The Writer’s Almanac for July 22, 2018

“Long Island Sound” by Emma Lazarus. Public Domain. (buy now)

I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,-by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.


It’s the birthday of the novelist S.E. Hinton, (books by this author) born Susan Eloise Hinton in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1948). Growing up, she loved to read, but her biggest dream in life was to be a cowboy. So she wrote a couple of books about cowboys, and then when she was 15 she started working on a book called The Outsiders. She wrote and edited much of her novel during her junior year of high school, the same year that she got a D in her creative writing class. The Outsiders was the story of two rival gangs, based on the gangs at her high school in Tulsa — one of them was a group of kids from working-class families, the other, children of rich families. 

The Outsiders was published in 1967, during her first year of college at the University of Tulsa. It became one of the most popular young adult books ever, selling more than 14 million copies, and continues to sell hundreds of thousands each year.


It’s the birthday of the painter Edward Hopper, born in Nyack, New York (1882). By the time he was 12 years old, he was already six feet tall, skinny, and gangly. He got made fun of by his classmates, and became painfully shy, spending much of his time alone and drawing. His parents encouraged him to become an illustrator, and he studied at the New York School of Art. He was taught the old-fashioned style of painting meticulously accurate pictures of the real world.

After he finished art school, he took a trip to Paris, where he realized that he had fallen in love with light. He said the light in Paris was unlike any he’d ever seen before.

Hopper later said that Europe had ruined him as a painter, and it took him 10 years to get over it. He spent the next several years working as an illustrator for an advertising agency in New York City, a job that he hated. In his spare time, he drove around and painted uniquely American places: train stations, gas stations, corner saloons.

Hopper had sold only one painting by the time he was 40 years old, but his first major exhibition in 1933 at the Museum of Modern Art made him famous. His pieces in that show had titles like “Houses by the Railroad,” “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” “Room in Brooklyn,” “Roofs of Washington Square,” “Cold Storage Plant,” “Lonely House,” and “Girl on Bridge.” Though his work was more realistic and less experimental than most other painters at the time, he painted his scenes in a way that made them seem especially lonely and eerie.

Hopper was a man of deliberate habits. He lived and worked in the same walk-up apartment in New York’s Washington Square from 1913 until 1967. He ate almost every meal of his adult life in a diner, and he tried never to ride in a taxi. He never had any children with his wife, and he never included a single child in any of his paintings.

Edward Hopper said, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman. … All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”


It’s the birthday of Tom Robbins (1936) (books by this author), born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He decided he wanted to be a writer when he was a boy of five. His family was, he says, “kind of a Southern Baptist version of The Simpsons — except that my father never would have eaten pie off of the floor and I played the part of both Bart and Lisa.” They moved to Virginia when he was 11. He studied journalism at Washington and Lee University for a couple of years, but he left when he got in trouble for bad behavior and for failing to earn a letter in basketball. He hitchhiked around the country, instead, and wound up in Greenwich Village.

He was drafted near the end of the Korean War, and joined the Air Force. He really didn’t want to serve, but it never occurred to him to dodge the draft in Canada. He figured the best he could do was to find a noncombat post, so he studied meteorology at the University of Illinois, and then taught it to the South Korean air force. After the war, he returned to Virginia and studied art, then worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a copyeditor. After living in the Village and overseas, he no longer felt at home in the South; he got fed up and moved to Seattle in 1962, explaining, “I only knew two things about Seattle: one, it was a long way from racist, sexist, homophobic, hide-bound, purse-lipped, gun-toting, church-crazed, flag-saluting, bourbon-swilling, buzz-cut, save your Confederate money, boys! Richmond, Virginia; and two, there was reputed to be something not quite right about its weather.”

His books are full of whimsy and sly humor, a little mysticism, and a dose of the bizarre. His first book, Another Roadside Attraction, was published in 1971, and is about a married couple — proprietors of a hot dog stand — who steal the mummy of Jesus. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) features a hitchhiker with abnormally large thumbs. Jitterbug Perfume (1984) is about a king who lives for a thousand years and ends up as Einstein’s janitor. He’s written nine novels, a memoir, and one collection of essays, reviews, and short stories.

He’s also something of a punning philosopher. “‘Joy in spite of everything,'” he says,” is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction — it has become my Quasi Motto. One of my books is a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage door opener, and a metaphysical trash compactor.”


Today is the birthday of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (books by this author), born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1898). His father was a military man who read poetry to his children. All of the Benét kids grew up to become writers of some sort.

Stephen published his first book at age 17, went to Yale, and served in World War I as a civilian, because his poor vision kept him out of the Army; after the war, he submitted his third volume of poetry — Heavens and Earth (1920) — in place of a master’s thesis. He also wrote three novels and some short stories, but he’s best known for a long poem that he wrote while in Paris: John Brown’s Body (1928). It’s an epic in eight sections, and tells the story of the Civil War, beginning with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and ending just after Lincoln’s assassination.

He also wrote the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), which was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post. It’s a tall tale about a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and then hires orator Daniel Webster to argue his case in front of a midnight jury of American villains. Webster rises from his grave to take the case, saying, “If two New Hampshiremen aren’t a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians.”

He wrote, “Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.”


It’s the birthday of American poet Emma Lazarus (books by this author), born in New York City (1849). She came from a wealthy Jewish family, and her father paid to have her first collection of poems published when she was 17. Her early work impressed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they corresponded for many years. In the 1880s, she was horrified to hear of violent anti-Semitic attacks in Russia and Germany, and her work took on a new Zionist focus. She became concerned with the plight of the poor and the refugee, and organized relief efforts for immigrant Jewish families. The Statue of Liberty committee approached her in 1883 and asked her to write a poem that they could auction off to raise money for the monument. She responded with “The New Colossus.” The statue was erected in 1886, but she was in Europe. She sailed back to New York the following year, but she was too ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma to go on deck to see it as the boat passed, and she died without ever seeing the statue she’d help raise. “The New Colossus” includes the famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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