Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Childhood and Memory

In a new book I'm reviewing--a memoir--I read the following this morning: "We remember our childhood not as a smooth timeline but a series of shocks."

I don't think I agree--at least with the second half of this.  I certainly don't remember my own childhood as a timeline (hell, I don't remember this week as a timeline!), but I can't say that my lingering childhood memories are of shocks, not at all.  Certainly, there were some--my father being whisked to the hospital late one Oklahoma night in the mid-1950s (kidney stones), being yanked from Enid, Oklahoma, to Amarillo, Texas, during the Korean War (I was just seven; Dad had been called back to active duty in the Air Force); getting thrown out at home in an Enid little league game by, oh, about twenty feet because I so desperately wanted to get an inside-the-park homer (I cried all the way back to the bench; my coach was alarmed).

But I have far more memories of wonderful experiences--hardly "shocks" in any common use of the term.  Visits to family in Oregon, riding bikes in Enid, being elected class president in fourth grade (I was later removed from office for--honest to God--going down the up staircase; talk about tears!), eating holiday dinners with my grandparents, playing with our dog (Sooner, whom some Evil Ass in Hiram hit with a car, then drove off; Sooner was still alive; Evil Ass could have helped; but, being an Evil Ass, he drove on and on and on and, I hope, he hit a tree at 90, flew through the windshield, landed on a lawn, where a dog ate his face and evil ass), playing in the neighborhood, falling in love in first grade (yes, you got it: FIRST GRADE).

Do we look at our own lives as human templates?

Monday, January 30, 2012

More from O'Hara's Letters ...

I'm still working my way through these selected letters of O'Hara, and today I read a few things to amuse/inform/whatever.  First, the information (dessert, remember, only after you eat your vegetables).  The letters I read today--mostly from the 1930s--begin to deal more and more with professional/business items, and as O'Hara became more confident in himself and in his work, he began to affect the cocky (even boorish) tone that later defined him.  For example, in 1938, he wrote to Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker, about a piece he was submitting: "Why the hell don't you just buy this piece and never bother me any more?" (130).  He was becoming increasingly defensive about his work, increasingly cantankerous.

And some of you remember the story I used to use in class now and then--"Do You Like It Here?"--a story about a boarding school kid (a new kid) whom the Headmaster accuses of stealing another boy's watch.  (By the way, I first read this story in the early 1960s at Hiram College in a creative writing class taught by my favorite professor, Dr. Abe C. Ravitz, who used it as an example of how to use dialogue to reveal character.)  Anyway, on 3 April 1939, O'Hara wrote to William Maxwell, fiction editor at the New Yorker, about the tale: "I have one here for you that I think everybody ought to like.  It is about a boy that came to a new school and stole a watch.  At least we think he stole the watch.  Maybe that isn't what the author intended.  The author is very vague" (145). This last sentence is a dig at Harold Ross, who didn't like O'Hara's indefinite endings to his stories.  The story eventually ran on 18 February 1939.

And in another letter, after some Ross criticism, he threatened to write no more "Pal Joey" pieces--the ones that he eventually collected for a book, the ones that he eventually revised for the Broadway hit Pal Joey (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart).  "If you don't like it [the newest piece]," he wrote to Maxwell in May 1939, "the series ends--and maybe if you do like it" (148).

There are touches of O'Hara's heart here, too.  Of his recently deceased mentor Heywood Broun he wrote: "He was kind, courteous and square.  Generous, considerate and big.  ... He honored me, by God, by letting me sit with him, work for him, drink to him" (157).

And in a funny, ironic letter to the expectant wife of his fellow writer Budd Schulberg, he wrote some advice about child-rearing: "I am against teething," he declared.  About pets for kids? "A pterodactyl around children is likely to become irritable, doubtless because of the difference in their ages."  And about sex education: "It's better with your shoes off" (160).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happy Birthday, Raven!

Today--in 1845--Poe published his most famous poem, "The Raven," a poem so associated with him--and with Baltimore, where he died--that the new NFL franchise (our poor stolen Cleveland Browns) picked Ravens for their name.  Because of weak copyright laws, Poe made less than $20 on the poem ... imagine the fortune he would reap today!

Today, a story from my classroom--cut and pasted from an-as-yet-unpublished memoir about my career (mostly, my very early career), a book I'm calling Schoolboy.  In 2003, teaching at WRA, I had a medical "event" that stunned me.  Enter "The Raven" and a remarkable you man named Suneil ...

Fall 2003.  Western Reserve Academy.  Hudson, Ohio.

                        Men, for the most part, are strange creatures, truly!

                                                — Moliere, Tartuffe, 1.6

            I’d always intended to memorize “The Raven,” but I’d just never gotten around to it.  I knew others by Poe—“Eldorado,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee.”  Still, whenever I taught Poe, I told my students about this “Raven” ambition of mine.  They seemed mildly interested.  Polite.  One day I realized I was about to turn sixty and still hadn’t learned the lines.  Didn’t look as if I would.

