Dawn Reader

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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fear in the Schoolhouse

I went to junior high and high school in Hiram, Ohio, only about twenty miles away from Chardon, whose students experienced this week the latest of what seems to be an endless series of murders in places that are supposed to be our secular sanctuaries.  Deadly violence in a schoolhouse seems a most brutal desecration.

What ensues also fits a pattern: an eruption of grief, followed by a brief, evanescent unity in our community, our nation.  And then comes the finger-pointing.  Pointing  a finger--analogous, of course, to pointing a pistol.

Of Chardon, we've already heard about bullying, about a fracture of some sort in the home, about the proliferation of firearms, about the ocean of violence that washes over our country--television, movies, music, computer games.  About our poisonous, polarized political climate.  Our wars.  Our ...

I don't want to write about any of this.  Investigations are already underway, and it is the people of Chardon who must find ways to, simultaneously, forget and never forget.

Instead, it's the whole idea of fear in the schoolroom that has long appalled me--from my own boyhood and adolescence through my 45-year teaching career.

Some of my earliest school memories are scarlet with fear. I was not a big child--and I was afraid of bigger kids.  The boy in fifth grade who kept hitting me on the legs with a stick until I had to fight or run; I fought and lost and wept.  The high school boy (when I was in junior high) who would routinely wipe his feet on my white shoes. Daring me.   I could do nothing.  Trying to go unnoticed in the hallways when I was among the youngest in the building.  Safety lay, I knew, in invisibility.

And, of course, I was no saint, either.  I remember with great regret and horror the things I said and did to classmates farther down the totem pole of fear than I.

Things about the school itself frightened me in the early 1950s at Adams School in Enid, Oklahoma.  We all knew that the principal, Miss Hinshawe, kept in her desk a piece of rubber hose that she used on kids for ... well, for anything!  (No one had actually ever seen it--but we knew it was there.)

And as the Cold War accelerated, we practiced in our classrooms what we would do in the event of an atomic attack.  As this photo very realistically shows, when the warning came, we had to get under our desks and cover our heads.  I remember feeling somehow safe in that position.  Nothing could hurt me there, hidden, covered.

And, of course, there were the periodic fire drills.  As a student, I hated getting in line, being silent, marching outside, standing silently while the teacher called the roll.  I thought it was all so silly.  I could outrun a fire.  Fear, I knew already, fueled me to a startling extent--I once outran a much bigger and faster kid who was chasing me and crying out dreadful promises about what he would do when he caught me.  Which he didn't.  I made it to our front door.  Ran upstairs to my room. Safe.

Later, a teacher, I dreaded fire drills, as well.  They always seemed to come when I had a busy agenda.  I hated insisting on silence, on the military march to the playground.  But I knew by then that I couldn't outrun fire.  I couldn't outrun anything that could kill.

Even farther along in my career came the tornado drills.  Even though I had grown up in Oklahoma and on humid spring days had seen worry on the face of my father, a man who, I thought, feared nothing, we had never had any drills at school.  It was just part of living in the Southwest, I guess.  And after all, Dorothy had done all right up there in Kansas.  When required tornado drills came to Ohio schools, I found them terrifying--though my middle school students, most of them, seemed more annoyed than frightened.  (Though there were always kids whose eyes sought mine in silence: Is this real?  Will I be hurt?)  At Harmon School in Aurora, Ohio, I had to take my students down to the basement level for our tornado drills.  Keep them silent.  Line them up, kneeling, facing the wall.  And wait ...

And then, at last, in the wake of the school shootings at Columbine High School: lockdowns.

When I was teaching at Western Reserve Academy, we had periodic lockdown drills.  A piercing alarm.  A step into the hall to lock the door.  An order to the kids: move out of sight.  Be silent.  Wait.  We would hear footsteps in the hall--we could not look.  It was surely the security officers, just checking ...  Right?

Even when I knew these drills were coming, they still frightened me.  Death in a school hallway.  A classroom.  The very thought is obscene.

But I also knew this.  No drills, no security, no technology can stop a determined killer.  Presidents can fall.  So can schoolchildren.  A metal-detector at the doorway?  It would mean only that the shooting would start sooner.

A few years ago, I was back in Enid for a visit.  I wanted to walk through Adams School again, to see the halls, the classrooms, the playground.  I wanted some pictures.  I knew I would have to stop first in the school office and report.

I immediately tried to diminish the secretary's worry.  I told her I'd been a student at Adams a half-century ago.  My parents had met and married in Enid--my mother had gone to Adams.  I told her I was a writer now.  Had published some books.  And I was at work on a memoir about my boyhood in Enid.  She smiled, sort of.  Handed me a visitor's badge.   But then she saw my camera.  "You cannot take any pictures," she said with school-secretary-sharpness.  "We can't frighten the children."

We can't frighten the children.

I was out in the hallway when some classes changed.  Third and fourth graders flooded out into the hall.  Some looked at me with alarm.  Is he dangerous?


There are few images that hurt and haunt us more than a frightened child.  A wounded child.  A murdered one.

We need to do everything we can to reduce fear in our homes, schools, communities and country.  We need to teach--in every way we can--that violence against one another is no solution to anything.  When we're afraid, we can't learn.  We can't even live, not in ways we want to, the ways we dream of.  And there are just so many things we need to do to diminish fear in our lives, in our children's and students' lives.  We know what those things are.

But I am afraid--afraid--that we do not have anything like the will or the courage to enact any but the easiest of them.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

You ANIMAL, You!

A recent word-of-the-day on dictionary.com (hircine = like a goat) brought back some memories ...  Here's the word:

And here's the story ...

Back in the fall of 1980, I was basically unemployed.  I'd resigned from Western Reserve Academy in a salary snit, figuring I'd easily get another job.  I didn't.

Fortunately, the local bookshop, the Learned Owl, took me on as a clerk (where I learned the true meaning of Minimum Wage), and Kent State let me teach freshman English to a couple of sections.  Money was a real problem that year.

I thought I could greatly supplement our income with writing (that didn't work out so well, either), and one of the projects I'd thought of was a children's book.  I had in mind a little story about a little boy (named Stevie--what a coincidence! my own son's name--he was eight at the time) who becomes fascinated with the words we have for animal qualities.

Most people know words like asinine and canine and feline.  But I found dozens of other words--like sciurine (squirrel), cuculine (cuckoo), cricetine (hamster), and otarine (sea lion).  I can't remember now how I came up with this idea.  But it's my custom to look up words I don't know when I come across them in my reading, so I'd probably read one, then wondered if there were others, and like that ...

