Saturday Oct. 15, 2016

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Wyoming Highways

Most of the traffic is pickup trucks
caked in bentonite from the methane roads,
or one-ton flatbeds with dually axles
and blue heelers balancing on the back.
But the blacktop slicing through rabbit brush flats
and weather the color of heated steel is perfect
for opening up a highway-geared American car
from the days of cubic inches and metal.
You could wind that Detroit iron up
to a sweet spot well above the posted limit,
where torque will casually pull the grades.
The car would rock on the springs, and growl
from deep in the carburetor throat
yanked wide open, gobbling down pure light.

“Wyoming Highways” by William Notter from Holding Everything Down. © Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the English novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse (1881) (books by this author), who once wrote of a character, “She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.” Wodehouse was best known for creating the characters of wealthy but featherbrained Bertie Wooster of Blandings Castle and his supercilious valet, Jeeves. They appeared in more than 10 novels and 30 stories.

Wodehouse (pronounced Wood-house) was born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. His father was a magistrate in Hong Kong who could trace the family’s ancestry back to the 13th century. Wodehouse was known as “Plum” within his family and lived his first two years in Hong Kong. When he and his brother were returned to England, they were promptly deposited with relatives or at boarding schools for the next 15 years. Plum needed sea air for his weak chest and missed his parents, though he refused to dwell on his loneliness as a child. About his childhood, he joked, “It went by like a breeze from start to finish, with everyone understanding me perfectly.”

Wodehouse was 12 when he finally landed at Dulwich College (1899) with his brother, where he thrived, despite receiving a report that read, “He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humor; he draws over his books and examination papers in the most distressing way and writes foolish rhymes in other people’s books.” Wodehouse boxed and played cricket and rugby. There wasn’t money for university when he graduated, so he took a junior position at the London office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, which he found confusing and tedious. He started writing what were known as “school articles” for Public School Magazine (1898), which was a journal for young boys. He wrote a comic piece called “Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings” for a magazine called Tit-Bits (1900), and it was so popular that he quit the bank and began writing full time and never stopped for the rest of his life.

After his first novel, The Pot-Hunters (1902), was published, he wrote eight more novels in the next seven years. He also wrote the lyrics for musicals, including Leave it to Jane (1917) and Oh, Boy! (1917) and, at one point, had five musicals running on Broadway at once. Wodehouse had sailed for America in 1904, calling it “a land of romance.” He earned $2,000 a week writing screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of them were never made, but it didn’t matter to him. Wodehouse’s stories and novels about Bertie Wooster and his unctuous valet, Jeeves, were incredibly popular, beginning with the first, Extricating Young Gussie (1915), and lasting until the 1970s.

Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves formula included plenty of plots, schemes, kidnappings, a pig named Empress Blandings, and lots of puns and wordplay. Americans were besotted with words like “pipped,” “bally,” “what ho!” and “toddle.” Wodehouse was a prolific writer, often writing 4,000 words a day. He began each novel by writing over 400 pages of notes, including an outline and plot. Often, he didn’t know the names of characters until he was well inside a story, so he simply referred to them as “hero” or “heroine” until he became inspired. He wrote seven days a week from 4 to 7 p.m., but never after dinner. He said, “For a humorous novel, you’ve got to have a scenario, and you’ve got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in … splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.”

The character of Jeeves has proved so popular that it’s now in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning a “person of utmost responsibility” and serves as the inspiration for Yahoo’s Ask Jeeves search engine. Jeeves taught millions of Americans the difference between a butler and a valet: a butler serves the house; a valet serves the person. Once, when confronted with a bear, Bertie Wooster asked Jeeves what he should do and Jeeves replied, “I fancy it might be judicious if you were to make an exit, sir.”

P.G. Wodehouse died at 93 (1975) in his house on Long Island, a month after receiving a British knighthood. He was sitting in a chair, surrounded by the typescript for a new Blandings Castle novel.

Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil (books by this author), born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 BC). His father was a peasant farmworker who raised his own social status by marrying his boss’s daughter. Virgil was sent to Milan, Rome, and Naples for his education in philosophy and rhetoric. He planned to become a lawyer, but he was too shy to speak in public. He also found that he missed the rural Italian countryside, so he returned to the family farm and wrote poetry.

He lived at a time of political instability and civil wars, and he was horrified in 41 BC when his land was confiscated by the government and given to retiring Roman soldiers. He wrote his first collection of poems, known as the Ecologues (published between 42 and 37 BC), about the local farmers and shepherds and the rural landscape. His work became extremely popular because it reminded everyone of a simple time before a series of civil wars.

One of the effects of all the civil wars was that many of the Roman farmers had been forced into the military and their farms had fallen into neglect. By the time the wars were over, few people still lived in rural Italy, and many had forgotten the art of farming. Because of his popularity as a poet, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and work the land again. The result was four volumes of poems known as The Georgics, which offer instruction in grain production, the cultivation of trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems were intended to instruct farmers; they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.

Virgil’s work so impressed the emperor Augustus that Virgil was given two villas to live in and a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his days. With the civil wars over, Rome had entered one of its first periods of stability and peace, and Virgil set out to write an epic poem about the country that could give all Romans national pride. He called his poem The Aeneid. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the soldiers in the Trojan War, traveling home from Troy to found a new city that would become Rome.

Virgil wrote The Aeneid first in prose and then painstakingly transformed it into metered poetry. He found the work extremely difficult. At one point, Augustus inquired about the progress of the poem, and Virgil responded that he must have been mad to attempt the task. After working on it for 11 years, Virgil took a trip to Greece so that he could add specific details to one of the sections of the poem. On the voyage, he caught a fever. He returned to Italy, but it was too late. He died before making the final revisions to his poem.

His final request before his death was that his poem should be burned, since it was imperfect, but the emperor Augustus ordered that the poem be preserved and published — to great acclaim. The work became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools, which ensured the preservation of more of his poems than any other classical poet. The Aeneid is now considered the greatest work of literature produced by the Roman civilization.

It’s the birthday of Helen Hunt Jackson (books by this author), born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830), where she went to school with Emily Dickinson. She had a steady career as a ladies’ author, but when she heard Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas give a speech about the destruction of his people, she became an activist overnight. She wrote a novel called Ramona (1884) about a mixed-race Spanish woman and her Native American lover, based on stories told to her by Mission Indians she had interviewed. It was a great success, but not in the way Jackson intended. People who read the book didn’t care much about the Indian characters; they were attracted to the rich Spaniards, and they eagerly attached Ramona’s name to the boulevards and opera houses in their new communities. California is still full of things named “Ramona.”

It’s the birthday of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., born in Columbus, Ohio (1917) (books by this author). He wrote The Age of Jackson (1945) and A Thousand Days (1965), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize. He read everything he could get his hands on while he was still very young, and pointed out in his autobiography that people were likely to have read most of the books they were going to read by the time they were 25. He wrote: “I welcome the march of sanity and progress. And yet, and yet. … As a historian, I am bound to feel that an era is coming to an end. Did I write ‘as a historian’? Let me confess: as a smoker of cigars.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®