            Then in October, 2003, I was hit with the strangest damn thing.  I came home from school one afternoon, my mouth feeling dry.  So I rinsed it out, but when I tried to spit into the bathroom sink, water went everywhere. What the hell …?  I looked in the mirror.  The right side of my face appeared to be sagging.  I wasn’t sure what was wrong.  But I remembered I’d once had a sinus infection that had caused a similar distortion.  Perhaps another had arrived—though I didn’t feel ill at all.   Just some sharp soreness that was declaring itself behind my right ear and along my right jaw line.

            That night Joyce and I went to the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland to see a production of Tartuffe.  During the show Joyce noticed that my right eye was not blinking.  She was worried.  But afterwards—we stayed for all of it—I insisted on driving home.  (Sometimes I’m nothing if not a stereotypical, mulish American man.)  Still, privately, I was worried, too.  Why can’t I blink?  Every few seconds I had to use a finger to hold my eyelid shut.  If I didn’t, the eyeball dried quickly.  And hurt.

            At home, Joyce wanted to take me to the ER.  I said it was probably just a sinus infection.  I’d wait till morning.

            I slept well.  But I’m not sure how.  Was my eye open all night?  Or did I keep my hand on my eyelid the entire time?  In the morning my face was worse.  The entire right side would not obey a single command.  Frozen.  Dead.  While I was showering (and wondering if I’d had a mild stroke), Joyce called our doctor.  He quickly recognized the symptoms of Bell’s palsy—the paralysis of the facial nerve.  I’d never heard of it.  He told us it was not dangerous but sent us to the ER.  The physician there confirmed the diagnosis, prescribed Prednisone and an anti-viral.  He told me that no one is really sure what causes the condition (perhaps a virus?); there is no cure; it either goes away or it doesn’t.  It might take weeks.  Or months.  It’s like some surreal malady out of a Poe story, you know?  (“The Man with the Frozen Face”?)

            The short course of Prednisone—intended to relieve the swelling and perhaps allow the facial nerve to function again—did nothing for my Bell’s.  But it did erase that Chilkoot-Pass pain in my left knee.  So I canceled the arthroscopic surgery I’d scheduled.  (The pain has not returned.)

            My diary for those early weeks with Bell’s shows my continuing attempts to keep up with my normal activities.  Teaching.  Book-reviewing.  And it was not until a few days after my diagnosis that our family doctor told me I must keep my right eye taped shut, all day, all night, every day.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  I bought gauze eye patches, but underneath I had to secure the eyelid with medical tape.  But the goddamn lid wanted to stay open, and if I didn’t tape it properly, it snapped back up like a disobedient window shade, and I had to re-do it.  I fussed with my eye many times per day.

            We went to see a neurologist in Akron, a guy who didn’t seem too sure what to tell me.  He sent me to an ophthalmologist, who told me one of my options was to sew my eyelid shut.  I was getting frustrated.  Angry.  No one seemed to know what to tell me.  Tape the eye?  Don’t tape it?  Use eye drops?  Don’t use them?  Sew the damn thing shut?  In late October my diary was full of details about the successful or unsuccessful tapings of my eye.

            And there were other nuisances.  I could no longer drive a car.  And because my lips were not cooperating with each other, I had to drink all liquids through a straw—even hot coffee, my constant morning companion.  Although I chewed mostly on the left side of my mouth, food oozed out on the right and chunks of chewings end up caught between my cheek and right jaw bone.  Kissing Joyce became awkward.  It was difficult to talk—my words beginning with f- didn’t sound right.  When I smiled, I looked freakish, and I considered whether it might be better just to put on a Phantom mask and be done with it.

            By mid-November I realized I could not keep teaching.  Using my single eye to survey my class, to read papers, to keep up with the assignments—not to mention my book-reviewing.  (Feeling all day like an effete Polyphêmos.)  Talking remained difficult.  And some of my students were so uncomfortable with me that they avoided looking at me all period.  This was not good.   So I told the Academic Dean I was going to have to go on leave until I started recovering.  Most of my students professed sadness and regret, though I’m sure many were relieved that they didn’t have to look at my freaky face for a while.

            Meanwhile, Joyce’s online research found the Facial Nerve Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, only about a hundred miles away.  She called a specialist there, Dr. Ernest K. Manders, who spoke with her at length.  He agreed to see me on 22 December.  He told me to fast the night before—just in case I elected to undergo a minor surgical procedure.

            Dr. Manders, a wonderful man, was very encouraging.  He thought I would recover most if not all of my facial function.  But it would take time—maybe months, maybe more.  He believed I was a good candidate for an interesting surgery.  He would insert in my right eyelid a tiny gold weight that would permit me to blink properly, would end my daily battles with medical tape.  He performed the operation late that very afternoon.

            It changed my life.  Within a day—once I removed the bandage, once the thick antiseptic ointment dissipated—I had both eyes back.  The world around me once again broadened and deepened.

            But on our way home from the surgery, late in the evening, a mile or two from our house, a deer leapt into the side of our car.  We did not see her at all before the impact—there was no Oh, there’s a deer!  Look out!  Not until impact did we hear and feel her.  Then we saw her limp off into the woods.  Like that deer, our car would never again run just right.  And neither would I.


