During World War II, Grandma Shorba
handed plates of bread and meat to strangers
who asked for work in exchange for food.
After chopping wood and mending fences,
the lean, stoop-shouldered men went on their way.
“May God watch over them,” Grandma said.
I was glad I didn’t have to follow them
down the long train tracks silvering west.
I didn’t want to sleep beside a strange campfire
around the bend, in the next world.
But I worried how they’d survive, and asked
my parents if they could live with us.
My begging only made everyone nervous.
Maybe Grandma’s stories of The Good Samaritan
and the Loaves and Fishes weren’t true?
If I’d been in charge, I’d have asked those men to stay—
but Gramma, who trusted God,
fed them, then sent them on their way.
"Grandma Shorba’s Ragamuffin Stew” by Freya Manfred from Speak, Mother. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of playwright Terence Rattigan (books by this author), born in London (1911). He said he wrote for the common theatergoer, whom he called “Aunt Edna.” He said Aunt Edna was a “nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady, with time on her hands and money to help her pass it.” His plays include French Without Tears (1936), Flare Path (1942), and The Winslow Boy (1946).
He said, “A novelist may lose his readers for a few pages; a playwright never dares lose his audience for a minute.”
It’s the birthday of Canadian-American novelist Saul Bellow (books by this author), born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, Canada (1915). His Russian-Jewish parents immigrated to Canada from St. Petersburg in 1911. He found his way into literature after a respiratory infection left him bedridden for six months in Ward H of the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and pored over the Old Testament.
The family moved to Chicago, settling in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Though his father worked steadily as a bootlegger and delivering coal and importing Egyptian onions, Bellow’s childhood was poor. “I saw mayhem all around me,” he said. “By the age of eight, I knew what sickness and death were.” The self-described “slum kid, thick-necked and rowdy,” devoured Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. He studied anthropology at Northwestern University, avoiding literature studies because he felt the department was anti-Semitic, but he couldn’t shake his desire to write. He said, “Every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story.”
Bellow landed in New York and became a Trotskyist, was rejected by the Army because of a hernia, and was training in the merchant marine when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), while still in the service. His father disapproved of Bellow’s writerly aspirations, telling him, “It’s just writing, then erasing. What kind of profession is that?” He taught at the University of Minnesota, living humbly on Commonwealth Avenue in St. Paul, before winning a Guggenheim Fellowship and moving to Paris. It was in Paris that he composed The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the novel that made his name and introduced the character of Augie March, the first of what would become Bellow’s literary trademark: fast-talking characters with a passion for big ideas, suffering problems of the spirit. Augie March won the National Book Award.
Writing had always been a physical act for Bellow: he pounded the keys of his Remington so hard he soaked his clothes and had to peel them off one by one. Even injury could not keep him from his work: once he typed through a nosebleed, his face and T-shirt covered with blood. But with Augie March, something had changed. He wrote the book, he said, “in a purple fever,” longhand, on trains and in cafes. “I loosened up, and found I could flail my arms and express my impulses. I was unruly at first and didn’t have things under control, but it was a kind of spontaneous event. It was my liberation.”
Bellow went on to write Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Seize the Day (1956), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. Novelist Philip Roth called him “the backbone of 20th-century American literature,” though Vladimir Nabokov dismissed him as a “miserable mediocrity,” which Bellow shrugged off, saying, “Every time you’re praised, there’s a boot waiting for you.” He bought a farm in Vermont, wore bespoke suits with Turnbull & Asser shirts and a Borsalino hat. He married five women, divorcing four, and became a father for the last time at 84. He taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago, and when asked why he continued teaching long after he was financially successful, he answered: “You’re all alone when you’re a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride in the subway will do that. But it’s much more interesting to talk about books. After all, that’s what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing has replaced that.”
It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer James Salter (books by this author), born James Horowitz, in New York City (1925). He attended West Point and became a pilot in the Air Force. He flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War, and served as a squadron leader in Europe before retiring in 1957 to become a writer. His first two novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1960), were based on his experiences as a combat pilot. Next came what he called “the first good thing I wrote,” A Sport and a Pastime (1967), a novel about the love affair between a Yale dropout living in Paris and a working-class French girl.
It’s the birthday of biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1929). His research was presented in the books Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature (1978). He received a second Pulitzer Prize for The Ants (1990). His most recent book is The Meaning of Human Existence (2014).