The sky is crumbling into millions of paper dots
the wind blows in my face
so I duck into my favorite barbershop
and listen to Vivaldi and look in the mirror
reflecting the shopfront windows, Broadway
and 104th, and watch the dots blown by the wind
blow into the faces of the walkers outside
& here comes a thin old man swaddled in scarves,
he must be seventy-five, walking slowly,
and in his mind there is a young man dancing,
maybe seventeen years old, on a June evening—
he is that young man, I can tell, watching him walk
“January 31” by David Lehman from The Daily Mirror. © Scribner, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Norman Mailer (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He grew up in Brooklyn, went to Harvard, and then got drafted during World War II. He served in the Philippines, and although he didn’t participate in much fighting, he got enough material to go home and write a novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), published when he was just 25 years old. It was a best-seller, it made him famous, and for the next 60 years he continued to publish books.
Mailer was incredibly productive, and stuck to a strict writing regimen. He said: “Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.”
He wrote every day from 9 to 5, up until his death at the age of 84. For the last 27 years of his life, he shared a studio with his sixth and last wife, Norris Church Mailer, an artist and writer. They each had their own space. Mailer sat on a wooden chair looking out at the Provincetown Bay — he liked to be near water when he wrote — but he closed the curtains when he really needed to concentrate. Mailer and his wife ate breakfast and lunch on their own schedule, but they would meet up at 6 p.m. to drink wine and eat dinner.
The routine worked for most types of writing, but he couldn’t force his novels. He said: “It’s very bad to write a novel by act of will. I can do a book of nonfiction work that way — just sign the contract and do the book because, provided the topic has some meaning for me, I know I can do it. But a novel is different. A novel is more like falling in love. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to fall in love next Tuesday, I’m going to begin my novel.’ The novel has to come to you. It has to feel just like love.” He carried a small, spiral-bound notebook with him at all times, in case inspiration struck.
He wrote by hand — he usually wrote in the morning and then typed it up in the afternoon, or gave it to an assistant to type. He said: “I used to have a little studio in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from my house — no telephone, not much else. The only thing I ever did there was work. It was perfect. I was like a draft horse with a conditioned reflex. I came in ready to sit at my desk. No television, no way to call out. Didn’t want to be tempted. There’s an old Talmudic belief that you build a fence around an impulse. If that’s not good enough, you build a fence around the fence. So, no amenities. (But for a refrigerator!) I wrote longhand with a pencil and I gave it to my assistant, Judith McNally. She would type it for me and the next day I would go over it. Since at my age you begin to forget all too much, I would hardly remember what I had written the day before. It read, therefore, as if someone else had done it. The critic in me was delighted. I could now proceed to fix the prose. The sole virtue of losing your short-term memory is that it does free you to be your own editor.”
He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. His books include The Deer Park (1955), The Armies of the Night (1968), The Executioner’s Song (1979), and his last novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), the story of Hitler’s childhood.
It’s the birthday of writer John O’Hara (books by this author), born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). Pottsville was a prosperous coal-mining town with a long-standing history of distrust and violence between the mostly Anglo-Saxon upper class and mostly Irish-American miners. O’Hara was Irish-American, and although his father was a prominent local surgeon and the family was wealthy, they were never quite in the same class as their non-Irish peers — a distinction O’Hara took seriously. When he was in high school, his father died suddenly, leaving the family poor. O’Hara had been set on attending Yale, but suddenly he was forced to go to work: as a soda jerk, gas meter reader, and reporter.
Writing was his talent, though, and he eventually established himself as a writer for a series of New York papers and magazines. By the time he was in his late 20s, his stories were appearing in The New Yorker — and soon after his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934). It earned mostly good reviews and the admiration of contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway, who described it as “a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about.” Appointment in Samarra was set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, and told the story of the fall from social grace of a once-prominent car dealer there. His next novel, BUtterfield 8 (1935), was also mostly well received. His fiction became a mainstay at The New Yorker — he published 247 stories in the magazine, still a record. He once bragged to a friend that his New Yorker stories never took him more than two hours to write.
The writer Fran Lebowitz famously said: “O’Hara is an underrated writer because every single person who knew him hated him.” That might have been an exaggeration, but he did alienate many of his peers — not so much by his excessive drinking and brawling, although that was part of it, but by what was seen as his social climbing. He was constantly attempting to get accepted to the best clubs, often asking acquaintances to recommend him, and when he was accepted he embossed each club’s seal on a gold cigarette case that he set out on his coffee table whenever visitors stopped by. He bought the most expensive cars, and asked his publishers for lunches at the Ritz. Most famously, he was bitter that he had not attended Yale, and he brought that fact up so frequently that Hemingway once sarcastically proposed starting a collection to send O’Hara to Yale. O’Hara’s response was: “A mean little story, but it shows what my friends think of me.” He badgered Yale for years to award him an honorary degree, which they never did. The president of Yale explained only, “He wanted it too much.” He also wanted the Nobel Prize; when John Steinbeck won, O’Hara sent a telegram saying: “Congratulations. I can think of only one other author I’d rather see get it.”
O’Hara’s novel A Rage to Live (1949), about a Pennsylvania family and the heroine’s insatiable sex drive, was a best-seller and Random House’s fastest-selling novel ever up to that point; but it was attacked by critics, including in The New Yorker. O’Hara was so offended that he refused to write for The New Yorker for more than 10 years.
He wrote 14 novels and more than 400 short stories. His books include Ten North Frederick (1955), Elizabeth Appleton (1963), and Waiting for Winter (1966).
He said: “They say great themes make great novels. That’s so, of course, but what these young writers don’t understand is that there is no greater theme than men and women.”
It’s the birthday of Thomas Merton (books by this author), born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than 50 books, 2,000 poems, and a personal diary that spanned much of his lifetime.
Merton decided to write his master’s thesis on William Blake, and he found himself deeply influenced by Blake. He converted to Christianity, and in 1941 he entered a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he remained for most of his life. In his diary from this time, Merton wrote: “Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: ‘Give up everything, give up everything!’” Merton has become well known throughout the world, in part because of his writing, in particular his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948).
It’s the birthday of musicologist Alan Lomax (books by this author), born in Austin, Texas (1915). His father, John Lomax, was also a musicologist and wrote books like Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads (1910) and Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp (1918). Alan went to the University of Texas and then to Harvard to study philosophy, but after his mother’s death he dropped out of Harvard to accompany his dad on one of his folk song-collecting missions. He loved it so much that he decided to make it his life’s work.
The Lomaxes went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where they met Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Lomax wrote: “I’ll never forget: He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet. You could hear him, literally, half a mile away when he opened up.”
Alan and John Lomax headed up the Library of Congress “Archive of American Folk Song,” recording and preserving thousands of songs. Alan was particularly interested in doing more extensive interviews with their subjects, and he recorded the oral histories of musicians like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Vera Hall. For the rest of his life, Lomax continued to record folk artists, champion folk music, and publish books, which include American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Mister Jelly Roll (1950), Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), and The Land Where the Blues Began (1993).