, which she also explored in her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957).

And it's the birthday of novelist James Joyce (books by this author), born in a suburb of Dublin (1882). He was a cheerful boy called "Sunny Jim" by his family. He spent several years at an expensive Jesuit boarding school, but was forced to leave after his father spent the family's money on drinking and lost his job. For the remainder of Joyce's childhood, the family was poor, moving to stay ahead of rent collectors. Joyce graduated from University College Dublin, then moved to Paris. He tutored students in English, but he wasn't saving anything — he asked his parents for money to come visit for Christmas, so his father remortgaged their house. Joyce returned to France, but a few months later, he received word that his mother was dying of cancer. He borrowed money from one of his students to afford the trip back home.

After his mother died, he struggled to find work. He had been churning out book reviews for The Daily Express, but after a fight with the editor, he was forbidden from showing his face in the office. His submissions to The Irish Times were rejected. He was offered a job as the sub-editor of the Irish Bee-keeper, a position he kept, he said, "for about 24 hours." He tried to start a daily newspaper with a friend, but that failed, as did his scheme to purchase books from pawnshops and resell them at a profit to rare book collectors. He borrowed his best friend's .22 rifle and sold it at a pawnshop; Joyce felt bad so he rewrote the end of his friend's poem, which then won a literary prize. He couldn't afford new clothes, so he wore hand-me-downs from friends — wrinkled flannels, tennis shoes, and a yacht cap.

In the spring of 1904, he worked as a schoolteacher for a couple of months. He had an excellent tenor voice, and he earned a little money singing, too. That was the year he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle, a proud redheaded chambermaid from Galway. He was unhappy with life in Ireland, and he published a scathing satire of his contemporaries called "The Holy Office" (1904), declaring himself superior to them; he wrote: "But all these men of whom I speak / Make me the sewer of their clique [...] And though they spurn me from their door / My soul shall spurn them evermore."

After the publication of "The Holy Office," it became more difficult to ask these same friends and peers for money. Poor and frustrated, with one suitcase between them, James and Nora left Ireland in October of 1904. They had enough money to get to Paris, where a doctor acquaintance lent them money to continue their journey. Joyce found work teaching in the city of Pola, in what was then Austria-Hungary. Joyce wasn't very good at managing money, and he made very little — the average salary in Pola ranged from 150 to 400 crowns, and he made 190. Neither of them liked Pola, but they expected that Joyce would publish a novel and strike it rich, and they could move to Paris — Nora took French lessons in preparation. Instead, Nora got pregnant, and officials in Pola ordered all foreigners to leave. Joyce got another teaching job in the city of Trieste on the Adriatic, which was also part of Austria-Hungary (but is now in Italy). They spent most of the next 10 years there. It was a culturally rich place, with interesting people, and Joyce particularly enjoyed drinking in taverns with sailors, but he spent more than he earned. He convinced his brother Stanislaus to move there, and that helped some — Stanislaus gave his brother money when he needed it and went out to haul him home when he passed out in the gutter. Stanislaus wrote: "It seems to me little short of a miracle that anyone should have striven to cultivate poetry or cared to get in touch with the current of European thought while living in a household such as ours, typical as it was of the squalor of a drunken generation. Some inner purpose transfigured him." Joyce tried and failed at several business ventures, including opening movie theaters and importing Irish tweeds to Trieste. He was more successful with a series of lectures on Hamlet and tutoring private students, and Nora took in laundry.

The family moved several more times — to Zurich, back to Trieste, and finally to Paris. There, for the first time, they had some level of security, mostly because the publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver was so impressed by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) that she financially supported Joyce. It's been estimated that over the course of 20 years, Weaver gave Joyce about a million dollars in today's currency. Finally, in Paris, he could buy fancy wine and rich meals, taxis, Chanel dresses for Nora — plus he could afford to spend all of his time writing. Joyce's works include Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939).

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