One problem with a children's book: I can't draw for squat.  I've known it since kindergarten when other kids' crayon-on-manila-paper drawings actually looked like things I'd seen.  Mine looked like things no one had seen--no one sane.  And one time--bitter with envy--I marred a classmate's drawing while he was at the pencil-sharpener.  He had drawn a very nice-looking little boy; I added some feces falling from his rear.  (Hey, I was five!)

When the little boy came back to his seat, he was, well, chagrined.  And for the first time in my life, someone told the teacher on me.  (It was not--by far--the last time.)  And this wonderful woman, Mrs. Dugan, came over, saw what I had done, and instead of sending me to solitary in the cloakroom--or drawing and quartering me--she took a brown crayon and converted the nasty string of lumps into a very nice brown fence for the boy to sit on.  I was dazzled.

So .... I couldn't draw then; I can't draw now.  But I had a friend and former colleague who was an artist, and she agreed to talk with me about this children's book project.

So I wrote up a little story about Stevie and the animal words.  A few sample stanzas below:

Young Stevie wished for many things,
As young boys often do.
He wished for friends who never moved,
For toys that stayed brand-new.

He often wished that he could grow
Much faster than he did.
It seemed that he would always be
So short, so slow--a kid.

Well, little Stevie likes the library, and one day while he's there, he finds a "strange old book."  It was full of the animal words.

So little Stevie goes home and imagines himself being various animals--and using the weird words to help him think about it.  A couple of stanzas ...

If I were phocine [like a seal], Stevie thought,
I'd strike a funny pose:
I'd sit with Dad's big basketball
Internet image of a Dolphin Boy
A-spinning on my nose.


But being delphine would be nice--
Go swimming every day!--
And I could translate for the world
What dolphins really say!


You get the idea.  Well, my artist friend had some reservations (can't say I blame her), and lives changed, and people move on,and I put the list of words and the rough draft in a folder, labeled it, dated it (September 1980), and mostly forgot all about it ... until hircine came along from dictionary.com.

Any of you artists types out there interested in maybe resurrecting this thirty-year-old idea?


A correction from yesterday: I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that Curveball Laughs and Straw-Berras and Cream were not two separate books; the latter was a chapter in the former.  Oops.

And from an even earlier post--about the state of Ohio refusing to re-certify me to teach English in public schools when I carelessly let my certificate lapse in 1997--here are a couple of  actual quotations from that letter, all errors remaining (I've italicized a couple of things, lest your roaming eyes miss them):

"The fact that you hold advance degree's has no bearing on the implementation of the standards ....  I am enclosing a brochure [there was no brochure] with the information you will need to renew you certificate."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Kid Who Batted 1.000

When my younger brother Dave and I were but wee lads (he's four years younger, but I was [am?] equally immature), we liked to read baseball books for kids.  Biographies (Gehrig, Ruth), novels (The Kid Comes Back by John R. Tunis was one of my favorites)--even joke books (Straw-Berras and Cream and Curveball Laughs we both liked.)

One of Dave's favorites was a tiny tome called The Kid Who Batted 1.000, by Bob Allison and Frank Ernest Hill.  (You can still get this 1951 masterpiece on Amazon!  And a first printing on ABE goes for $150.)  Kid told the story of a ... kid named Dave King, whose ambition is to raise chickens.  He has the ability to hit baseballs foul--and he's invented a salve made of chicken fat.

Well, the Chicks are a cellar-dwelling major league team with a sore-armed pitcher, Pretzels Litzenberg, who's been sent out into the country to find some new baseball talent.  He finds Dave, who lets him use his salve on his sore arm.  It heals!  He fires some fastballs at Dave--just to see--and the kid fouls them all off.  So, what the hell, he signs him to a contract.  One stipulation: He gets to take with him his pet rooster, Hobomok.

Well, guess what?  The Chicks rally with Dave in the lineup (he walks every time) and streak to the pennant.  Secretly, though, Dave has been practicing hitting fair balls, mostly because baseball purists (and pitchers) are complaining that he's not playing the game the right way.

And with the Series title on the line--in the final game--Dave comes to bat ... hmmmmm, I wonder what will happen?

(Clue: with his Series winnings he buys a big chicken farm.)

Well, what does all of this have to do with anything?

With this: Just yesterday, I sent to Kirkus Reviews my 1000th book review.  One thousand.  My first was in March 1999, a book about the French and Indian War; number 1000 was about a biography of Clarence Birdseye.  And in between?  All sorts of things--from baseball to cooking to literary biography to collections of letters to journals to works on American history, world history, memoirs ... you name it.

I once nabbed a guy who had fabricated his memoir (when the book was eventually published, it no longer said "memoir" on the title; instead, it said "a novel").  That was exciting.

Most of the books I never would have read on my own--and most of them I liked.  (A few duds every year: I especially hate reading tendentious political books, from either side, and ghost-written celebrity memoirs.)  I've had the privilege of reviewing forthcoming books by winners of great prizes--Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle, and even the Nobel.

I start every day with Kirkus--seven days a week.  Early each morning, I sit in coffee shop and read 100 pp. for them, taking notes ...  When I finish, I go home, write the 300-330-wd review and zap it off to my editor.   I don't believe I've ever missed a deadline, but, life being what it is, that could happen tomorrow.  I try not to miss a day--ever.  But if I do, I read 200 the next day.  When I was teaching at WRA, I did one review a week during the school year, then returned to the old 100 pp/day routine over the summer.  Now that I'm retired (again), it's 100 pp/day, every day.

Here's a link to their website--so you can see ... Kirkus website

I just wrote to Kirkus to let them know I'd reached this milestone.  I wondered if I'd get a gold watch or something.  The negative reply came very, very, very quickly.

Maybe if I offered them some chicken salve?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"A Good Coach Is One Who Puts My Kid at Shortstop--and Lets Him Hit Leadoff": Thoughts on teacher quality

From Mr. Peepers, a 50s TV show about a teacher
Much controversy these days in New York about ratings of public school teachers.  Today's New York Times ran a story about the results--and included this: "The ratings have high margins of error, are now nearly two years out of date and are based on tests that the state has acknowledged became too predictable and easy to pass over time" (19). 

But then the article goes on--as if to say, "Yeah, these ratings don't mean a lot ... but still ...."

Here's a link to the entire article: Teacher Ratings in NY

And this brings me to a story ...

