Thursday July 23, 2015

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A Reward

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall—the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
                               If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

“A Reward” by Denise Levertov from Evening Train. © New Directions, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this night in 1967 that a riot broke out in Detroit, marking the beginning of the decline of one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the country. An all-white squadron of police officers decided to raid a bar in a black neighborhood where there was a party to welcome home two recent veterans of the Vietnam War. The police stormed the bar, rounded up and arrested 85 black men and began loading them into vans.

The riot that followed raged for five days. Thousands of soldiers from the Michigan National Guard were called in, along with tanks. The National Guardsmen fired off more than 150,000 bullets over the course of the riot.

Forty-three people were killed and whole blocks of the city went up in flames. After the riots, many of the white residents of the city moved to the suburbs. Thousands of homes were abandoned, and the city’s population plunged from 1.6 million to 992,000 in just a few years. By 1990, Detroit was one of the poorest cities in America, with one in every three residents living in poverty.

It was on this day in 1903 that the Ford Motor Company in Detroit sold its first car, a two-cylinder Model A. The Model A was painted red, with a seat that fit two people, and no roof. It reached 28 mph at top speed. The Ford Motor Company sold 2,000 Model As over the next two years, which was enough to make the company profitable. Five years later, Ford rolled out its Model T.

And it’s the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler (books by this author), born in Chicago (1888). He wrote seven novels featuring detective Philip Marlowe, including The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1954). He also wrote screenplays, including such film noir classics as Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951).

Though he was born in Chicago, Chandler grew up in England and Ireland. His parents divorced, and he and his mother moved to London in 1895; her brother, a lawyer, supported them. Chandler went to a prestigious prep school and had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but his uncle couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for his education. So Chandler went to work to support the family, and in his spare time he wrote poetry, which he later described “B-grade.” He managed to publish 27 of his poems, though, as well as a short story called “The Rose-Leaf Romance.” He returned to the United States in 1912; one of his fellow passengers on the ship from England suggested he try California, so Chandler settled in Los Angeles, where he took a series of odd jobs like stringing tennis rackets, picking fruit, and keeping the books for a creamery. He joined the Canadian army during World War I and served on the front lines in France. After the war, he returned to California, married a woman 18 years his senior, and took a job as a bookkeeper for an oil company. Eventually, he worked his way up to vice president of the company.

The Great Depression, job stress, and his wife’s failing health all took a toll on Chandler. He started drinking heavily, and philandering. When he was fired from the oil company in 1932, he started writing again. He decided the best way to make a quick buck would be to write pulp fiction. He wasn’t great at coming up with plots, so he studied stories in detective magazines and tinkered with their plots to come up with his own. But his writing was top-notch; when he sold his first story — the 18,000-word “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” — it was so polished and flawless that editors congratulated themselves on their discovery of the next literary genius. He published 26 short stories in all, and with similar attention to detail. When he broke the rules of grammar, he did so consciously, as he wrote to the editor of Atlantic Monthly: “By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

He wrote his first novel in three months. That was The Big Sleep (1939), and it was made into a classic of film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in 1946. William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay. The Big Sleep introduced readers to the gumshoe hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler described him as “a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and good enough for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”

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