            While I was recovering over Christmas vacation (now that I could use both eyes, I’d planned to return to teach in mid-January), I received a playful email from Suneil, one of my very fine students.  He was especially gifted in science and math (the other kids looked with awe upon him) but had been doing very strong work in English as well.  His email said something like this: I’ve learned about five stanzas of “The Raven.”  How many do you know?

            Well, goddamn! I thought.  I wrote back to Suneil, told him I was going to start working on the poem, as well.  I promised myself that I would memorize one stanza per day until I’d learned all eighteen of them.  I kept the promise.  And on one of my first days back in class, Suneil and I recited the poem, alternating verses.  I made a couple of mistakes; he made none.  The students applauded.  And Suneil and I had a history.  The following year whenever I saw him on the campus, there was a current between us.  And later, when Joyce and I visited the Poe museum in Richmond, I bought and sent Suneil a necktie adorned with little ravens. 


            As I write this a few years later, I wonder: Why did Suneil do that?  Start on “The Raven”?  Tell me about it?  Did he know how I would respond?  That I would join him in the pursuit of the black bird?  And did Suneil—that bright, sensitive young man—somehow detect a way to heal me? 
            But I have not recovered completely.  I performed the facial exercises the therapist prescribed; I took monthly trips to Pittsburgh for tests on my progress.  Feeling and animation gradually returned to my face.  But during one trip in May 2004 I found that I had made only two percent improvement since the previous visit.  I was discouraged.  I’d been working hard, doing everything I was supposed to.  But I still had a total of just sixty-eight percent function.  I had an appointment for early July.  But, depressed, I canceled it; I have not gone back.  Today, I would guess I’m about at eighty to eighty-five percent.  It’s very unlikely that I will get any better.  I’ve learned to live with it.  To adapt.  People who’ve known me can see the difference, I’m sure, but people I’ve just met probably think I’ve just got a wry smile, a lazy eyelid.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

O'Hara's Letters, Part I

I've read the first 100 pages of Selected Letters of John O'Hara and have arrived at 1935 and the publication of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, a novel that many still believe is the best he ever wrote (it is quite good).  Many of the early letters are to a friend from his Pottsville days, Robert Simonds, to whom young O'Hara writes frankly about sex (he likes it), booze (he likes it), jobs (he doesn't like them: indulging heavily in the two former "likes" results in repeated firings--from newspapers, PR firms, magazines).

What's astonishing to me is that this young man--who did not graduate from high school, who never took a college course, who drank himself blind night after night, who could not hold a job--had taught himself, principally through his voracious reading, how to write.  From the very beginning, he had enormous confidence in himself, and after getting fired from some local newspapers, headed to New York City, where he talked his way onto the staffs of the New York Herald Tribune, Life, and Time (not all at once), was fired from all of them, yet ended up at the New Yorker, where he would one day become their most prolific contributor.  He became friends almost immediately with Dorothy Parker (who encouraged him repeatedly) and others; he was corresponding with F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose work O'Hara adored--he called Tender Is the Night "one of the great books of the world" and thought Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms "the greatest love story ever written") (90, 92).  He became close friends with New Yorker staffer Wolcott Gibbs and in honor of his friend renamed his hometown of Pottsville "Gibbsville" in some of his greatest fiction.

He also wrote frequent, encouraging letters to his younger brother Thomas, who also wanted a writing career.  (And ended up a journalist.)

The O'Hara that emerges in these early letters (he was about 30 when I quit for the day) is a far more generous, self-effacing, and, well, honest person than the older O'Hara (I'll write about this later).

Something to end with: His father, a physician, died quickly of Bright's Disease in 1925 (when O'Hara was 20).  John rushed home to be with him--and afterwards wrote this to his friend Simonds: "On Monday he recognized me for the last time."  And at the very end, "He opened his mouth as though to say something and then his head fell" (13).

Oh my ...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

O'Hara in High School: Niagara Prepartory School

The Niagara Preparatory School, a high school operated in conjunction with the university and as old as the university itself, was discontinued in 1927. 

In his richly detailed biography of O'Hara, The O'Hara Concern (1975), Matthew J. Bruccoli includes a photocopy of the graduation program for O'Hara's class--the graduation he surrendered when he was caught drunk the night before the ceremony.  His parents had traveled by train all the way from Pottsville, PA (O'Hara's hometown in eastern PA), and his physician  father was so upset that he sent his son home on a separate train.  Maybe he was afraid he'd hurl the young man through a window somewhere in the Alleghenies (preferably, on a bridge over a raging river).  Dreams of Yale were over, and O'Hara never went to college.

By the way, the photo on the cover of the biography shows O'Hara in his study at Linebrook, his home in Princeton, NJ.  That study has been reassembled at Penn State in the special collections library--all items donated by O'Hara's daughter.  I had the thrill of sitting in that chair by that very typewriter on a visit last fall.  And I also got to see what the Linebrook study looks like now: It's still a study in a home owned by a Princeton professor of philosophy, who kindly let me tour and photograph the house last fall.  Here are the two studies: On the left is the PSU replica; on the right, the study today at Linebrook ...

