Tuesday Dec. 8, 2015

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Regarding (Most) Songs

            Whatever is too stupid to say
            can be sung.

            — Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart.
It trills a string of banal words,
but your blood jumps, regardless. You don’t care
about the words but only how they’re sung
and the music behind — the brass, the drums.
Oh the primal, necessary drums
behind the words so dumb!
That power, the bang and the boom and again the bang
we cannot, need not, live without,
nor without other means to make sweet noise,
the guitar or violin, the things that sing
the plaintive, joyful sounds.
Which is why I like songs best
when I can’t hear the words, or, better still,
when there are no words at all.

“Regarding (Most) Songs” by Thomas Lux from The Street of Clocks. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Welsh novelist Richard Llewellyn (books by this author), born in a suburb of London (1906). He wrote 24 novels, but he is most famous for his first book, How Green Was My Valley (1939). It’s the story of Huw Morgan, a young man growing up in an impoverished but beautiful mining community in South Wales in the 1890s. Llewellyn suggested that it was based on his own life, and always claimed he had been born in Wales — it wasn’t until after his death that people realized he had been born and raised in England. How Green Was My Valley became an international best-seller and was turned into a film, directed by John Ford.

It’s the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon (books by this author), born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). She grew up in a Catholic household. She wanted to be a writer from a young age, but for a while she also wanted to be a nun, and figured that she could write poetry on the side. She changed her mind about being a nun, but she never gave up on the writer idea. She went to college at Barnard, got a master’s in writing, and then went to work on a Ph.D., focusing on Virginia Woolf. She was almost finished with it but she felt like it was compromising her fiction writing. And eventually, it was actually Virginia Woolf who inspired Gordon to quit her dissertation. She said she would take notes on Woolf’s writing, and that “the rhythms of those incredible sentences — the repetitions, the caesuras, the potent colons, semicolons. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Since then she has published many novels as well as short stories, memoirs, and essays, including Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Temporary Shelter (1987), Pearl (2005), The Love of My Youth (2011), and most recently, The Liar's Wife (2014).

It’s the 250th birthday of Eli Whitney, born in Westborough, Massachusetts (1765). He went to Yale, then got a job on a plantation in Georgia. The plantation was owned by the widow of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general, and she took Whitney under her wing.

One day, some neighbors of Mrs. Greene’s came over for a visit and were complaining about the tedious work of separating cotton seeds from fibers — it took 10 hours to clean just three pounds of cotton. Mrs. Greene said, “Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney — he can make anything.” He didn’t say much in response, but he made himself a workshop and after a few months of tinkering, he had created the cotton gin, a machine that could produce up to 50 pounds of clean cotton each day, and totally revolutionized the industry. But people copied his design and he couldn’t uphold his patent, and so he made no money on his incredibly popular invention.

It’s the birthday of cartoonist and writer James Thurber (books by this author), born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). When he was six years old he was playing William Tell in the backyard, and one of his brothers shot an arrow into his eye. He was blinded in his left eye, and the doctor at hand didn’t know enough to suggest that the eye be removed, so his right eye swelled and was permanently damaged. Although his left eye was eventually removed, his right eye never fully recovered.

He went to Ohio State University, but he wasn’t a very good student — his eyesight made required ROTC courses and science labs difficult, and he left without a degree. He spent a while in Paris working for the U.S. Embassy, then returned to Columbus and worked as a reporter, then back to Paris. He tried writing a novel, but gave up. It was while he was in Paris that he first heard of a new magazine called The New Yorker. He moved back to New York in 1926 and got a job for the New York Evening Post. A year later, he went to a party in Greenwich Village and met a young writer for The New Yorker named E.B. White. White introduced Thurber to the magazine’s editor, Harold Ross, who hired Thurber immediately — not as a writer, but as an administrator. He didn’t make a great administrator, but he was competent, and occasionally little pieces of his were published, unpaid, in the magazine. After a few months, Ross transferred Thurber to the “Talk of the Town” section, and he wrote hundreds of those columns.

Thurber and White shared a small office, and they soon became good friends. Thurber’s first book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), was co-written with White; it was a parody of all the recently published overly serious sex books written by doctors and psychiatrists. The book sold well, and Thurber’s career as a writer seemed assured. Then, one day in 1930, White removed some of Thurber’s crumpled doodles out of the trash; realizing that his friend had a gift for cartooning, White took them to the magazine’s art department. Thurber’s cartoons became regular features of the magazine for decades, and his art was featured on the cover six times. White described his and Thurber’s shared office: “There was just room enough for two men, two typewriters, and a stack of copy paper. The copy paper disappeared at a scandalous rate — not because our production was high (although it was) but because Thurber used copy paper as the natural receptacle for discarded sorrows, immediate joys, stale dreams, golden prophecies, and messages of good cheer to the outside world and to fellow-workers.”

After Is Sex Necessary? Thurber published several books of essays back to back: The Owl in the Attic (1931), The Seal in the Bedroom (1932), and My Life and Hard Times (1933). He left his staff position at The New Yorker in 1936, but continued to freelance there. In 1939, he cowrote a comic play called The Male Animal with his old college friend Elliott Nugent, and it became a Broadway hit. But his eyesight was starting to deteriorate; by 1942 he was using a jeweler’s magnifying glass called a Zeiss loupe in order to draw. His health worsened, as did his drinking. But he kept working, drawing on oversize easel pages, and writing fewer than 20 words per page on yellow legal pads. In his final years, Thurber raged against The New Yorker, which he felt had gone downhill since Ross’s death, and alienated many of his old friends and colleagues. He told Nugent: “I can’t hide any more behind the mask of comedy that I’ve used all my life. People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible — and so is life.” He died in 1961 at the age of 66.

His work includes “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939), My World — and Welcome to It (1942), and The Years with Ross (1959).

It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing.” That’s James Tate (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri (1943). His collections include The Ghost Soldiers (2008), The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2012), and Dome of the Hidden Pavilion (2015). His work won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

It’s the birthday of English physician Doris Bell Collier (1897) (books by this author), who, in addition to carving out a successful private practice, also managed to write more than 40 mystery novels, short stories, and radio plays under the pseudonym of Josephine Bell.

Collier was born in Manchester, England, and educated at Godolphin College, an elite boarding school, where she met fellow future mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. She did her medical training at University College Hospital in London. It was the early 1920s, and female medical students were rare enough that no accommodations had been made for sleeping arrangements, so Collier bunked in a side ward. After graduating, she and her husband set up a practice together in Greenwich, where they worked side by side.

When she was just 40 years old, her husband died in a car accident, leaving her with four children and only one income. She’d already published a few short stories in The London Standard, but now she began to write in earnest. Her first novel, Murder in the Hospital (1937), was a mystery featuring young David Wintringham, who worked at Research Hospital in London as a junior assistant physician. It sold well, and she kept writing, using Wintringham in many more mysteries. Other books included All Is Vanity (1940), Bones in the Barrow (1953), and The Innocent (1983).

Bell churned out one or two novels a year for the next 50 years. This was the Golden Age of Mystery Writing, with Bell joining such luminaries as Sayers and Agatha Christie, each of them writing tightly plotted, rollicking mysteries, often cloaked with a healthy dose of early feminism.

Though Bell’s books often took on difficult themes like medical ethics, race relations, and the role of women in medicine, she never forgot that her readers needed a strong dose of salaciousness. Thus, saucy nurses were dispatched in laundry rooms after furtive assignations; poisoning was a prominent plot ploy; and a character in one book dies by lipstick.

Bell was a founder of the Crime Writers’ Association, the British equivalent of the Mystery Writers of America organization.

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