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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Robert Lipsyte describes how Cassius Clay met The Beatles

Last night six voluble contributors (left to right: Colum McCann, George Kimball, Pete Hamill, Leonard Gardner, Robert Lipsyte, and Mike Lupica) to The Library of America’s new anthology, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, gathered at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to celebrate the book’s publication. Of the many colorful boxing-related yarns spun, Robert Lipsyte’s account of covering the first Liston–Clay fight in Miami delivered the knockout punch:
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet. 
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.” 
And then—if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn it was choreographed—he turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring. You can see this now on YouTube [see below]. They followed him out to the ring and they began capering around the room. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece. And then it was over and they left. Cassius Clay works out. At the end he’s back in the dressing room being rubbed down after the workout. He and I had yet to meet. He beckoned me over because he had seen me in the dressing room, and he said, “So, who were those little sissies?” [laughter] And then the best thing in the world happened. He won and I became the boxing writer.
Watch the video of Cassius Clay cavorting with the Beatles in the ring in Miami in 1964:

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes Robert Lipsyte’s piece, “Pride of the Tiger” and accounts of Clay–Liston I by Murray Kempton and George Plimpton)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

William Faulkner’s last surviving relative, Dean Faulkner Wells, shares her memories

Earlier this month Dean Faulkner Wells, the last living relative with firsthand memories of William Faulkner, published her deliciously anecdote-filled memoir, Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi. Wells is the daughter of Dean, the youngest of the four Faulkner brothers.

The dramatic event that governed her life occurred before she was even born:
The best and worst thing that could have happened to me took place on November 10, 1935, four months before I was born, when my father, a barnstorming pilot, was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-eight. The best, because it placed me at the center of the Faulkner family; the worst, because I would never know my father.
The oldest of the brothers, William felt tremendous guilt and responsibility for Dean’s death. A pilot himself, he had encouraged his brother to fly, paid for his lessons, and gave him his own plane, a Waco C cabin cruiser. As his niece writes, “It was as if William made a vow to Dean that November afternoon when he saw his unrecognizable body in the wreckage of the plane: He would tend to me in Dean’s place.” She grew up calling her uncle “Pappy” and Faulkner became her legal guardian and paid for her education and her wedding.

For the epitaph on Dean’s grave marker Faulkner chose the one he wrote in 1929 for John Sartoris, the ill-fated flyer in Flags in the Dust:
I bare him on eagles’
wings and brought him
unto me.
For Dean Faulkner Wells–and for Faulkner’s mother–John Sartoris was clearly based on Dean Faulkner, and the lines in the novel that introduce the epitaph recall Dean’s spontaneous, generous character:
Yet withal there was something else, as though the merry wild spirit of him who had laughed away so much of his heritage of humorless and fustian vainglory, managed somehow even yet . . . to soften the arrogant gesture with which they bade him farewell.
The Faulkner who Wells reveals is less the literary lion and more the devoted brother and doting uncle, as her description of the period following her father’s death demonstrates:
After Dean’s burial, William moved into Maud’s house at 510 South Lamar to care for his mother and his brother’s wife [Louise]. He slept on a folding cot in the dining room, with his Underwood portable on the table next to the galley proofs of Absalom, Absalom!
Each night he drew Louise’s bath, and before she went to bed he would bring her a glass of warm milk and a sleeping pill. One morning, as William and Louise sat the table waiting for breakfast to be served, Louise said, “I can’t eat. I dreamed the whole accident last night.” William answered, “I dream it every night.”
Only once did Faulkner share his feelings about his brother with his niece: “Your father was a rainbow,” he said.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Helen Vendler at 13: “I learned Dickinson’s poems in the bad old versions”

Jenny Attiyeh, whom New Yorkers might remember from her days as a reporter for cable news station NY1 and from her weekly programs on WNYC-TV, has launched a new series of online interviews focusing on “a specific piece of writing—be it a poem, play, novel, short story, work of non-fiction or scrap of papyrus—that’s had a significant influence on the interviewee, that’s shaped and moved them.” The series can be found at ThoughtCast, the Web site that hosts Attiyeh’s recent audio and video segments for various academic disciplines.