Anyway (studies aside), the program for O'Hara's graduation (where he would have been honored as valedictorian, had he not been on a lonely train back to Pottsville) notes that he was also the "Class Poet," a long tradition at graduations--high school and college--that, for the most part, has vanished.  In my own graduation experiences at Hiram High School, Hiram College, Kent State University, and the many I attended as a faculty member at Western Reserve Academy, no class poets.  Some famous writers have held that slot, including Edna St. Vincent Millay (Vassar), though she also nearly didn't graduate when she sneaked off campus and partied in NYC.  The Vassar authorities caught her, but because her name was already on the program, they let her go ahead and participate, figuring it was too embarrassing to have to explain the sad situation to all the proud parents.  I'd love to know what the Niagara administrators said at what would have been O'Hara's graduation?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

John O'Hara, continued

Today, I finished two short O'Hara publications.  The first was from 1925 when O'Hara, just twenty years old, was working as a cub reporter at his hometown Pottsville (Pa.) Journal.  He was home doing penance.  He had been the valedictorian of his high school class--at Niagara Preparatory School--but was not allowed to graduate because, well, he got drunk and was caught.  His father, a physician in Pottsville, had wanted his son to follow in his career, but he refused to let him continue on to Yale (the Family Plan) until he worked a year to prove himself.  Well, he proved two things that year: he could write; he loved to drink.  And he never did go to Yale.

Anyway, that year (1925) the paper celebrated its centennial with a special issue, and young O'Hara wrote a piece "A Cub Tells His Story," a piece that would have vanished along with all of his other work for that paper (the archive at the paper is missing many years)--except people saved that anniversary issue.  In 1974--four years after his death--scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli published O'Hara's piece in a special limited edition (just 150 cc--and, yes, I have one!).  It's full of youthful enthusiasm and easy irony.  But the young man can write, no question about it.  Near the end, he wrote: "I have every hope of winning a Pulitzer Prize [he didn't--though he won a National Book Award], and if I ever get to it, I intend to write the Great American Novel [he didn't do that, either--but he wrote some good ones]."

The other piece is a speech he made at the Library of Congress in 1957 in a series called Three Views of the Novel.  The two other speakers were Irving Stone and MacKinlay Kantor.  From all accounts, he was not an effective speaker (I've ordered some audio recordings of him--and will let you know!), but the written version shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of O'Hara.  He could be witty and self-deprecating (he said that he didn't have the time to read much besides newspapers and magazines); he could be appreciative of others (especially Hemingway and Faulkner in this speech); he could be bitter (the last couple of pages are about how stupid book reviewers are ... hmmmmm ...); he could be insightful (he did not believe there were very many readers of good books in America); he could be disorganized--the price he paid for composing at the typewriter and not revising.  Practically in mid-thought (about censorship), he suddenly writes: "I think we are overlegislated as it is, and not only in the book world, and I think it is also time for me to say thank you and let you go home.  Thank you, and good night" (29).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Journey with John O'Hara

Today, I finished reading the final piece of fiction that John O'Hara (1905-1970) was working on when he died on April 11.  He actually wrote on the day he died--his custom was to write late at night and sleep all morning (that way, no one bothered him when he was at the typewriter).  He had tentatively titled this novel The Second Ewings, a sequel to his earlier novel--which takes place in Cleveland, by the way--The Ewings.  (Bill Ewing is a rising star in finance; his wife, Edna, is from Michigan.  In the first novel, they meet, marry, are happy; in the sequel, they start taking off their clothes with people to whom they are not married--can you imagine?

O'Hara was a one-draft writer--typing (on yellow paper) on a manual typewriter, then doing a very light copy-edit (adding a word or two, fixing typos) before sending the pages directly to Random House, his career-long publisher.  Scholar Matthew Bruccoli, an O'Hara biographer and collector, decided to publish The Second Ewings as a typescript, so in 1977 here came The Second Ewings in a box of seventy-four yellow sheets (he had finished only seventy-four pages of the novel). 

The novel is not every good, I fear--though O'Hara had not really written anything too terribly good in a while.  He was proud of his ability to write quickly (he had been a journalist--and had various journalism assignments throughout his life), and he needed to be a little less proud of it.  But ... his works sold well, no matter what.  And that made him rich--but, I fear, it also made him lazy.  Yes, he was a very disciplined writer (every night, no matter what), but in other ways he was very undisciplined, refusing to accept editorial suggestions, disdaining other writers, feeling screwed that he never won the Nobel Prize.  He considered himself the equal of Hemingway and Faulkner; he wasn't.

Still, he wrote some great short stories, and some of his early novels (Appointment in Samaraa, for example) I really like.

In future posts, I'll write more about O'Hara and my journey through his complete works, which is nearing its end.  All that remains are his uncollected journalism (I copied a bunch of it from magazines and microfilm in the library), his published letters, and some odds-n-ends (speeches, monographs).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Edgar Poe
On Poe's birthday (19 January) I pause to remember.  Below is an excerpt from an as-yet-unpublished YA biography of Poe, a text I wrote a few years ago but just have not worked hard enough to publish.  When I wrote it, the "Poe Toaster" was still showing up each year--I even had plans to zoom down to Baltimore one year and witness the visit; as I write these words, he has just failed to appear for the third straight year--and will probably not appear again.  So a weird tradition evanesces ...
I think I first learned of Poe from a deck of cards.  When I was a kid, we owned a simple card game called Authors.  (You can still find them--old sets on eBay, new ones on Amazon.)  Our set had cards for Stevenson, Twain, Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Scott, Alcott (Louisa May), and Poe. You dealt the cards; players took turns asking other players if they had a certain card (each author had four cards; each card featured one title; when you got all titles for that writer, you had a "book"; when all cards are gone, player having most books wins.

