Tuesday Feb. 3, 2015

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The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens from Collected Poems. © Faber & Faber, 1955. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1959 that rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa. They were partway through a grueling “Winter Dance Party Tour” through the upper Midwest. Twenty-two-year-old Holly was reluctant to participate in the tour. He was sick of touring, his wife was pregnant, and they were scheduled to play 24 cities in 24 days. But he needed the money — his split from his band and manager the year before had left him with legal and financial problems.

The tour was even worse than Holly imagined. The winter was one of the coldest in decades, and the tour stops were poorly planned, zigzagging back and forth between states. They traveled on a freezing cold bus — slept sitting up in the hard seats. They performed in dirty clothes because they had no time to do laundry. One night when the temperature was 30 degrees below zero, the bus broke down on a rural road in Wisconsin’s north woods; the passengers huddled under blankets and burned newspapers in the aisles until the sheriff arrived. Holly’s drummer had frostbitten feet. They canceled their afternoon show that day but played that night in Green Bay, and arrived the next day in Clear Lake, Iowa.

In Clear Lake, they played a sold-out show at the Surf Ballroom to more than 1,000 teenagers. Holly was so sick of the miserable bus that he decided to hire a charter plane to take them to their next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. Holly wanted to rest, and figured he could do everyone’s laundry before that night’s show. The charter plane would only fit three people. Holly’s bass player on the tour was future country music star Waylon Jennings, who agreed to give up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was sick. Holly’s guitarist flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens, and Valens won. The plane took off from Clear Lake in the early morning hours of February 3rd. There was a light snow, but the sky seemed clear; the pilot did not know that there was a blizzard warning. The plane crashed just a few minutes later in a cornfield outside of town.

It's the birthday of the novelist Paul Auster (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). He wanted to be a baseball player. But he had an uncle, a translator, who left some of his books at Auster's house while he was on a European vacation. Auster started reading those books, and he was so entranced that he decided to become a writer instead.

He worked for a while on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, and he made enough money to move to Paris. He wrote poetry that didn't sell, wrote a detective novel that he thought was bad, and even invented a card game called “Action Baseball” and tried to pitch it. And then one night, he saw a dance rehearsal and was so inspired that he went home and started writing, but this time he tried writing fiction.

A few months later, he got a phone call from someone who asked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Auster said, I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number. But later he thought about what might have happened if he'd decided to impersonate a detective. He wrote a novel, City of Glass (1985), about a mystery writer who pretends to be a detective so he can see what it's like to solve a real mystery.

It's the birthday of the novelist who said, “I have only one bit of advice to beginning writers: be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein.” That's James Michener (books by this author), born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907).

He never knew who his parents were — he was taken to an orphanage as an infant, and adopted by a Quaker woman in Pennsylvania. When he was 14, he took off and hitchhiked all over the country. He said: “I think the bottom line is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it's not at all bad. Obviously, you come out a pretty tough turkey, and you have had all the inoculations you need to keep you on a level keel for the rest of your life. The sad part is, most of us don't come out.”

His mother read aloud all of Dickens' novels, and after a salesman convinced his aunt to buy the complete works of Balzac, she passed them on to her nephew. By the time he got to high school, he had decided he wanted to go to college, and he did — he was a good student and a good athlete, and he got a full scholarship to Swarthmore.

He was drafted into the military during World War II, and he joined the Navy even though he was a Quaker and 36 years old. He was stationed in the Solomon Islands, where he kept records of aircraft maintenance. While he was there, he wrote some stories and sketches based on life in the Navy, and he sent his manuscript anonymously to Macmillan. They accepted it, and Tales of the South Pacific was published in 1947. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it into the hit musical South Pacific (1949).

After that, Michener never had to worry about money. But he was uncomfortable being wealthy. Instead, he said, “The decent thing to do is to get rid of some of this money.” And he did — at least $100 million. He donated the royalties from many of his books, which was no small gesture — he wrote nearly 40 books and they sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. Since he himself got to go to prestigious schools for free, through scholarship money, he decided that he would donate to universities so that other people could have the same opportunity. He died of kidney failure in 1997, and left his $10 million estate to Swarthmore, his alma mater. The year before, he had given away $24 million.

His books include Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Poland (1983), Alaska (1988), and Texas (1985).

It's the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein (books by this author), born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She spent part of her childhood in Vienna and Paris, but grew up in Oakland, California.

Stein left Oakland for Radcliffe College, where she took classes from the philosopher William James. Then she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with Alice B. Toklas. Alice moved in with Gertrude, and she typed up Gertrude's manuscripts, got up early to clean and arrange the dishes, cooked and shopped, and ran the household. Together they presided over a salon in their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus — Gertrude had first lived there with her brother, Leo, but he did not share her passion for cubism and avant-garde writing, and moved to Florence. Young writers and artists flocked to 27 Rue de Fleurus — Picasso, Matisse, Ezra Pound, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire; and in later years, Hemingway, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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