Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Friday, October 31, 2014

Strange Story under the Moon

Near the dawn of his writing career, John O'Hara--who'd published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (to fine reviews), in 1934 and, in the New Yorker and elsewhere, was publishing short stories regularly (over a hundred by the time Samarra appeared)--was lured to Hollywood by ... well, by Hollywood. As most of you know, he was hardly the first writer to hear the siren song; he was not--and will not be--the last.

He'd had a cameo appearance as a craven journalist in the film The General Died at Dawn (1936), and in 1939 he received partial screen credit for I Was an Adventureress and He Married His Wife (romantic comedies). Both films appeared in 1940. I saw them both recently, and they remain the sort of light entertainment that's popular today--though, because of 1940s standards, far more chaste and "innocent."

In 1940, a somewhat popular novel appeared, Moon Tide by Willard Robertson. Published before Pearl Harbor, the novel still began with the common casual racism of the day: Hirota, the pockmarked Jap, who lived next to the California bank, needed a man to tend his barge .... Not the kind of opening sentence you'll find in a novel from today's mainline publishers.

Anyway, Twentieth Century Fox hired O'Hara to write a screenplay based on the novel, and he did, receiving his only sole screen credit for Moontide, released in the spring of 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor. I'm not going to post here today about the film but will reserve that for a later day. Today ... the original novel, which I acquired via ABE for under $20. (The image above is of the book I purchased.) I  finished reading it just the other night.

In the story, which takes on the waterfront near Los Angeles, Hirota hires a character identified throughout only as "the Swede" --a man with drinking problems, a dark past (we find out later in the novel that he and his brother had survived a shipwreck and the ensuing survivor-eat-survivor scenario only by homicide), but with a capacious heart. Hirota owns a bait barge--a docked vessel which fishermen (afoot and aboat) use for their daily needs. The Swede's job is to dole out the bait.

One day--after work--he is down the beach and dives in the surf to rescue a young woman (Ada) who is attempting to drown herself. He takes her back to the barge, where ... gee? I wonder what! Yes, they develop ... a relationship!

And for a while, things look very rosy. He helps her clean up her act (desperately poor, she owned nothing but the clothes she was wearing). Hirota emerges as a gentle, compassionate character (unlike the caricature the opening sentence has led us to expect). The Swede and Ada begin to make plans. Perhaps a floating restaurant?  "Hope is the thing with feathers ...."

But then ... an odious character named Tiny reappears, a former acquaintance. And while the Swede is out at sea helping some folks in need of mechanical assistance, Tiny is left alone on the barge with Ada. Nothing good can happen now, right?


Nothing good happens.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

End of the World News, Part IV

Continuing the story of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man.

Sailing to Greece in search of Raymond--is he dead? Lost? Arriving in Athens, they find the city in mourning: Raymond was a great hero to the Greeks. And then they discover that he's still alive (barely), a prisoner. They (slowly) arrange for his release, and he begins his recovery.

And then ... news of a great plague. And Lord Raymond dies in military action.  And the plague is running wild. Athenians, she writes, "fell like ripe corn before the merciless sickle of the adversary. ... America had also received the taint ... the hunter died in the woods, the peasant in the corn-fields, and the fisher on his native waters" (223). The world is in panic.

But not--not yet--in England, which, so far, seems to have escaped. But the country swells with refugees, who, of course, bring the disease with them. Lionel comes across a victim in a small cottage: "He lay on a heap of straw ... cold and stiff; while a pernicious effluvia filled the room, and various stains and marks served to show the virulence of the disorder" (259).

The English try to carry on. The theaters stay open. Adrian goes to see Macbeth at the Drury Lane Theater, but, overcome with sorrow, he leaves early.

Lawlessness now is the issue. "They swept the country like a conquering army, burning--laying waste--murdering." (Sounds like London's The Scarlet Plague, eh? Read earlier post.)

London's population plummets to about 1000 residents. Lionel, near despair, bids farewell to the accomplishments of man (science, the arts).

Autumn, 2096. Survivors meet in London and agree to emigrate. But events intervene; time passes. The winter arrives. They decide to head for Switzerland. They find France ... empty. Switzerland, too. They make it to Venice, where the city is beautiful--but dead. Animals are living in the palaces.

