Monday Jul. 18, 2016

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His Elderly Father as a Young Man

This happened before I met your mother:
I took Jennie Johanson to a summer dance,
and she sent me a letter, a love letter,
I guess, even if the word love wasn’t in it.
She wrote that she had a good time
and didn’t want the night to end.
At home, she lay down on her bed
but stayed awake, listening to the songs
of morning birds outside her window.
I read that letter a hundred times
and kept it in a cigar box
with useless things I had saved:
a pocket knife with an imitation pearl handle
and a broken blade,
a harmonica I never learned to play,
one cuff link, an empty rifle shell.

When your mother and I got married,
I threw the letter away—
if I had kept it, she might wonder.
But I wanted to keep it
and even thought about hiding places,
maybe in the barn or the tool shed;
but what if it were ever found?
I knew of no way to explain why
I would keep such letter, much less
why I would take the trouble to hide it.
Jennie had gone to California
not long after that dance.
I pretty much got over
wanting to see her just once more,
but I wish I could have kept the letter,
even though I know it by heart.

“His Elderly Father as a Young Man” by Leo Dangel from Home from the Field. © Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811) (books by this author). He was born in Calcutta, India, where his father was an administrator in the East India Company. His father died when Thackeray was four, and the next year, the boy was sent home to England, where he unhappily attended a series of boarding schools. He received his inheritance — £20,000 — when he came of age, but he lost it through gambling and bad investments. His stepfather set him up with a newspaper job as a foreign correspondent in Paris, but when the paper folded, Thackeray returned to London with his bride, a penniless Irish girl, and became a journalist.

His first full-length book was The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844 and later revised and reissued as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon in 1856). He published it in serial form under the pen name George Savage Fitz-Boodle; the plot was inspired by a real rake and fortune hunter, but Thackeray lost his inspiration somewhere along the way. “Got through the fag-end of chapter four of Barry Lyndon with a great deal of dullness and unwillingness and labour,” he wrote in his diary.

The first book he published in his own name is also the one he’s best known for: Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. He published it serially, in monthly installments, in 1847 and 1848, and it’s about two women: the well-born but passive Amelia Sedley, and the ambitious adventuress Becky Sharp. In the end, everyone appears to get what he or she wants, but as Thackeray reminds the reader in the closing lines: “Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

It was on this day in 1870 that the First Vatican Council declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. The Vatican Council proclaimed that “the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra — that is, when […] he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church — is, by reason of the Divine assistance […] possessed of infallibility.”

In other words, when the pope makes a solemn statement about an issue of faith or morality that’s been divinely revealed to him, because he has been guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit, his statement of faith or morality cannot possibly be erroneous. His statement then becomes part of the teachings that Catholics are supposed to accept and believe.

The doctrine of papal infallibility does not profess that the pope is correct about every decision that he makes, and it does not claim that the pope is exempt from sinning in his personal life. It applies specifically to dogmatic declarations that the pope makes on the issues of faith and morality. A pope may not make an infallible statement that contradicts Scripture or sacred tradition.

The idea is a controversial one to have, but it’s actually almost never used in practice. In fact, a pope has only once invoked the papal infallibility doctrine in the whole history of its existence since the first Vatican Council declared the doctrine on this day in 1870. That instance was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII said that it was an article of faith that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without original sin and was assumed, or taken up body and soul, into heaven. Pope Pius XII’s declaration was really a formality; this had been part of the beliefs of Catholics for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it had been agreed on overwhelmingly by Catholic bishops in professions and discussions of faith already.

It’s the birthday of Elizabeth Gilbert (1969) (books by this author). She was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, and her family had a Christmas tree farm in Litchfield. They didn’t have a TV, so she and her sister read, and wrote stories and plays, to pass the time. Gilbert studied political science at New York University, but what she really wanted to do was write. So after graduation, she took up an itinerant lifestyle, traveling the country, taking odd jobs on ranches and at diners and bars, and listening to the way people talk. She turned all this raw material into a short-story collection called Pilgrims (1997). She also worked as a journalist, and her 1997 GQ article about her experience bartending on the Lower East Side of Manhattan inspired the film Coyote Ugly (2000).

In 2000, she published a novel (Stern Men) and in 2002, a biography of a modern-day woodsman (The Last American Man), but she shot into the publishing stratosphere with her wildly successful 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love. It’s the story of her post-divorce travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia, and in 2010 it was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Her latest book is a memoir called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015).

She has encouraging words for people who come to writing later in life: “Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where — if you missed it by age 19 — you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world — at any age. At least try.”

It’s the birthday of American journalist Hunter S. Thompson (1937) (books by this author), who became famous for his drug- and alcohol-fueled prose style, a frenetic mix of fact, fantasy, and mania that resulted in the books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973). He was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After his father died when he was 14, he began to run wild, drinking and getting arrested for robbery. He spent 31 days in jail and missed his final exams, so he never graduated from high school. He enlisted in the United States Air Force instead, where he began writing for the military newspaper The Command Center. He was honorably discharged in 1957. His discharge report read: “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen and staff members.” Hunter S. Thompson said, “I hate to advocate for drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone … but they’ve always worked for me.”

After the Air Force, he worked as a copyboy for Time magazine, where he made $51.00 a week and spent his free time retyping The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to learn the secrets of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway’s prose styles. In Puerto Rico, he wrote for El Sportivo, an experience he later used for his novel The Rum Diary (1998), which he began writing in Big Sur, California, while working as a caretaker for a hot springs.

In 1965, he was hired to write a story for The Nation on the Hell’s Angels, the notorious motorcycle gang, and spent a year with the members of the Oakland and San Francisco chapters, learning their code of ethics and accompanying them on rides. They even visited him at his apartment at 318 Parnassus Avenue in San Francisco to read early drafts of the article. Everything was fine until Thompson witnessed one of the Angels beating his wife and remarked, “Only a punk beats his wife.” The Angels then savagely beat Thompson. Thompson’s article got him a deal from Random House, who published Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang in 1967. Thompson spent much of the publicity tour exhausted and drunk, but he became famous, and made money, and moved to Aspen, Colorado, where he bought a modest house he named Owl Farm and lived there for the rest of his life.

In 1970, he found himself back in Kentucky to write an article about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, but he was too high to focus on writing. He later said; “I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.” The resulting article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was a huge success, even though it never mentioned the race or the winner. Thompson’s use of the first person, and his manic reportage, a blend of fact and fantasy, inspired an editor at the Boston Globe to write: “This is it, this is pure. Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Thompson loved the term “Gonzo” to describe his style of reporting and in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he wrote: “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now. Pure Gonzo journalism.”

Thompson became an American pop cultural icon as symbol of lawlessness and rebellion, even running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power Ticket” (1970), which advocated for decriminalization of drugs for personal use, banning tall buildings that obscured the view of the mountains, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to deter investors. He called Hubert Humphrey “a rat in heat” and was the inspiration for the character of Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s popular comic strip, Doonesbury. Thompson said, “I’m leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped.”

Thompson continued to write, publishing work in the New York Times, Harper’s, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, which kept him on the masthead in later years, even when drug and alcohol use effectively ended his writing ability. He committed suicide in 2005, leaving a suicide note that read: “No more games. No more bombs. No more walking. No more Fun. No more swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — this won’t hurt.”

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