Tuesday, January 31, 2012
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
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Today, a story from my classroom--cut and pasted from an-as-yet-unpublished memoir about my career (mostly, my very early career), a book I'm calling Schoolboy.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 ...
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
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
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
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]."
Friday, January 20, 2012
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
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 ...
Saturday, January 14, 2012
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.
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
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|
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 ...
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 ...
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
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:
TO BE CONTINUED ...