The first interview is with poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler, who discusses how she first became enthralled with the poetry of Emily Dickinson—and how the Dickinson that fascinated the young Vendler was a different poet than the one we know today.
Attiyeh:You discovered [Dickinson’s poems] when you were about thirteen and memorized some of the more famous poems, which, I believe, have lingered with you all these years.

Vendler: They have—but I learned them in the bad old versions. Her family censored her considerably, along with her editor. When they were putting out the poems for the first time in 1890, they didn’t want to scare people and so they emended them, rewrote them, regularized the rhythm, changed her dashes to conventional punctuation, and made her in every sense milder than she was.

Attiyeh: Nonetheless, thirteen is an interesting age to meet Dickinson, even if she was “controlled.”

Vendler: Well, yes—and I met her in anthologies, too, which left out the more macabre of her poems. She has a wonderful poem [“’Twas here my summer paused”], that I didn’t know at the time . . . where she talks about her life having in effect come to an end, when her summer goes away and she has to live as the bride of winter instead of as the bride of summer. And it ends up: “With winter to abide”—and she addresses winter directly—“Go manacle your icicle / Against your Tropic Bride.” Just rhyming manacle and icicle and imagining winter coming along and manacling his icicle to his Tropic Bride is a scary way to end a poem. . . . So it was certainly not the real Dickinson I came across, it was the denatured Dickinson. . . .
Vendler then reads and discusses a poem that is a particular favorite of hers, “I cannot live with You”; you can hear the full interview here. Attiyeh’s next interview will be with novelist and short story writer Tom Perrotta (Election, Little Children), who will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes 172 poems by Emily Dickinson)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kenneth Holditch remembers Tennessee Williams for his 100th birthday

Guest blog post by Kenneth Holditch, co-editor of the two-volume Library of America collection, Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937–1980

In January 1978 Tennessee Williams gave his only public reading in New Orleans in honor of his friend Oliver Evans—“the Professor,” as Tennessee called him. I met Tennessee and his assistant, Don Lee Keith, for the first time the day before at Marti’s Restaurant. We walked from there to the Theater for the Performing Arts, where he checked out the lighting and sound. On the way to the theater, Tennessee and I talked briefly, and he asked me about property values in New Orleans. When I told him that prices were rising, he smiled and said, “Good! You know, I’m just like a wise old fox; I’ve bought property everywhere I went.” This was something of an exaggeration, but he did have a house in New Orleans and one in Key West.

That night New Orleans experienced one of those torrential rains that sometimes come unexpectedly and the streets flooded. Undaunted, a large crowd gathered to hear America’s greatest playwright, who considered New Orleans his home. It was my honor and pleasure to introduce Tennessee to the audience that night. He read his story “Man Bring This Up Road” and some poems by Oliver Evans, and was then interviewed on stage by Don Lee Keith.

Following the performance, Tennessee kindly autographed the many books his fans had brought. Afterwards, eight of us crossed the street to Restaurant Jonathan for a dinner hosted by the two owners. We had drinks—Tennessee had a martini, I recall, then wine with dinner—and we proceeded to have one of the fabulous seafood meals for which the place was famed. Fortunately, I sat by Tennessee and we discussed mutual friends in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Then the conversation turned to Southern literature and we both agreed that we very much liked the work of Flannery O’Connor. Looking somewhat conspiratorial, he leaned toward me and inquired, “Do you read any of the northern writers.” Baffled a bit—did he mean Hawthorne and Melville?—I decided that he was referring to contemporary authors and said I very much admired Philip Roth and John Updike. “I like Updike, but I haven't read Roth,” he said, “but cannot read Saul Bellow!” When I said I also had trouble with Bellow, Tennessee “reared back,” as we say in the South,” and announced, “Well, there you have it!” Thus ended our only literary conversation. The two days—meeting, rehearsing, the performance, and the meal—live on as a cherished memory.

Hard as it is to believe, Tennessee would have been one hundred this Saturday, March 26. Those of us who knew him cannot imagine him at that age, but we all share wonderful memories of the man and the writer in his glory days. He lives on in the miracles that are his plays.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams (boxed set); The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes Harold Clurman on Tennessee Williams and Williams’s essay “Author and Director: A Delicate Situation”)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Celebrate the first day of spring with a favorite poem

“A little madness in the Spring,” Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Is wholesome even for the King.” Decades later, in “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost echoed the sentiment, “Spring is the mischief in me.” What better mischief to kick off the change in seasons than to share a favorite poem about spring?