Lionel endures the deaths of of loved ones. He, alone, goes to museums, tries to study, to forget. He spends a year writing the book we're reading. He decides he will set sail to see if he can find others. He loads his boat, including a friendly dog--and with books, Homer and Shakespeare among them. And the novel ends with these words from Lionel--

Neither hope nor joy are my pilots--restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. ... thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with ... the LAST MAN (470).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 66

In mid-August I wrote some news to Betty about a few things I’d found out about the death of Mary Shelley’s unnamed infant on March 6, 1815; the child, as we’ve seen, was premature by a couple of months and had lived only about two weeks. My daughter-in-law—a pediatric nurse at the time—told me, I wrote, that the lungs would not have finished development and would not have inflated properly, making breathing (and sucking) difficult—explaining, probably, the infant’s death—perhaps a combination of starvation, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
That got Betty’s interest—in a hurry. I have spent a number of hours on the subject—as of now, am still not satisfied with all the various pieces. She wondered what sources Melissa was consulting. I said I’d get back to her.
Then … a series of exchanges about quotidian events—Betty was experiencing orientation for new students; the book store had messed up her order for her classes; she was revising her syllabus. And I’ve been working on trying to clear up some of the mess in this study. … Still, I am in 1827, she wrote. In her book Mary Shelley was now thirty years old. She had twenty-four years to go.
I told her I was heading down to the University of Cincinnati to read an old pamphlet about sea-water therapy. Teenager Mary had experienced some skin outbreaks, and physicians in her day recommended sea-water treatments—whatever they were. I would go to Cincinnati to find out.
I complained as well about all the reading I was doing for Kirkus (little did I know!)—but I was somehow finding time to read some Sir Walter Scott because of his relationships with the various principals in Mary’s life. I feel DUMB, I wrote, complaining about his vast vocabulary—and use of dialect. People who don’t sympathize with kids with reading problems should be required to read about 100 pages of a Scott novel and then take a pop quiz.
Betty replied with her opinion that Mary’s skin rashes had not, in her view, been psychological but perhaps related to a strep infection. Once again I was touched that she shared an insight with me, an insight she trusted I would not publish before she did (I didn’t). As I sit here in 2014, more than fourteen years after this exchange, I marvel at that trust. We’d met only once; we had only an electronic friendship. And yet she felt safe enough to confide an idea that went counter to all the other major Mary Shelley biographies.
Betty also (mildly) complained about all the checking and double-checking she was doing in her research. There is that inevitable chase down the rabbit hole to find nothing at all. All biographers and researchers have been on those chases down those rabbit holes. That’s quite a feeling, standing in the dark, in an empty space, and asking yourself, What am I doing here?
I replied that I was going to ask my dermatologist about those skin rashes, and then I confided something else to her—the acquisitiveness I’d come to associate with this research. I needed to own some things, it seems—not just read about them. And that acquisitiveness, eventually, would be one of the reasons that our correspondence would eventually evanesce.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

End of the World News, Part III

Last time, I wrote a bit about the background of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man, a novel that she began to write while she was still experiencing the despair of the loss of her husband (1822 drowning) and children (three little ones had died) and friends (among them, Lord Byron).

As I've said, too, the novel deals with an infection that sweeping through humanity, killing virtually all in its wake. Shelley created a frame story for the tale: She begins with an 1818 visit to a cave near Naples (by the way, she and her husband had climbed Vesuvius during the same trip). She says that she found, wandering around in the cave, the remains of a long-ago tale, which she reassembled for her story.

The shepherd boy (Lionel) narrates; he has a sister, Perdita, three years younger (who looks, by the way, a lot like Mary Shelley herself). Soon, we learn that we're in the year 2073 (when, I guess, we still have shepherd boys) and that England now is a republic. The mother of a young man named Adrian, who would have been king had England remained a monarchy, educates the boy as if he will be the king. (Mary's physical description of Adrian reminds us of the appearance of her late husband.)

Adrian brings Lionel and Perdita into his circle. Lord Raymond arrives in the story now--a character based on Byron. He is "supremely handsome; every one admired him; of women he was the idol. He was courteous, honey-tongued--and adept in fascinating arts" (Oxford World's Classics, 40). Lord Raymond, unlike Byron, however, survived wars in Greece, where he became a hero. Anyway, Perdita, seeing Lord Raymond, is smitten.

More smiting comes soon: Adrian has a sister, Idris, whom Lionel promptly falls for. And soon Perdita marries Lord Raymond, and Lionel, desperately poor, is too proud to ask for $$, so, he says "my sole companions were my books and my loving thoughts" (77)--words very similar to the words Mary had written in her journal in the aftermath of her husband's drowning.

And--after much parental objection--Lionel marries Idris. Soon the bunch of them are living in Windsor Castle. Children arrive. Lord Raymond finds another attraction (as Byron often did, as Bysshe Shelley often did), but keeps the news from Perdita. She finds out; he vows to give up the other woman; he fails to do so.

