Tuesday July 21, 2015

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Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

“Turtle” by Kay Ryan from Flamingo Watching. © Copper Beech Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of writer Ernest Hemingway (books by this author), born in Oak Park, Illinois (1899). In July of 1925, he visited Pamplona, Spain, for the Festival of San Fermín, a weeklong celebration that included bullfighting and the famous Running of the Bulls. Hemingway and his wife arrived a few days early to get tickets, and he needed a way to spend the time; so on this day in 1925, on his 26th birthday, he began his first novel. He said, “Everybody my age had written a novel and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.” He wrote in the days leading up to the celebration, he wrote in bed every morning during the week of the festival, and when it was over, he continued writing. He wrote in hotels and bars in Madrid and the French town of Hendaye, and in an apartment in Paris. He finished the first draft just two months after he had begun writing. He told a friend years later: “Toward the last it was like a fever. Toward the last I was sprinting, like in a bicycle race, and I did not want to lose my speed making love or anything else.”

He titled his novel Fiesta, then revised the title to The Lost Generation, and finally to The Sun Also Rises. He sent the manuscript to Scribner’s, where it was picked up by the editor Maxwell Perkins. Perkins wrote to Hemingway: “The Sun Also Rises seems to me a most extraordinary performance. No one could conceive a book with more life in it.” The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, and Perkins became Hemingway’s lifelong editor. The novel got a good review in The New York Times and other New York newspapers, but was generally disliked in the rest of the country, including in Hemingway’s hometown of Chicago. His own mother wrote to him: “It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year. [...] Every page fills me with a sick loathing — if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more — but pitch it in the fire.”

Perkins regularly defended Hemingway’s writing to his boss, Charles Scribner. For Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), Perkins had a conference with Scribner to discuss Hemingway’s use of four-letter words. Perkins himself did not use obscene language — his strongest expression was “My God,” and even that was rare. Although he was defending Hemingway’s right to use four-letter words, Perkins was so uncomfortable saying them that he had to write them on a memo pad for Scribner. In the end, three words were not included in A Farewell to Arms, but replaced by dashes. Hemingway wrote those words back in by hand on a couple of copies, including one that he gave to James Joyce. A Farewell to Arms became a best-seller, selling 100,000 copies in its first year, and Hemingway was able to make a living writing fiction.

Born in the same year and on the same day as Hemmingway, it’s the birthday of Hart Crane (books by this author), born Harold Hart Crane in Garrettsville, Ohio (1899). By the time Crane was a teenager, he knew that he was gay, and he was fascinated by the life and career of Oscar Wilde. When his parents’ marriage fell apart, Crane dropped out of school and took a train from Cleveland to New York to begin life as a poet. He loved being in New York, hanging out with poets like E.E. Cummings and Allen Tate. But he had trouble making a living there — couldn’t hold down a job. His drinking got worse and in 1932, at the age of 33, he killed himself by jumping overboard a steamship on his way from Mexico to New York. He left behind his masterpiece, The Bridge (1930).

It’s the birthday of poet Tess Gallagher (books by this author), born in Port Angeles, Washington (1943). Her first volume of poetry, Stepping Outside, was published in 1974. Later collections include Instructions to the Double (1976), Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), and My Black Horse (1995). In 1984, she published Willingly, a collection of poems for and about her third husband, author Raymond Carver. She said, “If poems are deep-sea diving, writing fiction is foraging.”

It’s the birthday of novelist, poet, and teacher John Gardner (books by this author), born in Batavia, New York (1933). He began writing fiction in 1966, with The Resurrection, but it wasn’t until his third novel, Grendel (1971), the retelling of Beowulf from the viewpoint of the monster, that he began to get recognition as a novelist. His other novels include Nickel Mountain (1973), October Light (1976), and Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982). One of his best-known works, The Art of Fiction, was published in 1984, two years after his death. It is still a standard text for many would-be novelists.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the first Wild West showdown. It happened in the market square in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865. The parties involved were James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok — a professional gambler and former Union scout — and Davis Tutt, a cowboy and former Confederate soldier. The two men had a falling out over a woman and a gambling debt, and finally agreed to settle their differences in a duel. They faced off at a distance of about 75 paces and fired simultaneously. Tutt’s shot went wild, but Hickok’s hit Tutt through the heart.

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