“May-Day,” a thirty-five page paean to spring, opens Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second collection of poems. His close observations of nature lead to intimations of an underlying, transcendent, transformative power, as this excerpt demonstrates:
For thou, O Spring! canst renovate
All that high God did first create.
Be still his arm and architect,
Rebuild the ruin, mend defect; . . .
Not less renew the heart and brain,
Scatter the sloth, wash out the stain,
Make the aged eye sun-clear,
To parting soul bring grandeur near. . .
In city or in solitude,
Step by step, lifts bad to good,
Without halting, without rest,
Lifting Better up to Best;
Planting seeds of knowledge pure,
Through earth to ripen, through heaven endure.
Writing around the same time, Emily Dickinson’s experience of spring is more ethereal and foreboding, as these first four lines of her twenty-line meditation show:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here
In the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman delights in something as simple as discovering “The First Dandelion”:
Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—innocent, golden,
     calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.
For Robert Frost, a sense of the fleeting nature of discoveries like Whitman’s prompts “A Prayer in Spring,” which begins:
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
The Poetry Foundation features links to a number of other splendid poems about spring. Won’t you share your favorite?

Related LOA works: Ralph Waldo Emerson: Collected Poems & Translations; Walt Whitman: Poems and Prose; American Religious Poems (includes “A Prayer in Spring”)

Friday, March 18, 2011

How Sam Hose’s lynching became an awakening for W.E.B. Du Bois

Lawrence Goldstone opens his new book, Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903, by retelling the harrowing story of the lynching of Sam Hose. A young black laborer on a farm outside Atlanta, Hose got into a dispute with his employer and killed him in self-defense. During the ensuing ten-day manhunt, the rival Atlanta newspapers excited their readers by competing on lurid details. As days went by, rape, infanticide, and other “unnatural acts” were added to descriptions of the crime.

When Hose was finally apprehended, the surrounding hysteria led to excursion trains being arranged to transport hundreds of Georgians from Atlanta to the site of his execution. On Sunday, April 23, 1899, the day after his capture, Hose was brought before an estimated crowd of two thousand in the town square of Newman, Georgia. There he was stripped; his ears, fingers, and genitals cut off; his face skinned, and his body burned on a pyre. Souvenir hunters fought over his organs and bones.

Goldstone presents the lynching as emblematic of what had happened to the country in the thirty years since the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were passed: “The descent of the United States into enforced segregation, into a nation where human beings could be tortured and horribly murdered without trial, is a story profoundly tragic and profoundly American.”

For W.E.B. Du Bois the lynching was an awakening. Having arrived at Atlanta University two years before, the pleasantries of his studies were shattered, as he recounts in Dusk of Dawn:
At the very time when my studies were most successful, there cut across this plan which I had as a scientist, a red ray which could not be ignored. I remember when it first, as it were, startled me to my feet: a poor Negro in central Georgia, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord’s wife. I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to the Atlanta Constitution office, carrying in my pocket a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris [journalist and author of the Uncle Remus stories]. I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking. I turned back to the University. I began to turn aside from my work. I did not meet Joel Chandler Harris nor the editor of the Constitution.

Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing. . . .
Du Bois then began writing and lobbying against legislation that would disenfranchise Georgia blacks. His articles that year in The Atlantic Monthly and The Independent were the first of many to appear in national magazines over the next five decades.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (includes Dusk of Dawn)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Andy Borowitz’s marketing copy for The Library of America: “Does being funny get you girls?”

Andy Borowitz, an author and comedian whose work appears in The New Yorker and on his satirical website, Borowitz Report, is currently at work on a forthcoming Library of America anthology, The 50 Funniest American Writers* (*According to Andy Borowitz).

We asked Andy if he would be willing to write “something about the book for the catalog.” Here’s what he sent us:
Does being funny get you girls?

Growing up in Ohio, I was convinced that it did. I got this from a source I took to be representative of all women: Playboy centerfolds. Every issue, the Playmate Data Sheet would, with astonishing consistency, indicate that Miss Whenever’s turn-on was “a sense of humor.” (Turn-off? “Phony people.”) I vowed to be a hilarious sincere person who would have sex with lots of naked people named Brandi.