Lionel decides to try writing and is soon cranking out books. Perdita wishes that she had a career, too. Meanwhile, Raymond, who has gone off to Greece, is reported dead. Lionel and Perdita will go there to look for him--or for his body.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 65

Early in August 2000, I wrote to tell Betty about my trip to the University of Rochester—which had gone well. But I’d learned, on return, that the pamphlet on vegetarianism I’d driven all that way to read was available both at Kent State and at the Cleveland Public Library. I’d not known because both those places had catalogued the item differently. Oh well.
I also told her, facetiously, that I was working on the ass market part of the biography. When Bysshe and Mary eloped in 1814, taking with them Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, they’d fled England to France, where, in Paris, they’d visited the ass market, where, in fact, they’d purchased one of the critters to help them on their journey on to Switzerland. (Where, as we’ll see, they did not stay long: Money problems sent them back to England—and disgrace.)
In that same email I proudly told Betty that I’d just filed my 100th book review for Kirkus. I asked my editor, I wrote, if I could count on a gold watch or rocking chair. He replied: “How about 100 more books?” I told her, too, that I was soon going to start writing reviews for the Plain Dealer.
As I read this now—in late October 2014—I realize how early in my book-reviewing career the year 2000 was. I’ve now done well over 1200 reviews for Kirkus, a couple of hundred for the Plain Dealer. I remember feeling that 100 reviews was a lot; it wasn’t.

A few days later, I told Betty that Kirkus had just published a very positive review of Janet Todd’s book. She was glad to hear that, then told me about a visit from her recently widowed brother—a good visit. They’d gone to museums, a play. She noted how very much he is suffering from his loss.
In mid-August, as the 2000 Presidential race was heating up, Betty wrote to ask me about politics—we have never talked about that area, she said. It was the summer of the political conventions. I was a little wary about a reply at first—Surely politics will not divide us? I said. And then I figured what-the-hell and leapt right into it, telling her I was (still am) a lifelong Democrat. Of the Democratic Convention, I said, But, of course, all is pageantry. Still … I like to watch people who skewer the folks I’d love to skewer.
Then I changed the subject—back to Mary Shelley, et al. I told her that in the winter of 1814 she’d attended a lecture by a Professor Garnerin—and I wondered if this was the same guy who’d parachuted over her house in 1802 when she was a little girl; I wondered, too, if she had made that connection.
Betty wrote back with some animation: Our politics could not be more the same! Should be no surprise, given our taste in a biographical subject! And especially this subject!

In mid-August I wrote some news to Betty about a few things I’d found out about the death of Mary Shelley’s unnamed infant on March 6, 1815; the child, as we’ve seen, was only about two weeks old. My daughter-in-law—a pediatric nurse at the time—told me, I wrote, that the lungs would not have finished development and would not have inflated properly, making breathing (and sucking) difficult—explaining, probably, the infant’s death—perhaps a combination of starvation, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
That got Betty’s interest—in a hurry.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 21

1. The other day, Patty Medhurst Fedor, a seventh grade student from many, many years ago (very early in my career--just my third year, 1968-69), posted on Facebook a list of her classmates who were no longer alive. It was a shocking and stunning list--twenty-one people, all of whom I'd taught in seventh grade at the old Aurora Middle School. I would guess they're in the mid-to-late fifties now, the survivors in that class, and so many of those names take me back to moments wonderful and humbling and regrettable and inspiring and enraging and humorous and ... Well, just about every emotion of which a human is capable, for, as teachers know, you experience just about every emotion you have in the course of a single day--especially with middle schoolers! (Sometimes every period.)

I was grateful that Patty posted that list, but I grieved, as well. I don't know that I'd seen any of them in more than forty years, but the names brought them back--I could see them sitting at their desks (or not sitting, as the case may be); I could see myself--young, ignorant, desperately trying to figure out this profession of teaching I'd gotten myself into. And I could not have imagined--or hoped or dreamed in any way--that I would survive so many of them. It's not the way it should be. And I wish their families and friends the best as they adjust to life's grimmest reality.

2. Last week I watched--via Netflix DVD--the John Wayne flick Hondo, the 1953 film based on a Louis L'Amour story. (I'd read a book recently about Wayne and had no memory of having seen Hondo, so ....). I was surprised to see Geraldine Page in the cast: She's not the sort of actress you associate with a John Wayne shoot-em-up, but there she was, an abandoned mother (guess whom her young son ends up idolizing?), alive only because she's allowed the Apache to water their horses (hmmm ... how could she have stopped them from watering?). The Apache leader admires her son--says he will be a warrior--but needs a father. Hmmm ... who could that be?

