The Writer’s Almanac for June 9, 2018

“Oh the gallant Fishers life,…” by Izaak Walton, from The Compleat Angler. Public domain. (buy now)

Oh the gallant Fishers life,
It is the best of any,
‘Tis full of pleasure, void of strife,
And ’tis belov’d of many:
Other joyes
are but toyes,
only this
lawful is,
for our skill
breeds no ill,
but content and pleasure.

In a morning up we rise,
Ere Aurora’s peeping,
Drink a cup to wash our eyes,
Leave the sluggard sleeping:
Then we go
to and fro,
with our knacks
at our backs,
to such streams
as the Thames,
if we have the leasure.

When we pleas to walk abroad
For our recreation,
In the fields is our abode,
Full of delectation.
Where in a brook
with a book,
or a Lake,
fish we take;
there we sit,
for a bit,
till we fish intangle.


 It’s the birthday of novelist Charles Webb, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California, 1939. He wrote a book that became one of the iconic films of the 1960s: The Graduate (1963; film version, 1967). Not many people realize that The Graduate is based on a book, but in fact the dialogue in the film comes almost entirely from the novel.

Webb grew up in Pasadena, California, and he turned down an inheritance from his father who was a wealthy doctor. He wrote The Graduate in the poolside bar of the Pasadena Huntington Hotel, and he based it loosely on his own experience: He was attracted to the wife of a friend of his parents, and he decided “it might be better to write about it than to do it.” When The Graduate was published, he was 24 years old.


It’s the birthday of Cole Porter, born in Peru, Indiana (1891). He was a composer and lyricist, and he wrote a string of hit songs: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Night and Day,” “You’re the Top,” “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin,” and “Let’s Misbehave.” All of these songs were written within a 10-year period: between his first popular Broadway musical, Paris (1928)—his first musicals had been complete flops—and a terrible riding accident in 1937. Porter was at a party at the New York home of the Countess Edith di Zoppola when his horse rolled and crushed his legs. He claimed that he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt and that while someone ran for help he finished up the lyrics to “You Never Know.” But he was in fact seriously injured—the doctors insisted that his right leg be amputated, maybe his left as well. Porter refused. He preferred to be in intense pain than be missing a leg.

He lived with the pain for more than 20 years, and he continued to write songs, but never at the same rate of success as he had before his accident. In 1958, after 34 operations on his leg, he finally agreed to have it amputated. The playwright Noel Coward went to visit Porter in the hospital, and he said: “He has at last had his leg amputated and the lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face. He is a bit fretful about having to manage his new leg but he will get over that. I think if I had had to endure all those years of agony I would have had the damned thing off at the beginning, but it is a cruel decision to have to make and involves much sex vanity and many fears of being repellent.

However, it is now done at last and I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.” But Porter never recovered. He told friends, “I am only half a man now,” and never wrote another song. He died in 1964 at the age of 73.

He wrote “I Hate Men” for his musical Kiss Me Kate (1948):

I hate men.
I can’t abide them even now and then.
Then ever marry one of them, I’d rest a maiden rather,
For husbands are a boring lot that only give you bother.
Of course, I’m awful glad that mother had to marry father,
Still, I hate men.

Of all the types of men I’ve met in our democracy,
I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy.
He may have hair upon his chest, but sister, so has Lassie!
Oh, I hate men!

I hate men.
They should be kept like piggies in a pen.
You may be wooed by Jack the Tar, so charming and so chipper,
But if you’re wooed by Jack the Tar, be sure that you’re the skipper.
For Jack the Tar can go too far. Remember Jack the Ripper?
Oh, I hate men!

If thou shouldst wed a business man, be wary, oh be wary:
He’ll tell you he’s detained in town on business necessary.
The business is the business that he gives his secretary!
Oh, I hate men!

I hate men.
Though roosters they, I will not play the hen.
If you espouse an older man through girlish optimism,
He’ll always stay at home and night and make no criticism.
Though you may call it love, the doctors call it rheumatism.
Oh, I hate men!

Of all I’ve read, alone in bed, from A to Zed about ’em,
Since love is blind, then from the mind, all womankind should rout ’em.
But, ladies, you must answer too, what would we do without ’em?
Still, I HATE men!


