Friday Oct. 2, 2015

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The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. © Vintage, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Modernist poet Wallace Stevens (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). His collections include Ideas of Order (1936), Owl’s Clover (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), Opus Posthumous (1957), and The Palm at the End of the Mind (1972).

Stevens went to Harvard and wanted to study literature, but his father wanted him to be a lawyer. The senior Mr. Stevens refused to pay for more than three years of college — the amount of time it would have taken his son to get a law degree — so Wallace studied as much French, German, and English literature as he could during his time there. He wrote for two Harvard publications, the Advocate and the Harvard Monthly, and eventually served as editor of the Monthly. He had known from an early age that he wanted to pursue a literary career, but he was practical and didn’t see any sense in being a starving artist, so when his time at Harvard came to an end, he decided that journalism would let him write and still collect a steady income.

So Stevens moved to New York and took a job with the New York Tribune. He loved to explore the city, and enjoyed his work, but really wanted to be a poet. His father still disapproved of Stevens’ literary aspirations so, in 1901, Wallace Stevens finally caved to the pressure and went to law school. He passed the bar in 1905 and practiced law at various New York firms for more than a decade. In 1909, after a lengthy courtship, he married Elsie Kachel. She was an uneducated country girl, and his parents considered her “lower class.” They refused to come to the wedding, and Stevens never spoke to his father again. Over the years, Elsie developed mental illness and though the two remained married, it was an unhappy union. Stevens tended to bury his familial unhappiness in symbolism, but he did write, in “Red Loves Kit”: Her words accuse you of adulteries / That sack the sun, though metaphysical.

In 1914, one of Stevens’ Harvard friends asked him to contribute some poems to a new avant-garde magazine called Trend. Stevens complied, and found he was newly energized by being in touch with the public literary world again. He began publishing poems in literary journals left and right. But he kept his day job: in 1916, he moved to Hartford and took a job as an insurance lawyer with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He worked there for the rest of his life, eventually becoming the company’s vice president. His colleague Manning W. Heard said of Stevens, “He was at the time, and for many years before his death, the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country.” And Charles O’Dowd, an underwriter at the company, said, “His [business] letters were as clear as his poetry was obtuse.”

Stevens walked two miles to and from work every day, and that was when he wrote most of his poetry. “I write best when I can concentrate,” he said, “and do that best while walking.” He would carry slips of paper in his pockets, and jot down notes, which he would later give to his secretary to type up for him. He published his first book, Harmonium (1923), when he was 44.

It’s the birthday of writer Graham Greene (books by this author), born in Hertfordshire, England (1904), who said he was an agnostic, but he converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, and after publishing a series of lightweight thrillers, he began to work Catholic themes into his books. In 1938, he went to Mexico to cover the persecution of Catholics by socialist revolutionaries. He saw religious icons being destroyed and priests being assassinated, and that inspired his first great novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), about a fallen, alcoholic priest, who once fathered a child with a parishioner, but who risks his life going to from village to village to hear confessions and give baptisms. His novel The End of the Affair (1951) is about a devoutly Catholic man having an adulterous affair in the middle of the London Blitz. Greene based the novel on his own life. He should have been killed during the London Blitz when a bomb fell directly on his house, but he was visiting his mistress at the time, saved by his own infidelity.

Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in just a few decades. So he developed a routine of writing for exactly two hours every day, and he was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he often stopped writing in the middle of a sentence.

The comic strip Peanuts made its debut 65 years ago on this date in 1950. The strip’s creator, Charles M. Schulz (books by this author), was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1922 and grew up next door in St. Paul. His kindergarten teacher had told him, “Some day, Charles, you are going to be an artist.” When he got to first grade and discovered that he had a knack for drawing Popeye, he decided that he would become a cartoonist. Young Charles, or “Sparky” as he was then known, skipped two and a half grades of grammar school, so he was always the youngest and smallest in the room, and the other kids picked on him. He became a shy, timid teenager, failing at least one subject every year of high school. Discouraged, Schulz gave up on going to college and enrolled in an art school as a correspondence student.

In 1950, he approached a large U.S. syndication service with the best of his work, and he was given a syndication of eight local papers in a variety of U.S. cities. His strip was named Peanuts. The strip was an almost immediate success that expanded from its original eight newspapers to more than 2,600 papers in 75 countries at its peak.

Schulz began every morning with a jelly doughnut, sitting down to think of an idea that might come after minutes or hours. He would produce all aspects of Peanuts by himself, from the original script to the final art and lettering, refusing to hire an inker saying, “It would be equivalent to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts for him.” During the life of the strip, Schulz took only one vacation — five weeks off to celebrate his 75th birthday.

On the evening of February 12th, 2000, Charles Schulz died at home in his sleep. The following day, the final Peanuts strip of all time ran in the papers, showing Snoopy atop his red doghouse, his typewriter in front of him, musing over a farewell letter from Schulz, who had written to say: “I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years [...] Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish Peanuts to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement [...] Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy [...] how can I ever forget them.”

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