Later, of course, I read Poe in school, taught him.  One year, at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, I directed a production of Snoopy, the sequel to You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown; in Snoopy is a great song--"Edgar Allan Poe."  Here's a YouTube link to that song: "Edgar Allan Poe"  I liked that song so much, I used it as well in the last Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show that I directed in the spring of 1996, just before I retired.

Oh, and Poe was the subject of the first PowerPoint I ever did--with massive help of WRA students Rishi Dhingra and Matt Francis (class of 2003).

And now, this (unpublished) book ...

Prologue: The Mysterious Midnight Visitor
Once upon a midnight dreary […].
                        — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” 1845

            The temperature was right around freezing early in the morning of 19 January 2008.   A little warmer than average.  Certainly not as bad as 1994 when it was five below zero.  But even the worst weather—cold, rain, sleet, snow—does not keep away the mysterious midnight visitor to the Old Westminster Burying Ground in downtown Baltimore.  Since 1949 he’s arrived every 19 January, always in the small hours after midnight.

            In the daytime, the cemetery corner is fairly busy.  Cars and trucks and pedestrians hurry to their destinations.  In the summer, tourist buses pass by, the guides telling about this very old church (1852) and the even older cemetery (1786).  Surrounding the burial ground is a high brick wall with iron gates—locked all night.  Inside lie the remains of some famous people.  And one of them is among the most famous in all of American history.  His very name sounds like a line of poetry.

            No, bad weather does not discourage the graveyard’s midnight visitor.  Nor does it discourage any in the small crowd who gather there each year.  In 2008, about 150 people quietly waited well past midnight to see if the mysterious visitor would continue his annual tradition.  Some in the crowd were worried about what had happened just a couple of years earlier.

            In 2006 there had been a disturbance.  Some in the crowd hadn’t wanted to just watch and wonder.  They’d wanted the identity of the visitor.  So they’d tried to scramble over the brick wall, tried to nab the mysterious man.  But that year—like all other years—he’d somehow slipped away.  Only one photograph of him has been published—a shadowy image in the July 1990 issue of LIFE magazine.  Hardly any of his face is visible.  Not enough to identify him.

            But in 2007 and 2008 the crowd was more respectful.  No wild attempts at a capture.  People just watched silently and hoped they’d catch a glimpse of him as he placed three red roses on the grave, opened a bottle of cognac, and toasted the grave’s inhabitant.  They knew he would leave the bottle behind, then disappear into the night.

            The name carved into that marble tomb in that Baltimore cemetery—that so very famous and poetic name—is Edgar Allan Poe.  Also there are the names and remains of two other people: his beloved wife and aunt.  But it is Edgar Allan Poe’s name that draws thousands of visitors each year.  It is Edgar Allan Poe whom the guides on the buses talk about.  And it is Edgar Allan Poe, born on 19 January, who attracts the mysterious midnight visitor every year.  It is Edgar Allan Poe to whom the visitor raises a glass of cognac.  And because of that toast, the mystery man is known now as the “Poe Toaster.”  Newspapers all over the country report his annual visit.  

            But hasn’t America always toasted Edgar Allan Poe?  Always honored him?  After all, hasn’t everyone today heard of him?  Three places where he lived—in three different states—are now museums.  We can buy his books in just about every bookstore in the country.  Surely we have always saluted the author of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Mask of the Red Death.”  One of his poems, “The Raven,” is so well known that Baltimore’s NFL team chose “Ravens” for a name in 1996.

            But during Poe’s very short and very sad life (1809–1849) he achieved only modest celebrity and no wealth.  Yes, people in the literary world—publishers and other writers—knew who he was.  Yes, he had devoted fans.  And, yes, “The Raven” and some of his other writings were very popular with readers for a while.  But when he died in a Baltimore hospital—of mysterious causes in mysterious circumstances—the news stories were small, and his name soon disappeared from the papers.

            Poe never had much money.  From his late teens to the end of his days, he was almost always desperately poor.  Always in debt.  He never owned a house.  Never owned a carriage or a horse.  Almost always lived in small, barely furnished rooms in dreary buildings with no running water.  Always had to borrow from friends and admirers.  In his days of deepest poverty he could carry in his hands everything that he owned.  When he died, there was no money to pay for his burial.  Only a handful of people attended his brief funeral.  The impressive marble tomb and the worldwide fame and the museums and tour buses and the Poe Toaster—all of these would come years later.

            This is the story of Edgar Allan Poe.  The facts of his life.  Where he came from.  What his family was like.  Where he went to school.  Where he lived and worked and wrote.    Who his friends, his enemies, his colleagues, his lovers were.  What he wrote about.  How he lived, how he died.

