Our fathers, who lived all their lives on earth—
are going now. They have given us all
we need, and when we asked, they gave us more.
Their names are beautiful to us, holy
as the names of stars, as familiar
as the roads we traveled, falling asleep
on the way from one farm to another.
Their kingdoms were small; they were never
interested in more than one homestead,
and as for evil: although they could not
keep it from, us, they tried to keep us from
temptation, though we were like all children
and wanted our own power and glory,
world without end, forever and amen.
“Our Fathers” by Joyce Sutphen from After Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of American novelist E.L. Doctorow (books by this author), born Edgar Lawrence Doctorow in the Bronx (1931). Doctorow’s novels tweak American cultural myths and history, such as his breakthrough novel, Ragtime (1975), which takes place in and around New York City as World War I looms. It features a host of fictional characters interacting with real-life historical figures like anarchist Emma Goldman, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, and escape artist Harry Houdini. Legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn found the book’s mingling of history and fiction “immoral” and refused to run a major review, but American readers ate it up and the book became a runaway best-seller, launching Doctorow’s career.
Doctorow was named for his father’s favorite writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Doctorow said, “He liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that.” His father sold musical instruments in the old Hippodrome Building in midtown Manhattan, and his mother, Rose, played piano. The family struggled for money, but Doctorow’s childhood was pleasant enough: he played stoop ball in the street, attended summer camps, and went to the Museum of Modern Art. He read voraciously, mostly cape-and-sword potboilers like Captain Blood and Scaramouche, and the “Horatio Hornblower” naval adventure series. When asked how he became a writer, Doctorow answered: “I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on. Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how is this done? How am I made to live from words on a page? And so I became a writer.”
After being discharged by the Army, he worked as a reservations clerk at LaGuardia Airport and as a script reader for CBS television. It was while reading scripts that he began to formulate his own idea for a novel. He wrote a violent Western fable called Welcome to Hard Times (1960), which was later made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. His second book, Big as Life (1966), was about a group of New Yorkers who find two human giants standing in the Lower Hudson River. Doctorow said, “Unquestionably, it’s the worst I’ve ever done.” By the time it was published, he’d been the editor-in-chief at Dial Press for several years, working on books with James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. Frustrated, he quit and began working on The Book of Daniel (1971), which was a fictional memoir by the son of real-life American citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of being spies for Russia and executed in 1953. It garnered good reviews, but not much sales.
Three years later, he published Ragtime, and the ensuing acclaim drove Doctorow and his wife to consult the I Ching, which told them they should cross a great river. Doctorow took that to mean the Mississippi River, so he and his family moved to Utah, where he taught for many years. He said the move was necessary because, “America never gives you anything without you having to pay for it.” Ragtime was made into a film by Milos Forman (1981) and featured James Cagney’s last screen appearance. It was also adapted for Broadway (1996) and became a long-running musical, winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score.
Doctorow went on to write World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005), which centers on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the South at the end of the Civil War (1864–65). Andrew’s Brain (2014) was his last novel before his death in 2015.
On writing, Doctorow said: “It’s like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights illuminate, but you can make the whole trip that way, you see.”
And: “When you’re writing a book, you don’t really think about it critically. You don’t want to know too well what you’re doing. First, you write the book, then you find the justification for it. The book is constructed as a conversation, with someone doing most of the talking and someone doing most of the listening.”
Today is the birthday of essayist and fiction writer Barry Lopez (books by this author). He was born in Port Chester, New York (1945), and grew up in Southern California and New York City. He’s written several books of nonfiction, which often deal with the relationship between human culture and the physical landscape. The San Francisco Chronicle described Lopez as “the nation’s premier nature writer,” due in part to the subject matter of books like Arctic Dreams (1986) and Of Wolves and Men (1978), but he denies that title. He said: “I’m not writing about nature. I’m writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.”
His father left the family when Lopez was only three years old. His mother, a teacher, sometimes worked three jobs to support Barry and his brother. But she didn’t just work to put food on the table. “[M]y mother worked overtime to expose my brother and me to a world wider than the one that we might have known had we just stayed where we were,” Lopez told Bill Moyers. “She took us to Grand Canyon. She took us out in the Mojave Desert. And I got, as a kid, I got to run. I got to open myself up into the world and just go.” His mother remarried when he was 11, and the family moved to New York City, where he discovered art museums. As a young man, he considered becoming a Trappist monk, but rejected the Earth-centered, hardworking simplicity of that sect’s lifestyle, feeling it would come too easily to him. He retained his reverence, though. “I would say that I find a spirituality in life itself,” he clarifies. “I’m not a person that draws a very sharp line between nature and something else. I think that there is this thing nature of which we are a part. I believe our culture is infused with nature in the same way I imagine nature is infused with culture.”
Among his latest books is an anthology, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2010), which he edited and introduced; he also published his 10th book of fiction, Outside, in 2014.
He wrote: “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
It’s the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Strout (books by this author), born in Portland, Maine (1956), to a family that had lived in that state for eight generations. She grew up in a series of small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. She moved to New York almost a quarter century ago, and she loves it there, but she still misses the way people identify with the land in Maine, and the physical landscapes of New England.
She began thinking of herself as a writer at a very young age. Her mother bought her notebooks when she was four or five years old, and she would ask Strout to write down the things she saw, or to describe her impressions of the shoe salesman. It took her almost seven years to write her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998), and only her close friends and family knew that she was working on it; it was made into a TV movie by Oprah Winfrey. Her collection of linked short stories, Olive Kitteridge (2008), won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Italy’s Premio Bancarella. She’s the first American author to win that prize since Ernest Hemingway. In between those two books, she wrote a best-seller, Abide with Me (2006). Her latest novel is The Burgess Boys (2013).
Today is the birthday of poet Khalil Gibran (books by this author), born in the mountain village in Bsharri, Lebanon (1883). When Gibran was a boy, his mother decided to leave her alcoholic husband and take her four children to America. They settled in Boston, where they had relatives, and it was there that a charity worker noticed that Gibran appeared to be artistically gifted. He studied art, in addition to his regular schooling. His mother wanted him to learn about his Lebanese heritage too, and so Gibran went to a prep school and college in Beirut when he was 15. He started a literary magazine with a classmate, and was voted “College Poet.” He returned to Boston in 1902, when he was 19. Members of the aristocratic Boston society found him charming, and they began inviting him to social gatherings, where he discussed philosophy and poetry.
One day, a man named Alfred A. Knopf was invited to a gathering at Gibran’s apartment. Knopf was just starting up a publishing company, and when he saw how fascinated people were with Gibran, he decided to offer the man a publishing contract. Gibran’s first two books with Knopf weren’t very successful, but his third was a collection of 26 poetic essays called The Prophet (1923). It didn’t sell well at first, but gradually gained a readership, becoming especially popular in the 1960s; it was eventually translated into more than 30 languages. Gibran is now the third-best-selling poet in history, after William Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.