It was on this day in 1860 that the first true dime novel was published. It was called Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens, and it was the first of 321 novels published by Beadle & Adams in their series Beadle’s Dime Novels. The early dime novels were wrapped in a salmon-colored cover, and after the first 28, Beadle & Adams started adding illustrations. Before long, the phrase “dime novel” was used to mean any cheap, melodramatic pulp fiction, some of which actually cost 15 cents, not 10.

Many authors of dime novels wrote nothing else, but there were some established writers who tried their hands at writing pulp fiction. Theodore Dreiser may have helped write the Diamond Dick dime novels. Louisa May Alcott published more than 30 dime novels under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. She wrote to her friend Alfred Whitman: “I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood and thunder tale as they are easy to ‘compoze’ and are better paid than moral and elaborate works of Shakespeare, so don’t be shocked if I send you a paper containing a picture of Indians, pirates, wolves, bears and distressed damsels in a grand tableau over a title like this: ‘The Maniac Bride’ or ‘The Bath of blood, A Thrilling Tale of Passion.'” Upton Sinclair supported himself by writing what he called “half-dime novels.” He said, “I discovered early in life that I possessed a happy knack—that of composing (and marketing) boys’ adventure stories. For a considerable period I used to talk these off to a stenographer, grinding them out at the rate of six or eight thousand words a day; in which manner I took care of myself from the age of 16. I have frequently walked all the way around Central Park, in New York, ‘thinking story.’ […] In those days I wrote under the name of ‘Ensign Clark Fitch’ and ‘Lieutenant Frederick Garrison’; and my productions appeared in brilliant red, blue, green and yellow colored priodicals, known as the ‘True Blue Library’ and the ‘Starry Flag Weekly.’ […] At the age of 20, I received a conviction of inspiration, and went away into the woods to write the ‘great American novel.’ […] I soon made the appalling discovery that my novel was not wanted, that my inspiration was not believed in, and that I was out of touch with the entire civilized world—an outcast and a tramp. I could no longer write entertaining dime novels—the effort to do so simply tore me to pieces, and the publishers of the dime novels soon found out that something was wrong, and passed me by.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist and peace activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner (books by this author), born in Prague (1843). Her father died before she was born, and she was raised by her mother. The family had once been wealthy, so she moved in upper-class circles, but they lived beyond their means. Still, Bertha received the best education, was fluent in several languages, and traveled all over Europe. When she was 30 she realized that it was time to stop relying on her mother, who was gambling away the rest of the family’s money. She took a job as a governess to a wealthy family, the von Suttners.

Unfortunately for her job security, Bertha fell in love with the son, Arthur von Suttner. Arthur’s mother disapproved of the romance between her son and Bertha, and was delighted when she found an advertisement in a Viennese newspaper looking for someone with exactly Bertha’s qualifications. She showed Bertha the ad and hinted that she should leave. The ad said: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.” Bertha was 33, not exactly elderly, but she applied anyway and was offered the job. It turned out that her employer wasn’t elderly either—he was 43, and he was the industrialist Alfred Nobel.

Bertha and Nobel hit it off, and she was less of a secretary to Nobel than a friend. They spent their days walking around Paris and talking about ideas—art, literature, international politics. But after about a week, she got a telegram from Arthur saying that he couldn’t live without her. So she went back to him.

His family was no less enthusiastic about their marriage than before, and the two young people had to fend for themselves. They spent nine years living in the Caucasus, where they taught music lessons and read everything they could get their hands on. They also wrote—during those years, Bertha von Suttner published four novels, a memoir, and Inventarium einer Seele, or Inventory of a Soul (1883), in which she advocated for international peace.

The von Suttners made enough money from their books to travel to Paris, and there Bertha rekindled her connection with Alfred Nobel. She was quickly connected to a network of peace activists, and decided that the movement was her true calling. So she set out to write a novel that would advance the cause of the peace movement, and that was Die Waffen nieder, or Lay Down Your Arms (1889). It was wildly popular, and by 1905 it was going into its 37th edition and had been translated into nearly all of the European languages.

Von Suttner wrote Nobel letter after letter urging him to get more involved in the peace movement. He donated significant amounts of money to her causes, but he was skeptical—concerned that despite all the good will of the anti-war movement, its participants hadn’t formulated a realistic alternative. His ambivalence also came from his own life—he had made his fortune as the inventor of dynamite, and later through the development of weapons. He wrote to Bertha: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Shortly before his death, Nobel informed Bertha that in his will, he was leaving his money for the creation of what is now the Nobel Peace Prize. She was thrilled—she responded: “Whether I am around then or not does not matter; what we have given, you and I, is going to live on.”