Decades ago, one of my very finest students (I'd taught her as a freshman) told me on her graduation day that I was one of her two favorite teachers.  (That was nice.)  Then I asked: "Who was the other?"  And she named someone so totally different from me--personally, pedagogically--that, well, I was aghast.  (In my mind, it was as if someone had told me her two favorite figures from history were, oh, Queen Elizabeth I and Lizzie Borden.  I exaggerate--you get the point.)

It took me a long time to understand her feelings.  I felt this other teacher was bullying, sarcastic--a possessor of any number of other qualities I found offensive.  And yet ...  in my student's mind, we were Siamese twins.

And, of course, this is what I realized (and should have known all along): "teacher quality" is a highly subjective phrase.  In so many ways, a good teacher is one whom we consider a good teacher.  Every year, I had students who liked me, students who didn't; students who learned well from me, students who didn't; students who would remember me fondly, students who wouldn't ...  Even in the best of classes, my student evaluations always featured a harsh critic or two.  (Though no kid was ever as harsh with me as I was with myself.)

I learned, as well, that for many parents, a good teacher is one who does a good job with their kid.  (This is a corollary of the notion that a "frill" in the curriculum is something your kid isn't good at.  And that a good coach is one who plays your kid a lot.)

The recent obsession with measuring teacher quality is deeply flawed with one troublesome assumption: We think we can measure and quantify anything.  We can't.  But we insist on trying, and so we measure only what we easily can measure.  Does a kid know certain vocab words?  Can she multiply decimals?  Can he name the state capitals?  Can she identify the main idea in a paragraph?

I'm not arguing that such questions are useless; they're not.  But they do not measure a student's achievement; they do not measure teacher quality. 

Great teachers are rare--I had only a handful in my long school years.  But good teachers?  There are many of them--everywhere.  (Just as there are weak ones everywhere: my older brother told me about some duds at Harvard.)  They are knowledgeable; they like kids; they know how to get things done; they have multiple ways to explain things.  They embody, to one extent or another, those old virtues I learned in the Boy Scouts: they are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient (to their principles, if not principals), cheerful (except on Mondays), thrifty (they'd better be!), brave, clean (?), and reverent (not religious, reverent).  And--most important, perhaps--they are not all alike.  Sometimes, they are profoundly different from one another.

We need to encourage good people to join this profession.  (Given the current climate, I would not advise anyone to do it.)  And we need to ease the way in, too, for people who do not have traditional teacher training.  And here's one grim personal example of how we make it hard ...

I retired from public schools in 1997; a couple of years later I thought it would be a good idea to renew my Ohio certificate--just in case.  But, oops, I'd let it lapse.  I wrote to the state department about what I needed to do to renew it; they told me I had to go back to school and take some courses.  I had taught about thirty-five years at that point; I had a Ph.D.; I had published books and hundreds of articles; I had good references from my former employers.  But I could no longer teach in an Ohio public school.  (That's the reason I went into private education later on.)

By the way: the letter from the state official telling me I was no longer qualified to teach English in a public school had two spelling errors and several bad usage errors.  Not hard to measure that!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

How I Almost Became a Winner on AMERICAN IDOL! (Sort of.)

It was the summer of 1966.  I had just graduated from Hiram College and was spending the summer working at a boys' camp (teaching tennis) in the Adirondacks--a camp with the lovely name of Camp Paradox.  On Paradox Lake, this camp had been around awhile--in fact, they told us that Rodgers and Hart (think: Broadway) had met there.

I was there with my Hiram College roommate, Chuck Rodgers, who had a clunky white Rambler that somehow made it to upstate NY.  He and I had started singing folk songs together our senior year.  He had a nice tenor voice; I could stay on pitch, most of the time, and harmonize okay (most of the time).  I played a Guild 12-string guitar (without distinction--the instrument is still in my closet, unplayed for decades), and we performed (okay, ripped off) songs from the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; The Limeliters.  We actually "wrote" one song--we put "music" to Emily Dickinson's "If You Were Coming in Fall."  (It made the Top 10 (in Hiram).)

Camp Paradox Logo
Chuck was an All-Ohio soccer player at Hiram (goalie) and was working with soccer kids at the camp.  By then we were calling ourselves The Outlanders.  We did some singing for the campers (who thought we were old and retro; we were 21); we won some local bar competition one night (don't ask me how many other folks competed); and then--somehow? whose idea?--we decided we would audition for the 1966 version of American Idol, a show called The Original Amateur Hour, hosted by a guy named Ted Mack.

Mack's show had begun on the radio in 1935.  It moved to TV and stayed there until 1970.  It featured not only serious musicians (like Chuck and me) but also variety acts of all sorts--tap-dancing chimpanzees, singing goldfish, elephants-on-horseback--that sort of thing (I made all that stuff up--but you get the idea).  Basically the kind of stuff that ambitious folks today put on YouTube and hope they will have a Justin Bieber result.

Anyway, Chuck arranged for us to have an audition with Ted Mack that summer, and on one of our days off, we drove down to NYC, found the studio, went in to audition.  The Outlanders--ready for international celebrity!

It was in a big open room with wavy wooden floors.  Probably a rehearsal studio (it featured a lingering sourness, an odor of many-dancers-having-rehearsed-there-for-a-long-long-time), it was supremely unimpressive.  At one end--an old guy who was organizing everyone, an older guy sitting at a sad, upright piano, some pathetic people sitting in folding chairs, waiting their turns.  We joined the pathetic people (right where we belonged.)

I wish I could remember the acts that preceded us.  Some folks sang, I think, while the old guy tinkled on the sad upright; maybe a little girl twirled a baton.  I remember a dog barking.

Then it was our turn.  The Outlanders!   The sad old guy at the sad upright asked us if we would like him to accompany us.  We thought not.  We launched into a couple of our songs ("Greenback Dollar" was one).  The old guy thanked us, told us we'd be hearing from him.

And back we drove up I-87 to the Adirondacks, certain of our imminent fame, fortune, sex, drugs, whatever.

We heard nothing the rest of the summer.

That fall, Chuck headed off to the University of Wyoming and has remained in the West (he was a Warren, Ohio, boy).  He jokes that for years he was the only psychologist in the whole state.

And I headed to Aurora, where I began my career teaching seventh grade English.  I was terrified.

Then--much later in the fall--Chuck sent me a photocopy of a letter that had gotten lost in the mail.  Ted Mack wanted The Outlanders for his show.  He gave us a performance date: It was two months earlier.

Chuck and I both realized we were cooked.  He was in Wyoming in grad school; I was grading essays about My Pet till two in the morning.  We hadn't practiced in months--not that that would have made much difference.

