Tuesday Jan. 31, 2017

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A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

“A Time to Talk” by Robert Frost from The Poetry of Robert Frost. © Henry Holt & Company, 1979. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Norman Mailer (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was studying engineering at Harvard when he was drafted into the Army in 1944. He served in the Philippines and Japan. After his discharge, he moved to New York City and spent 15 months writing a novel about the war. It was The Naked and the Dead (1948), and it became the definitive literary novel about World War II, and made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. He went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes: for The Armies of the Night (1968) and for his nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song (1979).

 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.”

Today is the birthday of Thomas Merton (books by this author), born in Prades, France (1915). His mother was an American, and his father was from New Zealand. They were both artists, and they met at an art school in Paris. Merton’s mother died of stomach cancer when he was six years old; 10 years later, his father died of a brain tumor.

Merton converted to Catholicism in 1938, while he was a student at Columbia University. He taught English for a while at St. Bonaventure College, but he continued studying Catholicism, and the spiritualism of William Blake. On December 10, 1941, he quit his job and entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, to begin his life as a Trappist monk. He continued studying, and kept journals full of his questions and musings. His superior at the monastery, Father Abbot Dom Frederic Dunne, noticed his talent for writing and encouraged him to continue. He began by translating religious texts and writing biographies of the saints.

In 1961, Merton wrote, “It is possible to doubt whether I have become a monk (a doubt that I have to live with), but it is not possible to doubt that I am a writer, that I was born one and will most probably die as one.” Over the course of his life, Merton wrote more than 70 books, 2,000 poems, and numerous essays and lectures. He’s perhaps best known for his spiritual autobiography and conversion narrative, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). It’s been compared to the Confessions of St. Augustine. He ends the book with the line Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi: “Here ends the book, but not the searching.”

From The Seven Storey Mountain: “It is only the infinite mercy and love of God that has prevented us from tearing ourselves to pieces and destroying His entire creation long ago.People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no merciful God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice, spawned and bred by the free wills of men, the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce man and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer John O’Hara (1905) (books by this author), born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to a prosperous family. His father was an esteemed skull surgeon and the family lived in a mansion on Mahantongo Street, one of the fanciest addresses in Pottsville. They had five automobiles, horses, and a show farm, but when O’Hara’s father died and left the family penniless, destroying his dream of attending Yale University, he never got over it. For the rest of his life, he collected matchbooks from clubs that wouldn’t have him as a member. After he got famous, he lobbied so hard for an honorary degree from Yale that when Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, was asked why O’Hara never received one, he answered bluntly, “Because he asked for it.”

O’Hara wrote the best-selling novels Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935), and is often credited with creating what is now known as “The New Yorker” story: a short story with no firm ending that mostly hinges on mood and tone. He published over 247 stories in The New Yorker in his lifetime, though Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder, couldn’t stand him. For a long time, the magazine’s editors had a running joke: who was more difficult to edit, John O’Hara or James Thurber? Many of his stories are set in the Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, the fictional stand-in for Pottsville.

O’Hara mostly wrote about class, money, and sex in a frank and unsettling way. The sexuality in BUtterfield 8 was deemed so controversial that the book was banned in Australia until 1963. He had a great ear for dialogue, having worked as a waiter an ocean liner, a hotel night clerk, and as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune and Daily Mirror. O’Hara was an alcoholic and was often fired for being hungover. He once wrote to his daughter, “I want the Nobel prize … so bad I can taste it.” He never won.

John O’Hara died in 1970 and wrote his own epitaph for his tombstone. It reads: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”

It’s the birthday of musicologist Alan Lomax, 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 12-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).

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