Nobel died in 1896, and the first Nobel Prize was given in 1901. In 1905, Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize that she had helped inspire.

She said, “Perhaps the universal sisterhood is necessary before the universal brotherhood is possible.”

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Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

We eased away from the dock in Brooklyn and sailed past the towers of capitalism and Miss Liberty and under the Verrazano Bridge and around Sandy Hook out onto the vast inhospitable ocean, sitting on deck chairs with blankets over our legs. My wife looks as if she were born to this way of life; you’d never guess she’s from Minnesota.

The cruise business is booming as a way to see the world while sleeping in one bed and not having to pack your clothes every day. What QM2 offers is something more. It’s the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, a slender ship, and its selling point is a style of life. An enormous dance floor with a first-rate dance band playing foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and cha-chas, and the floor crowded with dancers in tuxedos and gowns, expressing their inner elegance. The songs are not about rebellion and being true to yourself, but about the nearness of you, being unable to take my eyes off of you, fascination, walking hand in hand, side by side.

Ballroom dancing is a vanishing culture. If someone came to Minnesota and asked me where they could foxtrot to a live band, I wouldn’t have a clue. There are music clubs where people in their twenties can jump around in the dark to hip-hop and punk, but ballroom dancing is not about self-expression, it’s about two people making each other feel graceful. It’s a conversation. The tango has parameters. So does the mambo. But within each dance is a whole stylistic vocabulary of dips and turns and spins, kicks and bows, hands outstretched, a shimmy shimmy shake. The handsome crooner sings: “Music and passion are always in fashion at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana,” a song out of the deep archive, but the dancers take to it like fish to water, old coots and grandes dames, the limber, the arthritic, the expansive, the conservative, all dancing to the same rhythm but in variant styles.

Everyone has had a life — captain of industry, civil engineer, investment banker, p.r. exec, trial lawyer — but none of that matters now, as the band swings into “I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, but I get a kick out of you” — the dancers are all united in courtship, the men in black-tie uniformity, the women individual, in a gala performance that seems to be vanishing from the world.

The textbook pattern of the dance is only the entry point, and within each form is a whole vocabulary of variations, a bounce, a twist, a kick, a spin. To find freedom of expression within a form is one of the chief pleasures of life.

My wife loves all this and I love to be her consort. We hike around the promenade deck, one-third mile, the Atlantic sliding by, we dress for dinner, we go dancing. A man needs to extend himself when called upon.

I chatted with the singer between sets. Michael Burke. He’s Irish, young, rock ’n’ roll is his natural style, but he is very convincing as a crooner. He has seven sisters in Ireland and so he needs no home of his own, he sings on ships and when he needs a month off, he picks which sister to lodge with. This man knows about family.

As for me, a week on the ocean dancing with Madame has changed my view of things. Self-expression is fine for other people, but not for me. Freedom is much overrated as an experience. Harmony, love, closeness, adoration are to be preferred.

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I walk around New York City on these perfect summer nights, sirens passing, helicopters chunking above, subway rumbling below, diners in sidewalk cafes, dogs walking their owners, and after a little while, I look for an excuse to sit down. I’m walking because I’m a sedentary guy who is scheduled to fly to Prague with my ambulatory wife who will want to see castles and parks and museums and who will be gratified if I can keep up with her. I don’t care about castles; I am a democrat. My favorite museum is in Cooperstown. But I shall be her consort, walking three steps behind, my head up, fulfilling my role.

Walking around the big city, whenever I see a lighted ballfield, I turn in that direction and find a spot by the backstop and sit. Manhattan is an island, short on space, and so the Parks Department likes to lay out four ballfields in one rectangle, the four home plates in the corners, the diamonds aiming in toward the middle, so that the outfielders are intermingled with each other. A center fielder may backpedal for a long fly ball and make the catch next to someone else’s second base. It’s a whole new ballgame. Interdependence is the key, which is an amazing thing in a country as divided as ours is. I know New Yorkers who’ve never been to Kansas. Hard for me to accept that as normal.

It’s sort of like the great Rose Reading Room at the Public Library on 42nd Street, that hushed chapel where a couple hundred people sit silently at long tables, reading or tapping on laptops, each in his or her separate bubble, bubbles that may be fragile and so a severe decorum is observed. The little skritch of an iPhone camera would violate it. So people don’t. It’s basic cooperation, same as a shortstop saying, “You’re good, you’re good, you’re good” to reassure a backpedaling right fielder from next door to keep his eye on the fly ball, that his path is clear.

