Monday August 3, 2015

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To Hayden Carruth

Dear Hayden, when I read your book I was aching
in head, back, heart, and mind, and aching
with your aches added to my own, and yet for joy
I read on without stopping, made eager
by your true mastery, wit, sorrow, and joy,
each made true by the others. My reading done,
I swear I am feeling better. Here in Port Royal
I take off my hat to you up there in Munnsville
in your great dignity of being necessary. I swear
it appears to me you’re one of the rare fellows
who may finally amount to something. What shall
I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are
either beginning or we are dead. And let us have
no careers, lest one day we be found dead in them.
I greet you at the beginning that you have made
authentically in your art, again and again.

“To Hayden Carruth” by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. © Counterpoint Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day 60 years ago that Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot (books by this author) premiered at the Arts Theatre in London (1955). The play, in which two tramps named Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for a friend named Godot, had debuted in Paris two years earlier to rapturous reviews. English audiences, and critics, were less than kind. The audience began to groan almost immediately. Many people walked out. The Guardian called the play “tooth-gnashing” and “inexplicit and deliberately fatuous.”

Theater in the United Kingdom in the 1950s was heavily censored, and Beckett was unhappy with changes made to the play. The word “erection” was removed. One character, suffering from a venereal disease, now suffered from warts instead. There were several attempts to ban the play before it opened. One citizen complained about the amount of public urination in the play. She said, “Such a dramatization of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency.”

London theatergoers seemed confused by the lack of naturalism and motivations for the characters. Beckett refused to be drawn into examining the background of his characters, though. He said, “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can’t make out.” When people variously tried to explain the play as an allegory for the Cold War, or man’s quest to find God, he answered, “The only thing I’m sure of is that they’re wearing bowlers,” a hard felt hat with a rounded crown that had been popular during his youth in Dublin.

The play was rescued when Kenneth Tynan’s review appeared a few days after opening. He said the play “jettisons everything by which we recognize theatre.” Overnight, the play became a success and is now considered a standard of theater. It’s been performed on stage, television, and film, by actors, school children, and even inmates in prison. Samuel Beckett went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature (1969).

It’s the birthday of British crime novelist P.D. James (books by this author), born Phyllis Dorothy James in Oxford (1920). The child of a civil servant, she was raised to believe in the security of a good job. Her mother went into a mental hospital when James was a teenager, so the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings fell on her.

She knew when she was in high school that she wanted to become a writer. But she married a medical student and worked as a Red Cross nurse during World War II. She gave birth to their first daughter during a bomb attack. Her husband came back from the Royal Army Medical Corps with a mental disability that made him violent, so he had to be confined in an institution. James supported the family by working as an administrator for the National Health Service. She still wanted to write, and would get up early to do so before she went to her day job.

James was 42 when she published her first crime novel. It took her three years to write. That book was Cover Her Face (1962). She chose the mystery genre because she’d always had an interest in mysterious deaths; she also thought it would be good training, because it’s easy to write a bad mystery novel, but difficult to write a good one. Her first book was a success, so she decided to stay with that genre. In spite of her fascination with violent crime, it troubled her. “I think I’m very frightened of violence,” she once said. “I hate it. And it may be that by writing mysteries I am able, as it were, to exorcise this fear, which may very well be the same reason so many people enjoy reading a mystery.”

Her husband died in 1964, two years after her first book was published. James took the difficult civil service exam and received the third highest score in the country. She later remembered: “I’ve still got the pre-printed letter which says: ‘Dear sir’ and ‘sir’ is crossed out and ‘Madam’ has been written in by hand. It was so rare for women to take the exam.” She went to work for the Home Office, taking a series of administrative jobs in the forensic science and criminal law departments. Her job gave her lots of useful information about the procedures involved in a murder investigation. She retired in 1979 and went to work full time on her novels. Her big international breakthrough came in 1980, with her eighth book, Innocent Blood.

In 1991, she was given a title and was thereafter known as Baroness James of Holland Park. She had a seat in the House of Lords and also worked as a local magistrate — a title she earned through her years of civil service, not her writing. She also served on a number of arts councils and was one of 10 governors of the BBC.

Her work was often compared with other mystery authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but she didn’t think very highly of her predecessors’ brand of crime writing that was popular in the 1930s. “That kind of crime writing was dull,” she said, “in the sense that it was unrealistic, prettifying and romanticizing murder, but having little to do with real blood-and-guts tragedy.” She created her character Adam Dalgliesh as an antidote to amateur gentleman detectives like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Dalgliesh is a detective with Scotland Yard; he’s intelligent, dedicated, and unsentimental. He publishes poetry when he’s not solving crimes. “He is a male version of me,” James said. “Brainier than me, but his emotions are mine. The empathy is mental rather than physical.”

James died last October (2014) at her home in Oxford. She was 94.

Today is the birthday of poet Hayden Carruth (books by this author), born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). He attended college in Chapel Hill before serving two years in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and later he went to graduate school on the GI Bill, fell in love with jazz, learned the clarinet, and began to write poetry. He worked as an editor in Chicago, but in 1953, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the next year and a half in treatment for alcoholism and anxiety. He underwent electroshock therapy and left by his own account “in worse shape than I went in.”

Carruth then decided to move to the rural communities of Vermont and New York State. He began to farm, worked as a mechanic, hired himself out as a field hand, and wrote nightly, sometimes not finishing with farm work until after midnight. He freelanced occasionally, but his income after several years was a scant $600, and at one point he had to steal corn meant for livestock to survive. He kept up this hardscrabble lifestyle for decades, and his poetry reflected those on the margins who live by their hands: field workers, farmers, jazz musicians, mental patients, war protesters, lonely fathers. The writer Wendell Berry credits Carruth’s poetry with showing him that there was beauty to be found in places others considered “nowhere,” as he weighed his own return to rural life.

In 1996, at the age of 75, his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey won the National Book Award. Carruth died in 2008 after complications from a stroke.

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