And so my flirtation with Dame Fame remained just that ... a flirtation, no consummation.

No American Idol, I.

ADDENDUM:  A couple of years ago--in the summer--Joyce and I were on our way to the Lake Placid area to see the final home and grave of abolitionist John Brown.  On the way--I suggested we stop and take a look at Camp Paradox, which I'd not seen since 1967 (I went back for part of another summer--mistake; I quit).  We found the road, found Paradox Lake.  But the camp was long gone.  All the buildings, gone.  There's a public park there now; the young attendant told me he didn't think he'd never heard of Camp Paradox.  And he'd definitely never heard of The Outlanders.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Of Dickens and eBay and Enid, Oklahoma ...

I've written here before about Charles Dickens, whose Great Expectations sent the 9th-grade me immediately into the arms of Morpheus when our teacher, Mrs. Browning (at Hiram High School), assigned the book; yes, every time I allowed my eyes to roam upon those pages in our anthology (Adventures in Reading), they slowed, stopped, closed, stayed closed for a while.

Bad enough to assign that book--but then Mrs. Browning also had the temerity to give reading quizzes, just about every day.  (My performances on them were consistent--that I can say.)

Well, years later, I (sort of) grew up and came to love Dickens and read all his works.  And then ... writing a piece about Dickens, I remembered a set of records we owned in Enid, Oklahoma (that boyhood Shangri La), home of the now-defunct Phillips University (where my grandfather taught, where my parents met, where my father later taught before moving to Hiram College in 1956).  Making those particular records--78 rpm--was one of my dad's Phillips U colleagues, Earl W. Oberg, Professor of Expression and Dramatic Art.  He had memorized Dickens' A Christmas Carol and went all over the place during the holidays reciting it for very receptive audiences.  After he'd been doing this for thirty years, he decided to make a record of it with his wife, Ida.  An Enid radio organist, Ken Wright, wrote the music.

As I said, my family owned those records, but they are long gone.

So one day--about ten years ago?--when I was writing about Dickens, I decided to take a look on eBay for those records.  No luck.  (I'd tried all kinds of other sources, too.)  But I used that eBay feature--the one that lets eBay know you're interested in a particular item, and when that item becomes available through one of the eBay sellers, they send you an email.

Well, as I said, I'd forgotten all about it.
Hoppy looking dazzled at my trigger speed

And then this morning--while your Dawn Reader was doing some dawn reading at a local coffee shop--here came an eBay email.  A set was available.

I pulled the trigger so fast it would have dazzled Hopalong Cassidy.

Won't tell you how much.

Okay, it was over $60.

When the records come, I'll listen to them for the first time in more than a half-century.  And I'll let you know.  Maybe I'll figure out a way to put a bit of it here via an MP3 file.  We'll see.

And the moral of the tale is?  Sometimes it pays off to have great expectations ...

Almost forgot my crass afterword: gotta mention, again, my bio of E. A. Poe, now available through Amazon/Kindle:
the eBay photo

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Poe Is Here! And some other unrelated thoughts ...

1. My first e-book for Kindle is now available: Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography.  As I wrote here earlier, I've given up trying to find traditional publishers for some of these books--so I'm going to upload them to Amazon/Kindle, and at least they'll be out of the house and not leering at me with disgust every time I look over at the shelf in my study.EDGAR ALLAN POE: A BIOGRAPHY  This book took me all over the place--to Baltimore (where he lived and died), to Richmond (where he was born--where he grew up with the Allans), to Charlottesville (where he went for a while to UVa), to Fordham (where his final home stands in Poe Park), to Philadelphia (where a building he lived in is maintained by the National Park Service)--and probably a bunch of other places I've forgotten.

Next up--my biography of Mary Shelley, a book that consumed about ten years of my life.

John, I don't care for you, either!
2. Between 1940-1942, John O'Hara wrote a weekly entertainment column ("Entertainment Week")  for Newsweek.  I've photocopied all of the pieces (that took time!) and have slowly been reading my way through them.  I cracked up today when I read what he said about Shakespeare: On 2 December 1940, he wrote about a NY production of Twelfth Night.  "And what a bore that is!" he wrote.  And, a bit later he said, "I am always bored with Shakespeare plays.  What is more, I don't even admit that they're good to read. (That is, all the way through.)"

A week later--apparently having received some, uh, contrary mail--he added a little addendum to his column in praise of Ethel Barrymore: "I meant every word I said last week about Shakespeare, boredom, and me."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hawthorne Meets Millhauser ...

Every now and then I wish I had a classroom to barge into and tell a captive audience about something (FB and blogging are fine--but not the same).  Now, I don't wish this for very long because I know what it would mean: papers and grades and meetings and annoyances of all sorts.  But maybe, you know, I could just barge in, unannounced, let my news spill out ... and then leave.

Not that my news is all that CNN-worthy or anything, but last night I read a story by Steven Millhauser, "The White Glove," which appears in his new collection We Other (which I've blogged about before).  It's a wonderful story--I don't know any (many) writers who can so well evoke childhood and adolescence.  Although he's a couple of years older than I am, he has not forgotten.  He knows about loneliness.  About how lonely teens will seek one another out.  Find safety.  Millhauser has done it since his first novel (Edwin Mullhouse), and he's done it in this story.

Narrating "The White Glove" is a high school boy (a lonely one), and he finds a girl a lot like him.  They begin spending more and more time together--and soon he's almost a part of their family: eating meals, helping Dad with chores, etc.  Sex is not on Millhauser's agenda in this tale, and he communicates that so well that even when the boy goes to the girl's room to do schoolwork, there's really no sexual energy crackling in his sentences.

He notices that she occasionally--even often--scratches the back of her left hand.  He's curious.  Doesn't say anything.  Then she's absent from school, and when she returns, she has a bandage.  He asks; she tells him it's nothing; the doctor's told her not to worry.

And then she comes one day with a white glove covering her entire hand, fully illuminating his curiosity.  She knows he's curious; she knows her explanations (and her parents' explanations to him) are not enough.  One night, he sneaks out of his house, sneaks up to her room late at night--to take a look.  But he can't do it.  He leaves.  Then he is out of school awhile with the flu.  Now she is certain that he's avoiding her.

So she tells him: Come see me on Saturday; my parents will be gone; I'll show you ...

Well, by now any reader's curiosity is red-lining, too.  What is under that glove?  What's wrong with her hand?

He goes over on Saturday; he tells her she doesn't have to show him--unless she wants.

And so she does ...

And those of you who have read Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" and "Young Goodman Brown" can probably guess.  He sees something he can't cope with--although he pretends that he can.  But she knows.  She knows.