I accepted this view of humor-as-pheromone despite mountains of real-world evidence to the contrary. At Shaker High, the girls mainly went for jocks whose idea of a witty retort was a wedgie. And if I had looked a little more closely at Playboy’s monthly “Party Pics” feature, I might have noticed that the bunnies at Hef’s Mansion gravitated towards the laps of people like Lee Majors, the star of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and not, to my knowledge, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

What being funny got me, mostly, was a lot of free time. While the jocks were busy having tantric romps with cheerleaders, I kept myself occupied by reading Mark Twain, Woody Allen, and the many comic geniuses of The National Lampoon. Little did I know then that, over the course of a thousand dateless nights, a Library of America collection was being born.

So, getting back to my original question: does being funny get you girls? No. It gets you to be the editor of a humor anthology.
The author of six books, Borowitz is the first-ever winner of the National Press Club’s humor award and a two-time finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The 50 Funniest American Writers will appear this September; we’ll post the list of selections for the volume on this blog early in the summer.

And Andy’s stab at marketing copy will, in fact, appear in the Fall 2011 catalog issued later this month by Viking, distributor of The Library of America’s books to the trade.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast still appeals to sailors—and young readers

Angus Phillips’s celebration of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast in the Wall Street Journal prompted a thread of a dozen appreciative comments. Carol Noble’s was typical “Wow, I thought I was about the only person who read this book in the past 25 years.” Picking up the book on the recommendation of his landlubber brother, Phillips, who describes himself as a “keen sailor,” found it “among the finest books ever written about the immensely popular subject of adventure at sea, and is as relevant and readable today as it was [when it was first published in 1840].”

As Phillips relates, Dana enlisted as a merchant seamen in August 1834 while still an undergraduate at Harvard. A bout of measles had impaired his vision and a sea voyage was the proposed cure. He remained away until September 1836. “If he left home unfinished,” Phillips writes, “he was a man in full by the time he came back, with sight restored and a keen eye for the merits of men.”
Two Years Before the Mast is not just an adventure. Dana takes us to sea, four times across the equator and twice 'round Cape Horn in weather fair and foul, yet more than half the book chronicles meticulously the year-plus he and his mates spent coasting along the California shore, gathering cowhides and horns from the handful of lost souls there before the Gold Rush brought in American hordes.
Dana’s memoir has a history of holding a special place in readers’ lives. In a 2002 interview historian David McCullough recalled that, when he was eleven years old, Dana’s was the first book he bought with his own money. Writing in American Heritage in 1960 Samuel Shapiro described why Two Years is especially appealing to young readers:
Like Wellington Redburn, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and a hundred other heroes, Dana is a young, inexperienced boy at the beginning of his book, and a grown man, with knowledge of the world and of good and evil, at the end of it. The adolescent reader quite naturally identifies himself with the young man who comes aboard the Pilgrim green and ignorant, and gradually, by willingness and hard work, earns his place among the other members of the crew. Such a reader triumphs vicariously with Dana over seasickness, injustice, ice and storms, and comes to understand what it is to make one’s way in the world. Success in real life replaces the narrow and artificial successes of the schoolroom: “I got through [sending down a royal-yard] without any word from the officer, and heard the ‘well done’ of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a ‘bene’ at the foot of a Latin exercise.” Two Years has doubtless meant much to thousands of boys who never went on to appreciate more complex and more demanding literary forms.
By extraordinary coincidence, The Library of America began offering Two Years Before the Mast and Other Voyages last week as part of an introductory offer for new subscribers. You can get the Dana volume free as part of the James Fenimore Cooper Leatherstocking Tales introductory offer or you can purchase the Dana volume separately through the LOA Web store.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gordon S. Wood on John Adams and Benjamin Franklin: Founding Fathers fall out in Paris

This month John Adams joins the ranks of Founding Fathers published by The Library of America. The two volumes of his Revolutionary Writings confirm editor Gordon S. Wood’s contention that “none of the other Founders passed on such a rich and revealing body of documents as Adams did.” This is particularly true about Adams’s dramatic—and colorful—reversal of feelings concerning fellow colonial leader Benjamin Franklin. Almost thirty years younger, Adams grew up admiring Franklin and worked closely and effectively with him in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia from 1774 through 1776. But living together in a chateau outside Paris as part of the American diplomatic delegation to France in 1778 magnified their considerable differences in working habits, lifestyle, and philosophy.

