Friday Oct. 3, 2014

Fatherhood, Beginnings

Sometimes when I’ve been sitting in
a different room for a while
I forget I have a child.

Then I wander into the humidified air,
feel the softness of the blue rug
between my toes
and place my hand upon his rising chest.

What will I tell my son
when he asks if I am happy?
All summer I mowed the lawn like my father
in shorts and socks pulled taut to the knee.

I want to tell the girl across the street
to quit smoking,
to straighten her shoulders when she walks,
to stop shuffling her feet.

"Fatherhood, Beginnings" by Jason Tandon, from Quality of Life. © Black Lawrence Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission  (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany. The two countries had been divided since the end of World War II. The most visible sign of this division was the Berlin Wall that divided the former capital for 28 years.

It's the birthday of historian and statesman George Bancroft, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1800). George Bancroft lived to be 90 years old, so he saw most of the 19th century. He taught Greek at Harvard. Then President Polk appointed him Secretary of the Navy, and during his tenure, Bancroft established the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was later appointed the U.S. diplomat to Britain. While he was there, he wrote his 10-volume History of the United States.

He said, "The exact measure of the progress of civilization is the degree in which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force."

It's the birthday of writer Gore Vidal (books by this author), born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. in West Point, New York (1925). He adored his grandfather, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma. Since the old man was blind, young Vidal loved to read to him, and sometimes went to work with him. When he was a teenager, he simplified his name to Gore Vidal, which he thought sounded more literary.

He began writing his first novel when he was 19 years old and working as the first mate of an Army supply ship stationed in the Aleutian Islands. He suffered bad frostbite and arthritis, and he finished the novel, Williwaw (1946), while he was recovering in a hospital bed. The style sounded a lot like Ernest Hemingway, but it earned Vidal some good reviews, and he became a literary celebrity.

His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), was the coming-of-age story of a gay man. When it was published, it was hugely controversial, considered pornographic and inappropriate. Not only did it get terrible reviews, but also major publications, includingThe New York Times, refused to review Vidal's next five books. He fell out of literary fashion, and his books sold badly. He wrote some mystery novels under the name Edgar Box, and began writing screenplays for film and television. He was good at it, and fast: he could write a screenplay adaptation in a weekend and an original script in a week. He worked in Hollywood for the next 10 years and earned a comfortable living.

By 1960, he was bored with screenwriting, and he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat. It was a very Republican district, and Vidal lost, but he was proud to have outpolled JFK in that district. In 1964, he returned to writing fiction with a novel calledJulian, about a fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert his empire back to pre-Christian religious practices. Julian was a huge best-seller, and after that Vidal continued to write novels for the rest of his career.

Many of his novels were about American history. Washington, D.C. (1967) is about a political family in the 1940s. In Burr (1973), Aaron Burr is the hero and Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton are unlikeable. Empire (1987) was the story of mass media and empire building in turn-of-the-century America. Vidal said: "The only thing interesting about the United States is our history [...] Now you have to be a genius to make that uninteresting. You have to really have great gifts of boredom, beyond the norm available to most people. I have spent my life writing American history, feeling a bit guilty, because I often think, 'It's hard work. Why am I doing this? The schools should have done it.'"

Vidal also wrote literary reviews and essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award forUnited States: Essays, 1952-1992, which included essays on the American social novel, presidential families, gay sex in American society, West Point, evangelicals, and Italo Calvino.

His other books include Myra Breckinridge (1968), Duluth (1983), Lincoln (1984),Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995), and The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (2008).

He said: "I really wanted to be a politician, but unfortunately, I was born a writer. When that happens, you have no choice in the matter."

And, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."

Today is the birthday of the cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1924). In 1952, Kurtzman became the founding editor of Mad magazine, and even though he remained with the magazine for only its first few issues, he set the tone and style that became its trademark. It was the first media product that earned its bread and butter by parodying other media products.

It's the birthday of Thomas Wolfe (books by this author), born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900). He spent many years trying to become a playwright, then had an affair with an older, married woman named Aline Bernstein. She became his muse and convinced him to write a novel. He dedicated his novel Look Homeward Angel to her.

Thomas Wolfe died young, of meningitis, and left behind a crate full of notebooks and manuscripts. His editor went through the crate and created two novels out of the material there, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again.

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