            This is also the story of a man whose reputation does not fit the facts.  When many think of Poe, they think of a madman, a drunk, a drug-user.  But, this image is a grotesque exaggeration.  Through most of his professional life he was a hard-working,  highly productive writer and editor.  He simply could not have accomplished all that he did if he had been a staggering addict.  Yes, there were troubled times in his life—periods of madness, periods of substance abuse—but there were far fewer than those times when he sat alone at a table and labored long and hard to produce some of this country’s finest poetry, fiction, and essays.

            Finally, this is also the story of how a child named only Edgar Poe—and always called Eddie (or Eddy) by his family—became Edgar Allan Poe, the dark genius whose tales of horror and mystery and deep sorrow continue to frighten and entertain and sadden readers more than 150 years after his lonely death in that Baltimore hospital in 1849.

© Daniel Dyer


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ripped, Part II

Nin's comment on the blog made me think about this: When I was a kid in the 1950s, the only people in movies (or TV) who kicked the asses of White Guys were other White Guys.  And dogs (Rin Tin Tin).

In the 60s and 70s that changed: Black Guys kicked the asses of White Guys; so did Asian Guys; so did All-over-the-World Guys.

Then ... it was the turn of Women to kick the asses of White Guys (remember Mr. and Mrs. Smith?).  And, recently, how about Salt?  And countless other films.

And in the past couple of years, Little Girls are kicking the asses of White Guys.  See Kick-Ass?  And Hanna last year?

What's next? Parakeets? Gerbils? Asparagus?'

Pity the poor White Guy, his ass kicked by every form of life.

Is Everyone Ripped but Me?

Well, this is only marginally on topic (if this were an Ohio Proficiency Test in writing, Grade 8, I'd fail for drifting off the subject, as some of the finest writers I ever taught sometimes did).

Last night Joyce and I saw Young Adult, the new film about a divorcee (Charlize Theron) who writes YA novels (though the series she's been doing is about to come to an end).  She decides to act on a fantasy: returning to her hometown to recapture her lost high school love, who now is happily married with a new baby.  All along the way we see her life collapsing: she drinks heavily, eats piles of junk food.  And yet ...

When she takes off her her clothes, she is ... hot!  Nary an ounce of fat.

Over the past decade or so, I've noticed that whenever movie/TV actors remove their clothing, they are in better shape than Babe Ruth or Mickey Lolich or most people ever were.  (Exceptions: character actors who are supposed to be chubby, chunky, old, all the above.)  Think of Don Draper on Mad Men: Here's a guy who drinks heavily, eats horribly, never seems to sleep (alone), but when he removes that shirt ...

Not long ago I watched the old 1972 Sam Peckinpah film The Getaway (remade not too long ago with Alec Baldwin).  McQueen plays a guy who's been in prison for a while, and when he comes out and is in a motel with his GF (Ali McGraw), he is nervous and has trouble, uh, producing.  And when he takes his shirt off, he looks ... like a real person.  Just an ordinary torso, unremarkable arms.  Why, he could be ... any of us.

But when stars today disrobe, they look like aliens to me--like no one I know, or ever have known, or could know.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I did not actually have to teach the novel until I returned to Western Reserve Academy in 2001.  I'd retired from the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools in January 1997 and had spent the intervening years researching and writing a YA biography of Mary Shelley (more about those adventures later ...).  Now ... I needed money again.  And I missed teaching.  Missed kids.

The Scarlet Letter, as I said in earlier post, shocked me when I first read it.  The minister!  No way!  But by the time I was teaching it in the first decade of the 21st century, my students were not surprised at all; in fact, they were predicting it practically from the opening pages.  And why not?  They'd come of age in a culture full of news stories about philandering clergy; they'd watched countless movies and TV shows in which the preacher/priest/whatever was just about always the Guilty Guy.  So the trembling Arthur Dimmesdale, to them, was practically wearing a (red) (neon) sign that proclaimed: I'M THE GUY!  I'M PEARL'S FATHER!  HESTER AND I DID IT!

Back at Adams, 2004
I don't know why it took me so long to realize a personal connection between Hester and me.  Back in Enid, Oklahoma, where I grew up, I attended Adams Elementary School.  The symbol of the school?  A big red A with wings!  (The wings symbolizing Adams' dominance, in my day, of the city-wide track-and-field festival called the Little Olympics.  The one year I competed, I earned only a red ribbon, second place in the 50-yard shuttle relay.  I was the first runner for our side, and I got so far behind, right from the start, that even our fastest runners could not make up the difference.  My dad, a major track star in high school, was in the stands, watching his track hopes burn to a cinder out there in the Sooner sun.)

There is a moment in the novel that affected me deeply, every time I taught the book--every time I even think about the moment, actually.  It's near the end.  Hester and Arthur are in the woods, where Hester has surprised him on his return from a mission.  Pearl in running around playing, being a pain (as usual).  Hester is urging Arthur to leave Boston--why hang around and suffer?  He sort of whines and whimpers.  "Do anything, save to lie down and die!" she tells him.  "Give up the name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another ....  Up, and away!"

