Dawn Reader

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Richard Adams, RIP

The Adams' books still on our shelf
I don't remember exactly how Richard Adams' Watership Down (1972) entered my life, but as I sieve the runoff of memory today, I think my mother told me about the novel--my mom, a secondary-school English teacher who'd only recently (1966) given up that career and moved out to Des Moines, Iowa, where she and Dad had taken positions at Drake University.

I'd just emerged from an adolescence-long refusal to listen to my mom (after all, what do adults know?!!?). I was married late in 1969, and in July 1972 we had a son. (Watership Down appeared in December 1972). The following summer we visited my folks in Des Moines, and by that time I'd read--rather, devoured--the novel, the fantasy about a group of rabbits and their amazing world. But in the summer of 1973, in Des Moines, my younger brother, Dave, who was also visiting, had not yet finished reading the book. Sibling Heaven! Unlike the actual heaven, Sibling Heaven is a place of eternal torment!

I still remember this exchange: He was out on our parents' sun porch at their home (3500 Wakonda Court), lying on a chaise lounge, frantically trying to finish the book. I wandered out and said, "Let me tell you how it ends."

He looked up at me with a pure ferocity and said, "If you do, I'll kill you."

I detected not the faintest whisper of irony or facetiousness in that remark. I didn't tell him the end; I'm still alive.

In later years, Dave, my wife, and I (and, even later, my son) used terms from the novel--like silflay (eat) and hraka (droppings)--in our everyday conversations. I just found a website with many of the terms and their definitions: link to site. I still use silflay now and then ...

And for a while, Watership Down was a huge publishing success--all over the world. His subsequent novels--most of them--did all right but nothing like the rabbit book. I bought most of them, read most of those. In the picture above you can see them, still high on a shelf.

(Missing, however, is Watership Down, which we recently sold. Sigh.)

As I look now at his Wikipedia entry, I see Adams wrote quite a few books that I've not heard of. I had sort of drifted away, I guess--found other downs to roam. But I did read the ones you see pictured above.

And then, on Christmas Eve this year, came news of his death at 96--news that was absolutely overwhelmed by the death that same day of Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame. I do not in any way wish to diminish her cultural importance, but in his day, Adams was quite a phenomenon. (Link to Adams' New York Times obituary.) But these days it seems there are few things more evanescent than literary fame. Most of my high school students in my later teaching years had never heard of Norman Mailer, Thomas Berger, James Purdy, Philip Roth--among the literary heroes of my young manhood. And as the novel-reading population continues to diminish, even wildly popular writers of an earlier day--like Adams--fade into invisibility.

So it goes (as another soon-to-be-forgotten literary hero of mine, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., said throughout his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five).

So ... RIP, Richard Adams (1920-2016), a year younger than my mother, who introduced me to his exciting novel.

When I got the news of his death, by the way, I rapidly composed a bit of doggerel in his honor, doggerel which I promptly posted on Facebook. In the lines I tried to get the running of rabbits in the rhythm, but, hey, it's doggerel, so let's not dignify it too much!

For Richard Adams

There was news from the rabbits on Watership Down—
And it spread through the country, through city and town—
Then it spread through all countries—through all of their parts—
And it spread most of all through the world’s broken hearts.

The creator is dead! Richard Adams is gone!
In the houses of readers dark curtains are drawn—
In the woods there were eulogies—rabbits and bears—
And poor Lee’s sentient horse soon unloaded his cares.

Oh, it’s true that he lived a long time—ninety-six!
And it’s true that he’d lost his bright narrative tricks.
But he doesn’t live only on library shelves—
No, he lives in our memories—inside of ourselves.

So fierce Shardik is weeping—such torrents of tears.
And poor Fiver and Hazel have such drooping ears.
While old Traveler is pawing the dark Southern ground—
And his neighing produces a deep mournful sound.

And so many sad readers—like you and like me—
Find ourselves on the Down with a fond memory.
We’re dismayed he is gone—but it’s my deep belief
That his words and his books will impoverish grief.

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