Once, in the yellow glow of the hay barn,
my father and I met a stray, and that dog
stayed and lived with us a while.
I named him “Pal” because he was friendly
and reminded me of a storybook dog.
Even now I can see him sitting
at my feet, his head tipped slightly to one
side, his shoulders squared back against
the passing of another boring day.
Thin and houndy, he was made for wilder
things than fetching sticks and shaking hands with
six-year olds. I think he was a hobo dog,
and one day he was gone, without
a backwards glance; his house, his dish, his supper
bone—nothing there to tie him down.
“My Dog Pal” by Joyce Sutphen from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of short-story writer Andre Dubus (books by this author), born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936). He wrote stories about regular people like bartenders, mechanics, and waitresses in collections such as The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989) and Dancing After Hours (1996). In 1986, after publishing several books of short stories, Dubus stopped to help a woman and a man stranded on the side of the highway, and he was hit by a passing car. He saved the woman’s life by throwing her out of the way, but he lost one of his legs and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He said, “Some of my characters now feel more grateful about simple things — breathing, buying groceries, sunlight — because I do.” He also said, “We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”
Today is the birthday of Alex Haley (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1921). He grew up in Tennessee, and often listened to his mother’s family tell stories of their slave forebears. Although Haley was a bright child who graduated from high school at the age of 15, he wasn’t a great college student — much to the dismay of his father, who had overcome discrimination to earn a graduate degree in agriculture after World War I. Haley dropped out of college to join the Coast Guard in 1939. He worked as a mess hall attendant, which was not an especially exciting occupation, so he bought himself a typewriter to alleviate his boredom. His fellow sailors paid him to compose love letters to their sweethearts, and Haley also published a handful of short stories and articles in American magazines. After World War II, he transferred to the journalism division, and was eventually named Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard, a position he held until he retired in 1959.
After he retired from the Coast Guard, he went to work doing interviews for Playboy magazine. He interviewed Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The interview with Malcolm X would turn into Haley’s first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which chronicled Malcolm’s rise from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. It is one of the most-read books in the world and is a classic of African-American literature.
Inspired by the oral histories of his relatives, Haley began researching his genealogy in the late 1960s. He traced his family back to Gambia, where he interviewed tribal historians. But he still felt removed from the experience of the people who had been captured and sold into slavery. “I asked myself, what right had I to be sitting in a carpeted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” he said. So, in an effort to better understand, he booked passage on a Liberian ship bound for America, and slept on a board in the hold wearing nothing but his underwear. While he wrote his book, which he called Before This Anger, he traveled all over the United States to give talks at colleges, libraries, and historical societies. He supported himself and his research by way of the speaking fees he was paid.
It took him more than 10 years of international travel, interviews with tribal members in Gambia, and endless writing on long yellow legal tablets, but in 1976, his book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, was published. A mixture of fact and fiction, Roots covered seven generations of Haley’s family, from an 18th-century slave named Kunta Kinte down to the author himself. Although Haley was twice accused of plagiarism, the book was an instant sensation and best-seller, and was awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize (1977). Roots was adapted into a 12-hour television miniseries, and more than 130 million people tuned in to watch it. It replaced Gone With the Wind as the most watched program up to that time, and it remains one of the most popular television events in American history. A Washington Post reviewer wrote: “We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.” A remake of the original miniseries — spanning eight hours over four nights — just aired this past Memorial Day.
Bogan was born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). Her father worked for paper mills and bottling factories, and she spent her childhood growing up in mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, mostly living in working-class hotels and boardinghouses. Her mother was unstable and had numerous affairs, which left Bogan distrustful of relationships for most of her life.
A private benefactor paid Bogan’s tuition for the prestigious Girls’ Latin School in Boston, where she devoured the pages of Poetry magazine and began writing her own poems. She loved Rilke, but grew out of Whitman by the age of 16. Bogan gave up a scholarship to Radcliffe to marry a colonel in the U.S. Army, but they separated after two years (1919), and he died a year later of pneumonia. She left their daughter in the care of her parents and went to Vienna for three years, where she lived a solitary literary life.
When Bogan returned to the U.S., she went straight to New York City, where she fell in with fellow writers William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson. She worked in a bookstore with Margaret Mead, who would later find fame as a cultural anthropologist. It was Wilson who suggested she start writing reviews to make money. Her reviews were terse, astute, and sometimes very funny. She lambasted Robinson Jeffers for his “bitter earnestness” and said Richard Wilbur was “composed of valid ingredients.” About poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, she said: “They will never surprise anyone again. They will never break down or up or take to drink or religion or run off with anyone’s wife or husband. They are half-dead already.” She became the poetry editor of The New Yorker in 1931.
Bogan’s poetry was published in The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic. She wrote and published the majority of her poetry before 1938, including the collections Body of This Death (1923), Dark Summer (1929), and Sleeping Fury (1937).
She was intensely private and most of her friends didn’t even know she had a daughter from her first marriage. In the 1930s, she had a brief, raucous affair with the poet Theodore Roethke. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs.) and he writes very, very small lyrics. 26 years old and a frightful tank. We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. ... Well! Such goings-on! A woman of my age! [...] I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about.” They remained dear friends after the affair ended.
In 1945, Louise Bogan was named the fourth poet laureate of the Library of Congress. When she retired from The New Yorker in 1969, she said: “No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be a square.” She died a year after leaving the magazine.
Bogan’s New Yorker reviews are collected in the book A Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation (1970). W.H. Auden thought she was the best critic of poetry in America and gave the eulogy at her funeral.