He whimpers some more. Then says: "There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!"  A pause.  Then "Alone, Hester!" 

"'Thou shalt not go alone!' answered she, in a deep whisper.

Then, all was spoken!"

I got goose flesh every time I read that scene, every time we read the moment aloud in class.  What a gesture!  To see--in the depths of your despair, in the hopelessness you feel--a hand reaching for you, a voice saying "Thou shalt not go alone!"

I told my students, every year: "You will never read a better definition of love."

By the time the students got to that moment, they were pretty involved with the story--even though, as I said, they had known for many pages about fornicating Arthur.  But the problem for all teachers of the novel is the "Custom House" section that comprises thirty-eight pages in the edition we used.  Thirty-eight pages!  I tried all sorts of things to enliven those pages, which, on multiple readings, I actually found entertaining.  Not so my students.  The sentences are long, labyrinthine, dense, sophisticated, chockablock with vocabulary they don't know (truculency, rankling, besom, and on and on). 

And so I tried reading it aloud.  I tried giving certain kids responsibility for certain pages to explain to the rest of us.  I tried skipping all but the part toward the end where the narrator discovers the scarlet letter upstairs in the Custom House.  I tried assigning it like any other text--"Read this; quiz tomorrow."  Nothing really worked.  The last time I taught the book--the fall of 2010--I divided pages among the kids, had them deal with those pages only.  I'm not sure how valuable it was, but it surely made the section go more quickly ...

Young Hawthorne
Next time: Chasing Hawthorne's story--visiting his homes and gravesite in Concord ...

Thursday, January 12, 2012


A bit more of my first experience teaching Hawthorne, the first day of my student teaching back in January 1966.  I refer to "Mike Furillo" in the excerpt.  He was a former colleague of my mom's in Garrettsville, but he was now teaching science at West Geauga and had kindly agreed to drive me to school (and home) every day.  He had a little VW Bug, and I learned a tremendous amount from Mike, going and coming those winter days ...


            After Home Room I had barely a moment before classes began to write Mr. Dyer in chalk on the board.  To let them know who I was.  They had already seen me, of course, a week or so before.  When I’d visited.  Frank had introduced me.  But most would surely not remember me.

            They didn’t.

            In my first class—after I checked the roster—I started with a question: What were you supposed to do for today?

            A few voices tried Nothing, but they were friendly voices.  This was a college-prep section.  Bright kids.  They wanted to do the right thing.  Somehow I knew I was not in trouble, not this period anyway.

            So I smiled.  Nothing?  Really?  That sounds pretty challenging.

            Some students laughed.  Most were smiling.  I think you were supposed to read “The Birthmark.”  Am I right?

            Sounds of assent.

            And did Mr. Abbott tell you to look for anything specific in the story?  To do anything.


            Well—and this may be the very moment when my head popped above the surface, the moment I knew I would not drown, not yet—who would like to just give us a quick summary of “The Birthmark”?

            Hands went up.  Hands are up!  I am teaching!

            It was an emotional, even intimate moment—like the first time a girl you like accepts a date, returns a kiss, cries at your cruelty.


            The class did not go all that well.  There were moments when I didn’t know what to do next, what to say, what to ask.  The clock moved slowly.  But we generally got along.  There were things to talk about in the story, things the students were willing to talk about—love, dissatisfaction, loss.  The human desire to change others—and the consequences of it all.  We talked a little about similarities between “The Birthmark” and other Hawthorne stories they’d read.

            The next period was free for me.  I went to the teachers’ lounge, poured a cup of coffee, lit up a cigarette, and settled in to read “The Birthmark.”  I would be more ready for the next classes.


            On the way home that night, Mike Furillo just shook his head when I told him what had happened.  He didn’t tell me that Frank—and the school—had fucked me over.  But somehow I knew he thought they had.

            Next morning, a very frisky Frank—a very healthy Frank—was at school.  All smiles.  How did it go?

            Fine.  I told him a little of what we’d done.  He nodded now and then.

            I always do that, you know, he said.

            Do what?

            Call in sick the first day I have a student teacher.  I just looked at him.  Sink or swim, he said.  Sink or swim.  He looked at me.  Guess you didn’t drown, eh?

            No, Frank.  I swam the fucking Hellespont.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Of Scarlet Letters and Social Fetters

My mother taught The Scarlet Letter at James A. Garfield High School in Garrettsville, Ohio, during her tenure there between 1956-1966.  I remember seeing her copy on the dining room table.  I was not curious enough to pick it up and read it.

When I finally did read it--in college--I remember being horrified that the minister had committed fornication.  The minister!  This was shocking to me for any number of reasons.  I'd grown up in a much more puritanical time (Ozzie and Harriet was still on television; no one cursed in Hollywood movies--not even bad guys whom John Wayne had just shot in the guts.)  And my own family history was profoundly religious.  My grandfather was a Disciples of Christ minister and professor in a seminary; so was my uncle; my dad was ordained, as well.  There was even a time when I majored in philosophy at Hiram College (one term only; Hegel cured me), thinking that I would follow the family tradition.  But after that single term I realized I preferred sin and reading novels, so I shifted my major to English, which accommodated both of my interests.