(And THAT'S why I want to break into an English class reading Hawthorne and yell: "Hawthorne lives!  He lives!  He lives!)

Soon they are not seeing each other at all.

And a little later ... he realizes he misses her ... he goes to find her, and ...

Okay: I haven't given away the really good stuff; some of you may want to read the story.  But I'm going to give it away now.


Under the glove, her left hand is completely covered with hair--like a pelt.  It shocks and disgusts him, though he knows that it shouldn't--that she's still the same wonderful girl he, well, loves.  But he can't help it.

(Remember the line in that Shakespeare sonnet?  Love alters not when it alteration finds.  Well, his love altered.

When he sees her later, downtown, she's found another lonely soul--another girl--and when he watches them, he can tell that she doesn't need him anymore.  And she's still wearing the glove.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Some Lines from Last Night's Reading

My nightly reading pile grows like that tower from Genesis: right now I am reading from eight books every night: Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip, Collins' The Woman in White, a recent popular science book How to Think like a Neandertal, The Weird Sisters (a modern novel inspired by Macbeth), Swamplandia!, Millhauser's new collection We Others, Nesbo's crime novel The Leopard, and Evanovich's Two for the Dough.

Anyway, last night I came across a few things that I felt worth repeating, for various reasons.

1. from The Woman in White: "Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us service" (62).

2. from How to Think like a Neandertal (2012): "If you want to think like a Neandertal, you must learn to think in stone" (51).  This passage leads to a fascinating description of how these folks made their spear points.

3. And ... another clunker from Evanovich, who seems determined (or, at least, her narrator, Stephanie Plum--in this case, via Ranger, her bounty-hunting buddy--does) to ridicule everyone who's not young, slim, hot, hip.  The two of them are having breakfast; Ranger eats grapefruit; Plum, pancakes (with extra syrup): "Better be careful," Ranger said.  "Nothing uglier than a fat old white woman" (40).

Actually, I can think of one thing uglier ...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Being Gray and Grumpy

We went to see One for the Money the other night--and pretty much liked it.  So--although I'd never read one of the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich--I plunked down some $$ and bought the second in the series, Two for the Dough, which I began reading on Saturday night, figuring I'd read a chapter a night.

Chapter 2 was last night--and, lying in bed, reading, I felt my BP surge as I read a couple of comments by the 1st-person narrator, the novice bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum herself.

1. Describing her own grandmother (who lives with her parents): "Grandma Mazur was seventy-two and didn't look a day over ninety.  I loved her dearly, but when you got her down to her skivvies, she resembled a soup chicken" (27).

2. Later--at a funeral home where they've gone for a viewing--she sees an old man: "Seregie Morelli was eighty-one years old and had a lot of bristly gray hair coming out of ears that were half the size of his withered head" (27).

Well ... age sixty-seven myself, I find these passages far more annoying than amusing.  (By the way: the biggest little word in our language is but.  When anyone says something like "I love her dearly, but ...," you can ignore anything in front of the but.  The real message comes afterwards.  This I am now calling Dyer's But Rule.  Think of how many times we've said it, heard it: I like you as a friend, but ...  I really enjoy your cooking, but ...  I love your hair, but ...)

Back on the subject ...

As I've grown older, I've become naturally more alert to how we portray older folks.  And I think of the foul-mouthed grandmother in Wedding Crashers, Betty White in just about anything, the grandmother in the film One for the Money (at the table, she shoots the roast turkey with a handgun and otherwise acts demented).  Do we really see our older folks as disgusting? Filthy? Out of it? Sex-obsessed? 

Sure, the older are sometimes portrayed as wiser--the Harry Potter books and movies, The Karate Kid, etc.

But for the most part, it's now standard practice to ridicule them.  They're a safe target.  We can say things about them we can say about few other groups of people; we can portray them in ways that would bring lawsuits from other groups.  Some ESPN guy gets fired for an inappropriate headline about Jeremy Lin, but we can show old folks being dotards and perverts to our heart's content.

My mother is 92 years old.  She lives in one of those stages-of-care places and is fiercely hanging on to her independence, yielding ground only when she must.  She lived through the Depression, World War II, saw her husband called back to active duty during the Korean War, fought against the stereotype of the "faculty wife" and earned her Ph.D. by commuting from Hiram to the Univ. of Pittsburgh, 100 miles away--while she was teaching high school English, full-time.  Now, she can no longer use her computer (her hands are betraying her; her memory is weakening).  She doesn't know anything about popular music, movies, TV.  Most celebrities' names are meaningless to her.

But I still learn from her, all the time.  Mostly because I want to.  She knows things I don't know--lots of things.  Most older people do.  Not one person in her facility wants to be there.  Not one person there likes what he or she sees in the mirror.  But those people get up, every day, and sharpen their claws to hang onto every moment they can.

While we ridicule them.

Janet Evanovich, I know you were just trying to be funny, but ...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why I'm Going to Publish on Amazon/Kindle

In the next few weeks I'm going to upload to Amazon/Kindle a number of unpublished books I've written over the years.  Although I've had modest success with "traditional" publishers (Scholastic Press published Jack London: A Biography in 1997; the Univ. of Oklahoma Press published my annotated editions of The Call of the Wild in 1995 and 1997; Morgan Reynolds will publish my YA biography of Shakespeare this year), I've not had luck with everything.

I spent some years researching and writing YA biographies of Mary Shelley and Edgar Poe--but did not have much luck with the (few) traditional publishers I tried.  I don't have a lot of time now (let's face it: I'm 67) to dilly-dally around while dilatory publishers take their slow-ass corporate time deciding what to do.  (One publisher kept one of my books for more than a year before passing on it.) 

So ... typescripts are sitting on my floor; they've been sitting there for a while.  They're not earning me a penny, and I've avoided looking at them because, well, they seem to have grown large sad eyes that stare at me with a mixture of reproach, disdain, and pity.

So ... I'm going to convert them and upload them to Amazon/Kindle and see what happens.  At least they'll be off my floor and out in cyberspace somewhere.  I'm going to keep the price low, and I hope you will plunk down the plastic for some of them.

In the next week I'll upload Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography, a book I've aimed at YA readers--but there is plenty there for general readers, as well.

Next month (or sooner)--here will come The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Shelley.  Again--a YA title but plenty for everybody.

Both the Poe and the Shelley books consumed years of my life--and impressive chunks of my bank account.  When the titles are actually available on Amazon, I'll post on FB and elsewhere to let y'all know they're out there.