Anyway, the exteriors were stunning. I see on IMDB that they shot on location in Utah and Mexico, and it was beautiful. The story--not so much. There was some sympathy for the Apache (and Wayne, in the film, had spent some years living with them), but it ended about where you'd expect: lots of people (mostly Apache) getting shot. Manifest Destiny, that sort of thing. Glad I saw it, though. Wayne looked young and fit, though he didn't ever seem to find an occasion to change his clothes.

Here's a link to a trailer for the film.

3. We also streamed via Netflix a fine documentary about historian Howard Zinn. I've read some of his books over the years and have--Lefty that I am--always sympathized with his positions. But what a fearless man, a man who, after all these years of struggle for human rights, for peace, still (how?) keeps a smile on his face.  Link to trailer for the film.

4. The big event last week, though, was the luncheon on Friday to honor our daughter-in-law, Melissa McGowan Dyer, who had won one of the Outstanding Teaching Awards at Kent State University. It was a family affair--that luncheon. She and Steve were there, their two remarkable sons (Logan, 9, and Carson, 5), Melissa's enormously proud parents, Joyce and I.

Melissa teaches at the nursing school, and the testimonials from her students and supervisors were amazing--the sorts of things you would sit down and write about yourself, if you dared. They praised her for her knowledge, her devotion to the profession, to her students, to the life that so many of them want to pursue--and to perform with a portion of the skill and affection Melissa does.

I'll end with some words from the brochure for the event--some words about Melissa:

Dyer's background is in obstetrics. She lobbies and advocates for healthcare policy issues and led nurses as a hospital administrator [UH]. She eagerly shares her passions for nursing, leadership and professionalism with her students. ... Dyer is an innovator. She was the first College of Nursing faculty to employ a blended-learning environment. Dyer uses active teaching methods to engage students and promote critical thinking, including high-fidelity simulation and case studies. ... [She] is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the College of Public Health at Kent State. Dyer is a College of Nursing leader, having served as an American delegate to China to study that country's education and healthcare systems. She currently is an education Leadership Policy Fellow and received the Barbara Donaho Distinguished Leadership in Learning Award.

Melissa is a talented, loving young woman--a wonderful wife and mother--and we are so proud to have her in our family.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

End of the World News, Part II

Motivated by the recent Ebola news, I posted recently about Jack London's 1912 novella, The Scarlet Plague (about an infection that quickly destroys the majority of humanity--in the year 2013!), and I promised a later post about Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (published on January 23, 1826), a novel with a similar--but, of course, earlier--theme.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, born in 1797, had already experienced so much with Death that it's no real surprise that she would feel that He was coming for everyone--and soon. Here's a partial list of those close to her who had died by the time the novel appeared:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (her mother), 1797--the mother she never knew but whose books she read repeatedly.
  • An unnamed daughter--dead on March 6, 1815, only a few weeks old. (If she and Percy Bysshe Shelley named their child, no one has ever discovered it.)
  • Fanny Godwin, half-sister, committed suicide on October 9, 1816.
  • Harriet Shelley (Bysshe's first wife), committed suicide around December 10, 1816 (her body was discovered in the Serpentine).
  • Clara Shelley, daughter, on September 24, 1818. She was about a year and a half.
  • William Shelley, son, on June 7, 1819. He was about three and a half.
  • Allegra Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (Mary's step-sister), April 19, 1821. She was about four and a half.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and Edward Williams (friend)--both drowned on July 8, 1822, off the Italian coast.
  • Lord Byron, friend (it was his summer place in Geneva where she had conceived the idea for Frankenstein), April 19, 1824. Later, when friends brought Byron's body back to England for burial, Mary viewed his remains. He'd been stored in preservative wine for the transport and was now purple.
There were others--but these are people close to her circle--including, of course, her husband and three of her children. Her remaining son, Percy Florence Shelley (his middle name was for the Italian city of his birth), would outlive her, but Percy--this last possessor of the Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft genes--had no real intellectual interests and spent his adult years (childless) enjoying his substantial inheritance from the Shelley estate. He loved his yacht, loved putting on amateur theatricals at the impressive home in Bournemouth, England, the seaside city where he and his family now lie: Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Percy Florence and his wife. (Percy Bysshe Shelley lies in Rome--not far from Keats' grave.)

Mary, feeling alone, isolated, deeply depressed, had begun work on The Last Man over the winter of 1823-24. In her journal entry for May 14, 1824, she wrote: The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feeling, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me--" (The Journals of Mary Shelley, 476-77).