Thursday Nov. 3, 2016

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Bringing In the Sheaves

It’s 1945. The crops laid by
in October if he was lucky,
by Thanksgiving if not,
my father would throw his hat into the threshing machine
with the final shock of rice
from the final field.
That one moment of the year
he was jubilant, cocky even,
winning out
over creditors and blackbirds and rot.
Then the December rains,
the hunger for rattling machinery,
for sweat, for missing crews—
wasted months of accounting and tinkering.
He would have cut off his thumb and buried it,
had he thought that would hasten spring.
Then, spring—
when, laying his plow to the insolent dirt,
he began again.

“Bringing In the Sheaves” by Jo McDougall from The Undiscovered Room. © Tavern Books, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the humorist and cultural critic Joe Queenan (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1950), who had been working a series of manual labor jobs, loading trucks and selling tennis rackets, when he sat down one day and wrote an essay called “Ten Things I Hate about Public Relations,” and when he sent it to the Wall Street Journal, they published it. He went on to make a career for himself as a freelance writer, and he’s collected his work in books such as Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (1999) and Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2001). Joe Queenan’s advice to aspiring writers is, “Don’t write until you’re 25. Don’t write for the high school yearbook. Don’t write for the college literary magazine. Don’t write that stuff — you never had any experiences, you don’t know anything, just shut up.”

It’s the birthday of American mystery novelist Martin Cruz Smith (1942) (books by this author), best known for his blockbuster series of novels featuring Russian homicide detective Arkady Renko that began with the novel Gorky Park (1981).

Smith was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, to a jazz musician and nightclub singer. He studied sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, but failed a required statistics course, so he switched to creative writing instead, which suited him much more. He says, “It was great. It was like being asked to ride a bicycle when you enjoyed riding a bicycle.”

Smith recently revealed that he’s lived with Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. He lost the ability to type words, so his wife agreed to take dictation and to type his manuscripts. With the help of deep brain stimulation, which involved surgery to implant electrodes into his brain, he’s now able to type and write on his own.

Smith’s other novels include Polar Star (1989), Wolves Eat Dogs (2004), Three Stations (2010), and Tatiana (2013).

It’s the birthday of American photographer Walker Evans (1903) (books by this author), best known for his searing black-and-white photographs of Dust Bowl sharecroppers, Western ghost towns, and automobile graveyards. He once spent two years riding the subways of New York City with a camera concealed beneath his topcoat. That series of photographs of weary and forlorn New Yorkers was later included in a landmark exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Many Are Called (1966).

Evans was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to an affluent family. He thought at first he might be a writer, so he dropped out of Williams College and moved to Paris in 1926. His father financed his classes at the Sorbonne, but he mostly spent a lot of time reading Flaubert and Baudelaire and failing at writing. He said, “I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.” He’d loved photography since receiving his first box camera at the age of 14, so when he went back to New York and began working as a stock clerk at a Wall Street company, he took it up again.

Evans disliked fancy equipment, preferring an old view camera with a slow lens. He made contact prints by the light of a Mazda bulb. Poet Hart Crane also worked in the same stockroom and they hit it off. Evans’s photographs of bridges appeared in Crane’s collection of poetry The Bridge (1930).

Evans wasn’t interested in commercial photography, or photography that was too “high art,” like Alfred Stieglitz, who became famous for photographing artist Georgia O’Keeffe. He preferred photography that explored the essence of humanity. He said: “Photography isn’t a matter of taking pictures. It’s a matter of having an eye. With a camera, it’s all or nothing. You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.”

Evans worked as a staff photographer for Time magazine in the early 1930s, which he found somewhat insulting and degrading. He said, “You had to figure out how not to die, and that was useful, too; it toughened you.” He also spent time in Cuba, documenting the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. Evans met writer Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and they drank together every night. Hemingway even lent him money.

Walker Evans’s most lasting work was done with poet James Agee, who once described himself as “a great deal more a Communist than not.” Together, they collaborated on a collection of prose and photographs called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It was an odd book, originally called Cotton Tenants and was filled with Agee’s somewhat disjointed prose and Evans’s searing portraits of Dust Bowl families in 1930s Alabama. The book almost didn’t happen. It began as an assignment from Fortune magazine in 1936 to document the effects of the Great Depression on white tenant farmers in the America South. Agee and Evans moved in with a family in Hale County, Alabama, for several weeks, photographing and interviewing them. Evans's portraits of the residents of Hale County cast them in ghostly, stark light, with gaunt cheeks and dirty, threadbare clothes. When Fortune saw the photographs and read Agee’s work, they canceled the project, thinking it was too tough for readers. Undeterred, Agee found another publisher for the work.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold only 600 copies when it was first published, and Evans stayed at Fortune magazine for many more years. It wasn’t until the 1960s rolled around that the book was rediscovered and celebrated, and it’s now considered a classic document of American poverty, racism, and classism.

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