I didn't teach Hawthorne in the Aurora Schools (I had mostly 7th and 8th graders), but when I did my student teaching at West Geauga High School the winter months of 1966, I walked right into Hawthorne, as the following excerpt from an unpublished (and now copyrighted!) memoir shows.  I begin with a brief description of my supervising teacher (whose name I've changed) and of my first experience observing, then teaching, his class of juniors:

He was short, slender, fortyish, wore glasses, looked scholarly, had thick copper hair, a ruddy pitted complexion.  That day he was teaching a Hawthorne story—“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”—the one about the old doctor who gives some water from the fountain of youth to four of his aged friends (three men and a woman), who drink it down ever more greedily as they discover they are growing younger with each swallow.  The men begin competing aggressively for the attentions of the now-younger, now-sexier woman.  But in their exuberance, they accidentally break the glass container holding the elixir, and slowly, inexorably, they return to their bitter old age.

            But earlier, while they were prancing around, sly Hawthorne says:

Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.

            Frank began class that day by asking if any of the girls had a mirror.  They all did.  He asked if he could borrow one a minute.  A girl in the front row dug one out of her purse, handed it to him.  He held it to her face and asked, What do you see?  She said, Myself.  He did the same thing to another kid. What do you see?  Reply: Myself.  He did it several more times.  The kids, initially puzzled, were now getting amused.  And then Frank stopped.  You all said you saw yourselves, right?  Pause.  Sounds of agreement.  Are you sure?  Does the mirror really show you your self?  Pause.  Let’s see what Hawthorne says.

            I thought it was the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen.  Those kids were engaged.  They were interested.  They talked all period about youth and age, about self-deception and vanity.  I loved it but was already wondering if I could possibly come up with something that effective—day after day after day.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

            I was also wondering about two huge guys sitting clear in the back of the room, yards away from the rest of us.  I’d noticed them when I’d first come in the room, of course, but I did not look long.  In black leather jackets, blue jeans, heavy boots, they resembled those thuggish characters whom cops kill in the movies.  Either one of them could have kicked my ass without the slightest effort.  Frank’s too.  Both of ours at once?  No problem.  But these two ignored me, ignored Frank and the class.  Talked quietly with each other.  Chortled now and then.  Paged through magazines.  Dozed a little. 

            Afterwards, I gushed my approval of the lesson to Frank, who glowed with pleasure.  Then I asked about the two behemoths in the back.

            Oh, them.  We have an arrangement.  If they sit there and cause no trouble, I’ll pass them.


            When I arrived for my first official day of duty at West Geauga High School, I looked in Frank’s room.  No one there yet.  I stopped in the main office.  Are you Mr. Dyer? asked a secretary.  I smiled, still unaccustomed to that appellation.  (Mr. Dyer!  It sounded so … adult.  My dad’s name!)


            Mr. Abbott is ill and won’t be in today.

            I wondered what that meant.  Wondered who would substitute.  Wondered, even, if I could go home—call Dad for a ride.  I started thinking about my bed.

            His plans are on his desk.

            I still didn’t get it.  What should I do?

            She smiled.  I’m sure he’s left adequate plans for you.

            For me?

            Yes, you will be covering his classes today.

             I looked at the clock.  Five minutes till Home Room.  On the desk was a manila folder.  Inside it were his class rosters and seating charts.  And a single sheet of paper with a scrawled note.  Do “The Birthmark” today.  It’s in the book.  See you tomorrow.  F. A.

            “The Birthmark,” another Hawthorne story that I’d read three years earlier and not since.  I looked at the clock.

            Two minutes.

            I found the teacher’s edition of the anthology, located the story, skimmed it.

            One minute.

            A loud, jarring bell, then students were trickling into the room.  Staring at me.  I tried to look friendly, competent, authoritarian, not-to-be-fucked-with.  Most of the guys were much bigger than I.  Some of the girls were very sexy.  (I was only three or four years older.)  I fiercely kept my eyes away from anything but their faces.

            I had no idea what to do during Home Room period.  So I asked someone small and timorous.  You need to take attendance, he said.  I removed the class lists and seating charts from the folder.  There’s slips in the drawer, the kind little fellow added.


            Slips in the drawer.  He pointed.  Attendance slips.  You send one to the office … with one of us.

            Oh.  I found one, called the roll.  (Laughter when I mispronounced a name.)

            I filled out the slip, then stood there, unsure what to do next.

            So I asked the small and timorous one to take it.

            It’s not his turn! bellowed some beast from the back.

            Oh?  Whose turn is it?

            Mine! roared Beast.

            Is not! came cries from around the room.

            You take it, I told the small and timorous one.

            Take it and you’re dead! promised Beast.

            We’ll have no threats in this room! I said, wondering if I would have to fight for my life my first five minutes.  The room grew moderately quiet.  They had not yet sensed my weakness and were unsure how to proceed.  Beast was making a decision.  I waited.  Then he shrugged and put his head down on the desk and appeared to go to sleep.

            Here.  Smiling, I handed the slip to the small, timorous one.  Who took it reluctantly, headed for the hallway.
            Later, I wondered: What would have happened if Beast had elected to feed rather than sleep?