New York is a big sports town because a goodly percentage of the population is close enough to the poverty line to be aware of it and pro sports stardom is the fairy tale of poor kids growing up to be rich. I know Midwestern kids who have zero interest in athletics, whose passion is playing video games. There are not many multimillionaire video gamers and they don’t care.

Writing a best-selling novel was my fairy tale, and I’m completely over it now, but in the reading room, I like to imagine that the young African-American woman and the young Vietnamese guy at my table are entertaining that dream. American literature is leaning toward minority authors because that dream is powerfully attractive. A coming-of-age novel about an immigrant family with an abusive father and overwhelmed mother and a nerdy kid with a terrible stutter who, by Chapter 3, you realize is the author of the book. I know Midwestern writers who have zero interest in the novel, whose passion is poetry. There is one millionaire poet in America, Billy Collins, and all the others are earning less than $50K/year teaching creative writing.

My game these days is the memoir and, at 75, I am one of the oldest memoirists around. Most of them are in their 40s. I waited for some sort heartbreak that would make my memoir interesting, but nothing happened, and then I realized that I had married so well that life was likely to go on pleasantly into dementia and beyond, so I’m now almost finished with the first draft. It’s all about luck. People are going to resent it.

I think of the poets vs. the novelists on one diamond, and we memoirists, Shirts vs. Skins, on the adjacent one. I’m a Shirt, a writer who does not tell all. If I start to talk about my impoverished youth when I was sent to walk along the railroad track to pick up coal to heat our house and then I remember that there was no track near our house and anyway the trains were diesel, I realize I have wandered into the novelists field, and I yell, “Sorry!” and I come back. Same if I get too engrossed in describing the woods. The truth is, I was lucky. It could’ve been worse. I married blindly and well. None of us will make it to Cooperstown but it’s okay. A summer night in New York. Be grateful.

 

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. In 1964 on this day, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

On this date in 1940, Winston Churchill gave his famous “finest hour” speech. He had only been prime minister for about a month.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey, who wrote the nonfiction piece “Hiroshima” for the New Yorker about the obliteration of the city. It is also the birthday of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

Today is Bloomsday, which commemorates the day on which the events of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses take place. Joyce chose June 16th, 1904, for the setting because it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons of the past half century: Che Guevara, born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928).

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

Today is the birthday of W.B. Yeats, born in Dublin in 1865. In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, an actress & activist who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

It was on this day in 1942 that Anne Frank was given a small red and white diary as a gift for her 13th birthday. About a week after her birthday, on June 20th, she wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me … because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”

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Aspen Institute – Limericks

Aspen Institute – Limericks

Garrison was invited to the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Words Summer Soirée, on the premise that he would talk about storytelling. Instead, he decided to tell some limericks.

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Letterman appearance (1983)

In this clip from the archives, Garrison talks to David Letterman about his first bestselling book, Happy to Be Here. Explaining his past difficulty writing a novel, Garrison jokes, “I tried to write a novel, David, but I had a basic problem, which was that I was able to move people into a scene, but I was never able to get them out again.”

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Writing

Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

Read More

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

Read More

Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

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Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a corporate speechwriter and a copywriter. I am 55.5 and would like to meet the right man who enjoys words. I placed a personal ad but got a response from a man in Federal Prison. It seemed intrusive to ask how he landed himself there, so I didn’t respond. I’ve got many friends and I’m perfectly okay-looking. What should I be doing? Taking trips? Moving to another country with a shortage of middle-aged women? Making a systematic request to my entire list of acquaintances to ask them to produce one person? What would you do? I am about to give up.  

-Exhausted by Love

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What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

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Forgot password? Try “LIFEISGOOD42J75#REAL”

It’s spring in Minnesota finally. My lawn is greenish, birds sing in the morning, we go walking in a sweater, no gloves. There is still ice on the lakes, but if you don’t look at them, you don’t notice. Life is good. This is not pointed out often enough, the goodness of life, because journalists know that Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for exposing corruption and sending the mayor to jail for skimming money off the School Milk Fund so the kiddos get 2% rather than whole milk, it’s not given for writing about a walk in the park on a sunny day. Nonetheless, we do have parks and the sun does shine.

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