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Uncle Walt Wrote a Novel!

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Who knew the multitudinous poet had it in him?

Apparently a grad student named Turpin did.

And apparently everyone does…now.

As noted in the New York Times, Whitman once wrote in 1882, “My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.” Later, when he heard someone was interested in publishing his past fiction, he said, “I should almost be tempted to shoot him if I had an opportunity.”

Clearly, Whitman hadn’t expected Turpin…

“I have no talent.”

greene

It’s the birthday of novelist Graham Greene (books by this author), born in Berkhamsted, England (1904). He described the citizens of his hometown as “slitty eyed and devious,” and he had an unhappy childhood. He came from a prominent local family, and his father was the headmaster of his school, where Greene was bullied and attempted suicide several times. At the age of 16, he tried running away. His parents sent him to London to be treated by a psychoanalyst, an experience he thoroughly enjoyed. He decided that his biggest problem was boredom, and he began playing Russian roulette.

He went on to Oxford, where he published his first book, a book of poetry called Babbling April (1925). It was a flop. He got a job as a copywriter for The Times of London and spent years working as a journalist. He said, “A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.”

Greene was an obsessive traveler. At Oxford, he offered his services to the German government as a propagandist if they would pay his expenses to travel in France. During World War II, he joined MI6, the British Intelligence Service, and was posted to Sierra Leone. He visited Prague during the Communist takeover, Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising, Haiti under the reign of brutal dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and covered the Vietnam War and the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. He wrote 24 novels, many of them set in the places he had visited. He said: “I travel because I have to see the scene. I can’t imagine it.”

His first big success was Stamboul Train (1932), published as Orient Express in America. It is set onboard the Orient Express headed to Istanbul, and follows the fate of the passengers, including a Jewish businessman, an exiled Socialist doctor, a lesbian journalist, a chorus girl, and a murderer. Greene said: “In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims.”

Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter (1948) about an English colonial policeman stationed in Sierra Leone. He is passed over for a promotion, his marriage is failing, his love affair makes him feel guilty for betraying his Catholicism, and a local diamond smuggler constantly manipulates him. Greene described his main character, Scobie, as “a weak man with good intentions doomed by his big sense of pity.”

The Comedians (1966) was set in Haiti under Papa Doc’s rule, narrated by a hotel owner named Brown. The novel upset Papa Doc so much that he published a pamphlet accusing Greene of being “a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon … unbalanced, sadistic, perverted … a perfect ignoramus … lying to his heart’s content … the shame of proud and noble England.”

A Burnt-Out Case (1960) was the story of a depressed architect who traveled to a Congolese leper colony.

Greene said, “I have no talent; it’s just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time.”

From The Writer’s Almanac

It’s also the birthday of Wallace Stevens.

Hermeneutics of Hygiene: A Squeeze of the Hand-sanitizer

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My Email to Garrison Keillor re. Walker Percy

Dear Mr. Keillor,

You and Walker Percy both occupy honored places in my personal constellation of literary stars.

That’s why I was shocked and disappointed by your treatment of Dr. Percy in the May 28, 2014 edition of The Writer’s Almanac. Percy never worked as a psychiatrist. In fact, although he was an M.D., he never really practiced medicine. He contracted tuberculosis while conducting autopsies during a residency in pathology at the end of medical school.

And that synopsis of The Moviegoer (which thankfully only appears in the printed version of TWA) is just as horribly askew. Binx Bolling is a stockbroker who goes to the movies but “in an attempt to get over a nervous breakdown” reeks of having been pulled out of someone’s ass who never read the book and doesn’t really care.

I’m not sure I can trust what you say on TWA anymore.

Maybe what you need is a crusty old librarian who cares about real facts and knows how to dig into reliable sources. Coincidentally, I am just such a librarian (and poor starving poet to boot, having earned $100 from TWA, thank you very much, and about $3.95 in royalties since publishing my book). I would be interested in supplementing my meager poet-librarian’s salary, if you’re hiring.

I didn’t start off this email thinking it would turn into a job application, but the spirit surprises us sometimes.

Let me know what you think. In any case, I’m looking forward to what you come up with for Walker Percy the next time his birthday comes round.

All the best,
Jonathan Potter
Spokane WA

“Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it …”

heller-1961

It’s the birthday of the man who asked, “What does a sane man do in an insane society?”: American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He didn’t begin any story until he had the first and last lines in his head, and the idea for Catch-22 came about after he thought of an opening: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him.” He didn’t have the character’s name — Yossarian — yet, but the story began to unspool from that first line. “It got me so excited,” Heller wrote in the Paris Review, “that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand. … One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.”

His agent started sending Catch-22 — called Catch-18 at the time — to publishers in 1953, when Heller was about a third of the way through with it. Simon and Schuster paid him $750 up front, with another $750 to be paid upon completion. Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it in 1961. They changed Catch-18 to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’s new book Mila 18, and the title has entered the lexicon as a description of an unsolvable logical dilemma, a vicious circle.

Heller published six other novels, three plays, a collection of short stories, and three screen adaptations. He died in 1999, shortly after finishing his last novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac.

Fun fact: Catch-22 was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award—along with The Moviegoer, which won it.

(“Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it….” Rally Korrektiv, rally!)