In subsequent months, I've got a couple of memoirs to upload.  One is Schoolboy, a memoir of my teaching career (mostly the very early years, though there are some recent experiences, too); another is Turning Pages, a memoir about my life as a "reader" and about the little Carnegie Library in Enid, Oklahoma, where, in a way, it all started.

And then there are those YA novels I wrote while teaching in Aurora--Bob the Slob, Mind-Boggle, Kicking and Screaming (I had the damn title first--before that bad kids' soccer movie!), and The Memoirs of Victoria Frankenstein ...  I'll probably put those up on Amazon/Kindle, too, at some point.

At any rate, it's "time's winged chariot hurrying near" that's urging me to pursue this option.  I hope some of you will hop on the chariot with me--and go for a ride ...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is Everybody Ripped but Me? (Part II)

Not long ago, I wrote here about how every movie actor who pulls off his shirt these days seems to have come fresh from the gym--where he's been living and working out, 24/7.

Well, last night we saw One for the Money, a film that featured Irish actor Jason O'Mara playing a Trenton cop-on-the-run-cuz-he's-been-framed named Joe Morelli, a cop with Italian heritage.  Never mind that--Hollywood, you know, is the town that gave us John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Sal Mineo as Red Shirt in Cheyenne Autumn.  But at one point, O'Mara took off his shirt to go (chastely) beddie-bye in the apartment of Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl).

There was not one cubic micron of fat on him.  His six-pack-abs were so prominent he might as well have had Bud Lite written on each of the six..

I felt very inadequate, mostly because, lately, my own abs look like one big ab--more like a keg than a six-pack. I felt ab-negated.  Or abdominally challenged.  But, I bet if I just, you know, worked out for a week or so, or somethun ... ?

O'Mara flashes abs

Friday, February 17, 2012

KM is for Kinsey Millhone

Last night I finished reading V is for Vengeance, the latest installment in Sue Grafton's amazing "alphabet" series of detective novels featuring her clever and dogged P.I., Kinsey Millhone.  This one's about a large shoplifting ring (don't think about you and your four friends; think about a corporation!) and about a murder (of course) of a young gambler, an event that opens the novel.  The connections between the two don't become apparent for quite a while.

Okay ... pause.

Raise your hand if you've ever shoplifted ...  Mine is up, I'm afraid.  I've not done any since childhood, but I confess that some Snickers bars I ate and some comic books I read back then were not, officially, mine to consume and read.  I had friends who were much more larcenous.  One high school friend stole Playboy every single month; I was horrified--and grateful when he let me, uh, examine his collection.

Okay ... play.

Grafton's first in the series--A Is for Alibi--came out in 1982, but I don't remember seeing it on the bookstore shelves.  Gradually, they caught on with readers, and by the time G Is for Gumshoe came out, I decided to give it a try.  I bought it, read it, liked it.  And have bought and read all the subsequent volumes, as well.  Joyce was once at a writers' conference with Grafton and was on a panel with her.  Afterwards, Grafton kindly signed all of our books!  She signs a lot, though, so her books aren't hyper-expensive, though I just checked: a signed G is going for $300 or more now on ABE Books.  And a first edition of A will cost you about a grand!  Hmmm.

I've not ever gone back to read A-F.  Not sure why.  Maybe I will when it's all done.

So what do I like about the books?  Millhone is fun to listen to, for one thing.  (The stories take place in the 1980s.)  She has nonagenarian friends, eats regularly in a restaurant that serves atrocious food (she likes the owner), drives a Mustang (she used to drive a VW; it got creamed in one of the stories), is hard-working and loyal (and embraces lots of other values I admire).  She runs in the morning, has sex now and then (what's not to admire about that?), is resolutely independent, doesn't usually solve cases with violence but with what Shakespeare called her "mother wit."  She does get bounced around a bit (she gets punched full in the face in V.)

And the mysteries themselves usually fool me (not all that hard, I know)--yet somehow remain plausible, as well.

I read quite a bit of detective/thriller fiction (more on that later)--but I always look forward to Grafton's newest.  I'm not looking forward to Z--not at all.  I've already had to accept/endure the death of Robert B. Parker, the end of the Wallander series, the death of Stieg Larsson, the death of Ed McBain ...  Such terminations grow harder and harder to tolerate ...

Sue Grafton

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Marvelous Millhauser

In 1972--for a reason I cannot recall--I bought and read a new novel by a new writer, Steven Millhauser.  The novel had a very unusual title: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright.  The novel sits inside a couple of frames: Millhauser wrote it; there is an "introductory note" by a fictitious guy named Walter Logan White, who gives some background about the mysterious Jeffrey Cartwright.  Then there's a "preface to the first edition," by Jeffrey Cartwright,who states simply: "Edwin Mullhouse is dead.  ... He is as dead as a doornail."  And then--finally--the novel begins with the birth and boyhood of Mullhouse, whom Cartwright introduces as if he were ... well, just read this: "Edwin Abraham Mullhouse, whose tragic death at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1954, deprived America of her most gifted writer, was born at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1943, in the shady town of Newfield, Connecticut" (3).

And off goes the story--a miraculous piece of fiction about a boyhood, about a "friend" who has grand ambitions for Edwin, and about how it could have possibly happened that a boy could die at the same minute of the day, the same month as his birth eleven years earlier.

Well, I devoured this book in 1972.  Read it more than once.  After all, I was born in 1944, so all the boyhood stuff (the candy, the clothes, the popular culture, the schooling) seemed to me so precise and authentic, so achingly accurate.  I gave the book to Joyce, to friends, to students (I was teaching seventh grade at the time, but the kids I gave it to loved it).

And for the next decade or so, I read every new Millhauser that came out--even assigning one of his novels (Portrait of a Romantic) to a group of students at Lake Forest College during the year (1978-79) we were there.  I still think that book is one of the best I've ever read about a middle-school-aged kid.

But then, somehow, I stopped reading Millhauser--although I still dutifully bought his books--his collections of stories, his novels; one of the latter--Martin Dressler--won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997.

A few years ago, however, I got the chance from the Plain Dealer to review the newest Millhauser story collection, Dangerous Laughter, 2008.  To prepare, I caught up on the ones I hadn't read--and was once again in his thrall.  I loved Dangerous Laughter and was thrilled when the publisher quoted some of my review on the paperback edition that appeared a year later.

And recently, a new collection appeared--We Others: New and Selected Stories (2011).  Only the first seven of the stories are "new"; the other fourteen appeared in earlier story collections.