Gordon S. Wood reflects on Adams and Franklin in his exclusive interview with The Library of America.
LOA: Adams had occasion to work closely with Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington in the Continental Congress—and even more closely with Franklin and Jefferson on his diplomatic missions abroad. What portraits of the other Founders emerge from Adams’s writings? How accurate or skewed do you think they are?

Wood: Actually I think his descriptions of the personalities of Franklin and Jefferson and others were pretty accurate. It is only when he felt he was wronged by them that he lets loose his anger and resentment. He is impressed with Jefferson’s learning, but noted his silence during the debates in the Congress: “I never heard him utter three Sentences together.” His description of Franklin in a letter to Abigail in 1775 is laudatory. Only when he experiences all the adulation paid to Franklin in Paris does he begin to change his tune. Franklin may be a great philosopher, he told his diary in 1779, but “as a Legislator in America he has done very little.” By 1782 he had come to feel for Franklin “no other sentiments than Contempt or Abhorrence.”

LOA: Benjamin Franklin once described Adams as a man who “means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Does this description tell us more about Adams—or Franklin?

Wood: Adams never hid his jealousy and resentment of the other Founders, especially Benjamin Franklin. In 1782 he wrote to an English friend about Franklin, who, he said, “must make himself a Man of Consequence by piddling with Men who had no title. . . . But thus it is, that Men of great Reputations may do as many Weak Things as they please, and to remark their Mistakes is to envy them. . . . His base jealousy of me and Sordid Envy of my commission for making Peace . . . have Stimulated him to attempt an assassination upon my character.” Franklin no doubt knew of Adams’s opinion of him, but what probably led to Franklin’s remark was Adams’s letters to the chief French minister, the Comte de Vergennes, in which he repeatedly lectured him on how he ought to treat the United States.
Read the entire interview (PDF).

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755-1775; John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783; Founding Fathers Set (12 volumes—plus a free book)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Emma Straub on her formative influences: Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver

Other People We Married
by Emma Straub
(FiveChapters Books, 2011)
Continuing the series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry, Emma Straub muses on the two writers who introduced her to the short story.
Though I was always aware of short stories as entities in the universe, I didn’t truly read short stories until I was in college, and didn’t truly absorb them until graduate school. It pains me to admit that I didn’t read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” until I was in a workshop with Lorrie Moore, another American master of the genre. Since then, I’ve been working overtime to catch up. The entry points, for me, were O’Connor and Raymond Carver, who taught me about epiphanies and quiet transformation, about condensing the action of a story into an emotional shift.

Reading Carver’s story “Cathedral” taught me about slowing down, about lingering in the moment past the point of discomfort. Novels can zip and zoom, but short stories are all about careful observation. Raymond Carver is the writer that I most often think of, in the middle of the day, if some remembered anecdote swims back to me—did that really happen to someone I know, I’ll ask myself, or was it in a Carver story? After I fell in love with Carver, I read everything: all the stories, all the poems. There is something classically American about his work: something laconic and strange, like a John Wayne movie with the sound turned off, playing on a television in the back of a suburban diner. When I write, I aim for that clarity, that assured focus, where you can almost feel the characters shifting their weight from foot to foot, never standing entirely still.
Her teacher Lorrie Moore has called Other People We Married, Straub’s new collection of stories, “a revelation . . . In these stories of grief, love, loss and transplantation, Emma Straub demonstrates her brilliance, her humor, her sharp observational powers, as well as her lyrical gifts and affection for the world.” In the “Approval Matrix” for the week of February 14, New York Magazine placed Straub’s collection in the “Highbrow/Brilliant” quadrant, and just this past week came the news that her forthcoming novel has been signed by Penguin’s Riverhead Books. You can read more about Emma Straub on her blog.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works; Raymond Carver: Collected Stories

Count Mark Twain among Joshua Foer’s many “memory palace” builders

Joshua Foer opens his entertaining new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by describing how 2,500 years ago Simonides of Ceos identified the mangled corpses crushed by the collapse of a banquet hall by inventing the “memory palace” technique of recall. Using reconstructive visualization, Simonides could guide surviving relatives to the places in the rubble where their loved ones lay. “At that moment,” Foer writes, “according to legend, the art of memory was born.”