See also

Spokane’s Resident Poet

From the Writer’s Almanac:


It’s the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Field’s, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as he thought it would be. He said, “No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation … [but] I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times.” In 1913, Poetry magazine published Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).

Vachel Lindsay lived in Spokane from 1924 to 1929.

Denis the Menace

From The Writer’s Almanac:


Today is the birthday of French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot (books by this author), born in Langres (1713). He was a prominent thinker during the French Enlightenment, and he was good friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two men met regularly at cafés in Paris to discuss music, philosophy, and their troubles with women.

From 1745 to 1772, Diderot was the chief editor of Encyclopédie, a book meant to replace the Bible as the source of knowledge. It was the first book of its kind to subject all the entries to rational analysis, debunking a lot of ancient wisdom along the way. For instance, it included an entry on Noah’s ark that tried to estimate how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have spent shoveling manure off their boat. Previous encyclopedias restricted themselves to serious topics like theology and philosophy and science, but Diderot tried to cover everything he could think of: emotions, coal mines, fleas, duels, bladder surgery, stockings, the metaphysics of the human soul, and how to make soup.

Diderot, who said, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

Forthcoming from Korrektiv Press: The Korrektiv Encyclopedia, in the spirit of Diderot, but Diderot turned on his head.

Speaking of Fires

From The Writer’s Almanac:


The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. The fire broke out near London Bridge, at the house of Thomas Farynor, the king’s baker. One of his workers awoke at two in the morning to the smell of smoke, and the family fled over the rooftops. The blaze spread rapidly, helped by strong winds and drought conditions. Samuel Pepys, who lived nearby, took matters into his own hands and went to Whitehall to inform King Charles II of the situation. Pepys then went home to evacuate his own household and join the throngs of escaping Londoners choking the streets and the River Thames. He reported digging a hole to bury “[his] Parmazan cheese as well as [his] wine and some other things,” and contemplated ways to slow or stop the blaze. “Blowing up houses … stopped the fire when it was done, bringing down the houses in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it.”

It was the worst fire in London’s history. It burned for four days and destroyed 80 percent of the city: most civic buildings, more than 13,000 homes, and nearly 90 churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose lead roof melted and flowed away down Ludgate Hill. A catastrophic fire of this sort was inevitable, really; the buildings were made of timber and pitch, and the lanes were narrow and crowded; overhanging upper stories nearly touched their counterparts across the way. Remarkably, there were only four reported casualties, although the death toll was probably much higher. There was one positive outcome from the fire, though: It may have halted the progress of the plague, which had been ravaging the city for the past few years. The rats and their disease-carrying fleas perished in large numbers.

Within days of the fire, architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, and diarist John Evelyn, had all submitted plans for the rebuilding of the city; all of them called for making the streets more regular. In the end, almost all the original layout of the city was preserved, although the streets were widened. Wren was given the task of rebuilding 50 of the churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, which remains one of his masterpieces.

Cf. Seattle …

Happy Blaise Days

From The Writer’s Almanac


Today is the birthday of mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a child prodigy, and by the time he was 19, he had already perfected the first mechanical calculator for sale to the public. In the field of physics, he discovered that air has weight and proved that vacuums are possible in nature. In mathematics, he founded the theory of probabilities and developed an early form of integral calculus. He also invented the syringe and the hydraulic press.

He was often torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one. When he was 23, he began to feel the need to withdraw from the world and devote his life to God. He did just that, for a while, but soon threw himself back into his scientific pursuits, working so hard he made himself ill. He returned to religion for good after a mystical conversion experience, which he called the “night of fire,” in 1654, and entered the Abbey of Port-Royal in January 1655. He lived as an informal hermit, and he never again published under his own name. He only wrote things that the monks requested, and he produced two great works of religious philosophy: Provincial Letters (1657) and Thoughts (1658).

He wrote, “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”

The Great Seattle Fire in Onegin Sonnet Stanzas

From The Writer’s Almanac:


It’s the birthday of the father of modern Russian literature: Aleksandr Pushkin (books by this author), born in Moscow (1799). He died at the age of 38, but in his brief life, he worked in nearly every literary form. His masterpiece was the verse novel Eugene Onegin (1833), about a man who kills his friend in a duel, and loses the one woman he loves.

Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova who was described at the time as the most beautiful woman in Russia. She had many admirers, including Czar Nicholas. One of her suitors was so persistent that Pushkin finally challenged him to a pistol duel in 1837. Pushkin died two days later.

The government initially tried to cover up the death, because Pushkin was so popular among common Russians that they thought his death might spark an uprising. When word of his death finally did get out, people all over the country went into mourning. One man, weeping openly in the street, was asked by a newspaper man if he had known Pushkin personally. He replied, “No, but I am a Russian.”

The Great Seattle Fire destroyed downtown Seattle on this date in 1889. The fire started in the basement of a cabinet shop on the corner of Front and Madison. An employee had set a pot of glue on top of a lit stove, and the glue caught fire. Over the next 18 hours, the blaze wiped out the town’s business district and waterfront. Miraculously, there were no human fatalities.

In a year’s time, Seattle had nearly been rebuilt. All the construction jobs sparked a population boom, and Seattle grew from a town of 25,000 into a full-fledged city of more than 40,000.