It was not until last night that I read the first of the new ones--"The Slap"--and, once again, Millhauser had me in his grasp.  No, not a grasp.  He grabs, yes, but then he whirls us off into a world that seems so much like ours--but so profoundly different too.  Much we recognize; much is--to use the older meaning of the word--marvelous.

In "The Slap," for example, the first-person narrator tells us about the fairly well-to-do community on Long Island Sound where the story takes place.  A guy named Walter Lasher gets off his commuter train, and another man--a stranger in a trench coat, "stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face" (3).  He turns and leaves.  Lasher is stunned.  And in the ensuing pages, the stranger slaps other people in town.  No one knows who he is; the cops can't catch him.  And he spreads the pain--commuters, a high school girl walking home from school, just about anyone.  The town becomes obsessed with the man, with his motives--and the story unfolds to its unusual--but usual for Millhauser--conclusion.

Here's a typically wonderful sentence from Millhauser--describing the high school girl moments before she's slapped as she's walking home alone after an evening basketball practice.  The narrator notes that people think they know her, but they don't.  "They thought all she liked was to be surrounded by friends, lots of friends, and though she loved her friends, every single one of them, even Jenny Treadwell with her endless problems and complaints, she also loved these solitary walks between school and home with her cell off, her book bag slung over her shoulder, her long hair bouncing on her back, her arms swinging, her tights showing off her legs, and why not, if you've got it flaunt it, and she had it, she knew she did, it was why she loved walking down the halls between classes, walking in town in her stretch tops and jeans, or on the beach in summer, in her pink string bikini, along the hard sand at the water's edge, the heads turning, the friends waving, the gulls skimming the water, and as she left the park and started along Woods End Road she listened with pleasure to the knock of her heels of her cognac-colored boots against the shady sidewalk" (15-16).

Oh my.

Millhauser, who teaches at Skidmore, is a master.  As I said, he can whirl readers into new worlds that seem weird and tilted.  But, later, we realize we've been nowhere at all; we've been home, all the while.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rockford of Ages

I'm not sure I saw the very first episode of The Rockford Files when it premiered on Friday, 13 September 1974, at 9:00 p.m.  I probably did.  In 1974, we were living in Kent (214 Willow Street--a nice house then, a not-so-nice place now, but that's another story); Steve was not yet two years old, so we were spending lots of Friday nights at home.

We were also pretty much broke.  Although I was teaching in Aurora (at the old middle school--Harmon was in the future), teachers' salaries were not all that great (I just checked: my salary that year was $13,138.27), and both Joyce and I were still finishing our doctorates at KSU--paying tuition, etc.  She was a grad assistant, but that brought in only a few thousand.  So we spent lots of Friday nights at home, our big excitement--walking down to the end of the block to Little Caesar's where we could get a small pizza (four pieces) for $2.

So the chances are very good we saw the first Rockford.  Chances are we were eating Little Caesar's.  Steve went to bed at 8 in those days (mean parents), though Joyce or I (most often, Joyce) would read to him until he fell asleep.

We both liked James Garner from his days on Maverick, but there was something about this new show that just got me.  The writing was great, for one thing--David Chase was involved--and Stephen J. Cannell and Juanita Bartlett.  The acting was wonderful.  Garner, of course, and Noah Beery, Jr., who played his father, Rocky.  Joe Santos was his friend Sgt. Dennis Becker, Gretchen Corbett was his lawyer, Beth Davenport.

But the greatest of all--one of the great characters in TV history, I think--was Stuart Margolin, who played Angel Martin, Rockford's prison buddy (Rockford, innocent, had served five years in Quentin--then was pardoned).  Angel, a two-bit conman, was weak--would betray you for a cup of coffee--but Rockford loved him and couldn't stay angry with him for long.
Well, we watched Rockford till the show went off the air in 1980.  Then we watched the re-runs.  Then we watched the re-runs again.  When the re-runs disappeared, we watched the shows on VHS.  When VHS went buh-bye, we got the DVDs.  And now we watch them on streaming Netflix.  Over and over and over again ... from episode 1 to the end, 121 episodes.

Every year or so, I watch them all in sequence, one a night, in bed, just before sleepy-time  ...

Steve grew up watching them--we quote lines to each other often.

Joyce tolerates all of this--even watches some of them, delighting me by chirping, "I think we've seen this one!"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"You saw me crying in the ...[wherever]"

Remember Elvis' 1964 hit "Crying in the Chapel"?  (Link to lyrics: http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Crying-in-the-Chapel-lyrics-Elvis-Presley/E547D833F0BBFADF48256874002B3358)

A couple of evenings ago, I cried somewhere I'd never cried before--and I've cried in lots of places.  Yes, I've cried in chapels and in churches (weddings, funerals, boyhood boredom).  I've cried in just about every room in the house--including the shower stall.  I've cried in the car, on airplanes and trains.  I've cried while walking down the street--or jogging.  I've cried at movies, TV show, plays, concerts.  I've cried in my sleep.  I've cried in the grocery store and in coffee shops.  One notable instance of the latter was when I was re-reading Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha a few years ago--and I got to the story told at Hiawatha's wedding, a sort of fairy tale.  (Here's a link to that part of the poem: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=LonHiaw.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=13&division=div2)

Well, when I read the moment in the story when the lovers join hands--even after a cruel transformation--I broke out!  Right in Starbucks.  A great sob erupted out of me like some molten boulder from a volcano.  It was not a pretty sound.  Coffee-lovers near me looked at me with dark disapprobation ... how dare I interrupt their latte-time!?

But on Friday night I wept somewhere I'd not ever wept before: the aisles of a book store.  Joyce and I had gone down to Chapel Hill to the new Books-a-Million (BAM) that now occupies the former Border's store out there.  I was sort of drifting along down the fiction aisles, reading spines, looking for something new and interesting.  And it was in the C-D-E-F aisle that I got into trouble.  And what got me into trouble was thinking too much (as usual).

In the D's, I saw titles by Dickens, Doctorow, Dostoevsky, Dumas--and I remembered some of those books with great affection; I associated some of them with places, with people, with periods in my life.  And then it was on to George Eliot, whose Middlemarch is the only book I've ever listened to.  A couple of years ago, I had to undergo thirty-five radiation treatments at the Cleveland Clinic for a recurrence of prostate cancer.  On my daily drives down to the Clinic and back, I listened to that wonderful novel read most wonderfully.

And it was during that same time, feeling time's winged chariot hurrying near, that I decided I'd better read some of those great books I'd never read--some of those books that I've sometimes pretended I'd read over the years (you know)--and so I stacked up War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time, Fathers and Sons, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, The Red and the Black, Paradise Lost, and Anna Karenina--and I read them.  One hundred pages per day.  Till I was done.

