Thursday Feb. 16, 2017

0:00/ 0:00

The Truth about Fences

They only hold in those who are willing
to be held. Horses prove it all the time,
unlatching gates in their idle moments.
I once saw a cornered ewe leap a six
foot buck fence because she didn’t feel
like going where the border collie wanted
her to go. She wasn’t even afraid.

When they were young, I took the children
to the state animal farm. Every inhabitant –
begging raven, crippled otter, trained bear –
had become too used to humans. The biggest
draw was the cow moose. We gaped as she
browsed in a swale behind the tissue paper
of some hurricane fencing. The game warden
explained it wasn’t so much that they kept her
as that she didn’t mind staying.

“The Truth about Fences” by Sonja Johanson from Trees in Our Dooryards. © Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

John Adams prepared to set sail to France on this date in 1778. The Continental Congress had asked him to replace Silas Deane, who was trying to convince the French government to lend its aid to the American Revolution. The Congress had begun to suspect Deane of profiting personally from trade negotiations, and of passing inside information to the British. It was the first time John Adams had ever left North America.

It was not a good time of the year for a trip across the Atlantic, and the frigate Boston waited in the harbor at Marblehead for a winter storm to blow over. Adams complained in his journal that it was difficult to keep the men on the ship: “Mothers, Wives, Sisters come on bord [sic], and beg for Leave for their Sons, Husbands, and Brothers to go on Shore for one Hour &c. so that it is hard for the Commander to resist their Importunity.”

Adams brought his 10-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, along on the trip, and also inherited temporary custody of two other boys: 11-year-old Jesse Deane, who was Silas Deane’s son; and another young man who had recently graduated from college and was looking for a business apprenticeship. Adams wrote: “Thus I find myself invested with the unexpected Trust of a Kind of Guardianship of two promising young Gentlemen, besides my own Son. This benevolent office is peculiarly agreable [sic] to my Temper. Few Things have ever given me greater Pleasure than the Tuition of Youth to the Bar, and the Advancement of Merit.”

The weather eventually cleared and the ship weighed anchor the following day. They ran into bad weather on the journey, and the main mast was struck by lightning, causing several injuries and one fatality, but the Adamses eventually arrived in France, safe and sound, about six weeks later.

It’s the birthday of historian Henry Adams (books by this author), born in Boston (1838). He came from a wealthy, famous family — his grandfather and great-grandfather were John Quincy Adams and John Adams, respectively; his father was a diplomat; and he was generally surrounded by accomplished men. But he was not happy about it, and he didn’t want to live up to all the expectations that came with the Adams name. He went to Harvard, but he didn’t do very well and didn’t learn much. So he traveled all over, came back, and started to write —at first journalism, but soon he turned to history. With an insider’s perspective of society, government, and power in America, he reimagined the role of the historian; he said, “The historian’s business is to follow the track of energy; to find where it comes from and where it went to; its complex course and shifting channels; its values, equivalents, conversions.” His most famous book was The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography, and it was the first of its kind. Instead of a straightforward account of the events of his life, it was a long reflection on his internal development in relation to a changing industrial society, his personal ideas about America and about himself. It was written in the third person, and it was funny and cynical. In it, he wrote about himself: “The pursuit of ignorance […] had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost.” Adams wrote The Education of Henry Adams a few years before he died, but he only published it as a private edition for his friends. After his death in 1918, it was reprinted for the general public, and won a Pulitzer Prize.

It’s the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford (books by this author), best known for his novels featuring the character of Frank Bascombe, a former sportswriter turned real estate agent. Ford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the Frank Bascombe novel Independence Day.

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). After college, a stint in law school convinced him to be a writer, because, he once said, “Like writing briefs, stories try to persuade someone.” He sold two novels that got good reviews but didn’t sell very well before he decided to hang it up and become a sportswriter. After a couple of years of that, he started writing a novel about a sportswriter named Frank Bascombe, whose life is a mess. That book, The Sportswriter (1986), made his name and introduced Frank Bascombe to the world.

Richard Ford has spent over 30 years writing about Frank Bascombe, taking him from marriage to divorce, through the death of a child, and into the arms of various women. Ford has meticulous files on Bascombe and other characters, keeping notes on ripped up pieces of hotel stationary and small pieces of paper, and eventually types them up and puts them in ring-bound notebooks. When he’s ready to write, he says, “I just pick at them, very patiently, and I mean it takes months, and I know what I’m writing, because part of the collation of these notes indicates that I think I’m writing something. And then I start making files. I like to put them in the freezer, so if the house burns down, the freezer won’t.”

People often ask Ford about Bascombe as though he’s real person. He says: “Fictional characters aren’t people — except sometimes to readers who want them to be. And they’re especially not people to those of us who make them up. Instead, characters are imminently mutable, cobbled-together bits of language reflecting the this’s and that’s of a writer’s life — memory, fantasy, fears, desires, suppressed experience, shards of speech, half-noticed newspaper squibs, over-hearings, mishearings — all of it subjected to the writer’s often whimsical will, then put on to the page for others.”

On writing, Richard Ford says: “I like the part of being a writer in which you don’t feel the sides of anything. You don’t see the beginning, and you don’t see the end, you’re just in it.”

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