Back it the aisles at BAM, I reached Faulkner--and I remembered reading As I Lay Dying for the first time in Dr. Ravitz's class at Hiram College--and then teaching it for a number of years at WRA.  It was one of those books in which I saw something new every single time I read it.

And I started weeping when I remembered all those wonderful experiences with all of  those books--and it only worsened when I realized that I would probably not ever read some of them again--and that I would probably not have time to read all the books by those writers whom I love.  I emerged from the row looking fairly raw and wet, kept my head down until I found Joyce, who knew, immediately ...

A few years ago, our local book store, the Learned Owl, celebrated its 40th anniversary.  Among their promotions was a T-shirt.  On the front was the store's logo and the anniversary news.  On the back--just some words: So many books, so little time.  I wear that shirt now when I exercise (it's lost color, is beginning to seek membership in the Discarded T-Shirt Society), and, for me, that message has a poignancy that increases every day, a poignancy that can even get me crying in the damnedest places.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Everybody's gone Cerf-in' ...."

Those of us of a certain age remember Bennett Cerf (1898-1971), one of the founders of Random House.  (He was also involved in the court case that allowed Ulysses to be published here.  I have mixed feelings: it was a great victory for freedom of the press; it had a deleterious effect on my GPA at Hiram College the term I was reading--okay, supposed to be reading--that novel.)

But those of us of a certain age remember Bennett Cerf for a different reason: he was a panel member on one of my boyhood's most popular TV shows What's My Line? a sort of quiz program that ran on CBS from 1950-1967--Sundays at 10:30 p.m.  Cerf joined the panel the second year and stayed till the show went off the air.  One of the sponsors was Stopette--an underarm deodorant that came in a little plastic squeeze bottle and didn't work--not for me, anyhow, in the heat of my Oklahoma boyhood and the furnace of my adolescent, uh, passions at Hiram High School ...

The format was fairly simple: panelists asked questions and tried to guess the profession or job ("line") of the guest.  Most were ordinary folks with weird jobs (their first guest: the hat-check girl at the Stork Club)--but each week also featured a "mystery guest," a celebrity of some sort whose appearance required that the panelists wear masks.

Check out YouTube for some What' My Line? moments like this ... Liz Taylor as mystery guest, 1954 ...


Okay ... so what does this have to do with anything?  Well, one of Random House's most popular writers during the 1950s and 1960s was ... John O'Hara, whose complete works I've nearly ... completed.  O'Hara wrote lots of letters to Cerf (some very businesslike, others, well, obnoxious).  But they were personally pretty close, and when O'Hara died in 1970, Cerf arranged for a memorial service at the Random House offices;  Cerf was one of the speakers; the other, Charles Poore, a New York Times reviewer who had always done his best to give O'Hara decent notices.  That day, Cerf called O'Hara "the most generally unappreciated author in American literary history" and placed him alongside Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (a ranking O'Hara himself thought he deserved--and was never too shy to assert!).  And Poore called him "the Chaucer of our age of violent affluence."

Well, I'm not so sure about all of that.  But it was a memorial service--can't have eulogists saying things like "O'Hara was a great writer, in his own mind."  Or: "John O'Hara could be both petty and a major pain in the ass."

In 1976 (after Cerf's death) Random House issued Cerf's incomplete memoirs, At Random, a book that focuses on his years as a publisher.  In it, he has some kind pages for O'Hara.  "It  doesn't take a genius," he says, "to make a best seller out of books by John O'Hara" (228).  But what most impressed Cerf about O'Hara (besides the vast income he brought to Random House) was this: "O'Hara in his work was the true professional, always in complete control of what he was doing.  ... He took great pride in delivering his manuscripts on the precise day he had promised, sometimes months in advance."  O'Hara was, wrote Cerf, "writing books faster than we could publish them" (271).

Albert Erskine, O'Hara, Cerf & O'Hara's Rolls

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Mark of Zora

I posted a note on Facebook today about the birthday of Alice Walker, the novelist and essayist, certainly best known for The Color Purple.  A quick story: When the film came out in 1985, Joyce and I went up to see it in Shaker Square at the Colony Theater, which, at the time, had not yet been chopped up into mini-screening rooms.  The auditorium was full that night; Joyce and I were just about the only Caucasian faces present.  Anyway, remember the moment when Celie (Whoppi Goldberg) is shaving Albert (Danny Glover) with a straight razor out on the porch?  In the dark, Joyce and I heard all these disembodied voices crying out: Cut him!  Cut him!

Anyway, it was Alice Walker who went in search of Zora Neale Hurston's long-forgotten grave in the 1970s and settled on a spot in the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida.  In 1975, MS magazine published Walker's essay "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," the piece which greatly helped restore Hurston to her rightful place in American letters and culture.

Hurston's Fort Pierce home
In 2007-2008, Western Reserve Academy (where I was teaching) added to the English III curriculum Hurston's most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I had not read in a long time.  Compounding that ignorance: I knew virtually nothing about Hurston herself (1891-1960).  So in the summer of 2007, Joyce and I went on a Hurston Odyssey, traveling to Eatonville, FL, where she grew up, to Fort Pierce, where she lived her later years in virtual obscurity and where her grave was lost until Walker's hunt for it.  Her Fort Pierce home--now listed as a National Historic Landmark--is a very plain structure (see image).  When she died, those cleaning out her house were burning her papers when a passing policeman saw it, stopped, gathered up what remained, took them home, saved them for posterity.

When we went to the cemetery to see the grave, we couldn't find it--the cemetery.  So we asked a young man mowing his lawn where it was.  He looked at us with a mixture of alarm and disdain, then pointed about twenty feet to our left.  Duh.  It looked like just a big open field.  But once we realized where we were, we did not have trouble finding Hurston's grave.  It was well marked and maintained.
Back in Hudson, I read all of Hurston's published works and the best major biography of her--Valerie Boyd's 2003 Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora's politics shifted to the right in her later years (one of the reasons she fell from favor during the Civil Rights era); The Saturday Evening Post had even featured her in a big story in 1951 (see cover).

But Zora was a talent--and quite a personality.  People who knew her reported that when Zora was in the room, you noticed no one else ...

So thanks today to Alice Walker, for finding Zora, for allowing us, once again, to hear her remarkable voice.

A couple of links: http://zoranealehurston.com/

And perhaps her best known essay: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand-jean/hurston/chapters/how.html