When Foer’s era-spanning chronicle of the “art of memory” arrives at “the age of the ‘get smart quick’ scheme” in the nineteenth century, a familiar character takes charge of a number of pages:
[Mark Twain] was continually experimenting with new memory techniques to aid him on the lecture circuit. . . . During the summer of 1883, while he was writing Huckleberry Finn, Twain procrastinated by developing a game to teach his children the English monarchs. It worked by mapping out the lengths of their reigns using pegs along a road hear his home. Twain was essentially turning his backyard into a memory palace.
Building effective memory palaces involves creating strikingly vivid images. Twain discovered this trick himself after trying many ways to remember his lectures—a process he reveals in “How to Make History Dates Stick.” He first began by dividing a lecture into eleven sections and writing each section’s opening phrase on a note, but then . . .
Once I mislaid them; you will not be able to imagine the terrors of that evening. I now saw that I must invent some other protection. So I got ten of the initial letters by heart in their proper order—I, A, B, and so on—and I went on the platform the next night with these marked in ink on my ten finger-nails. But it didn’t answer. I kept track of the fingers for a while; then I lost it, and after that was never quite sure which finger I used last. . . To the audience I seemed more interested in my fingernails than I was in my subject; one or two persons asked me afterward what was the matter with my hands.

It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away. In two minutes I made six pictures with a pen, and they did the work of the eleven catch-sentences, and did it perfectly. I threw the pictures away as soon as they were made, for I was sure I could shut my eyes and see them any time. That was a quarter of a century ago; the lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures—for they remain.
This pictorial approach inspired not only the backyard memory palace Twain invented to help his children learn the English monarchs, but an indoor version that involved creating an odd but memorable image for each king or queen (‘whale” for William the Conqueror, for instance). Twain’s enthusiasm for his technique led him, in 1885, to patent “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” He had high hopes for his invention. As Foer relates, “Twain imagined national clubs organized around his mnemonic game, regular newspaper columns, a book, and international competitions with prizes.” Unfortunately, it failed to catch on and Twain abandoned it. “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game,” he later wrote to his friend William Dean Howells, “don’t.”

Previous Reader's Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 volumes); Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (paperback); Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi (paperback)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Forty years ago, the first Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier bout, touted as “The Fight of the Century,” linked their legends forever

Guest blog post by John Schulian, co-editor of At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

It seems like only a heartbeat ago that Frank Sinatra was ringside at Madison Square Garden, camera in hand, straining to get just the right shot of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier as they went to war for the first time. The calendar tells us, however, that forty years have passed. Sinatra is gone. So is Life magazine, which made him part of the working press for the night that launched boxing’s greatest trilogy. Ali and Frazier dwell in retirement like battleships that were too long at sea, but in our memories, they are forever young. That’s the curious thing about what they did for a living: they destroyed each other and gained immortality.

The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.

They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.

What Frazier was, was mad enough to kill. Even in the early rounds of the fight, when Ali’s punches were turning his face into a Halloween mask, Frazier kept coming, relentlessly hammering away at Ali’s body. Here was a man bent on destruction, and in the eleventh round he delivered the blow that should have achieved his goal, a left hook that would have dropped a horse or maybe even a brick wall. But Ali didn’t fall. He wobbled and survived to fight on into the fifteenth and final round. Then Frazier clouted him with another, even more brutal left hook. This time Ali fell like a cartoon character, landing flat on his back while his feet flew high in the air. But he got up. The right side of his face had begun to swell and he was guaranteed to lose, but damned if he was going to let himself be knocked out.

By somehow getting back to his feet in the waning moments of a fight that sent both men to the hospital, Ali underscored his greatness for the nation, the world, and, most of all, Frazier. He would go on to win both their forgettable second fight and the epochal “Thrilla in Manila,” and he would leave pieces of himself along the way, as would Frazier. And when the last punch was thrown, it could rightfully be asked where the physical had ended and the metaphysical had begun. Only Ali knows for sure, but these days he doesn’t talk much.

Also of interest:
Watch a video of highlights of Ali–Frazier I:

Related LOA works: At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes seven articles on Ali, including Mark Kram’s classic account of the “Thrilla in Manila,” the final Ali–Frazier match); A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings (includes Liebling's account of a 1963 Cassius Clay fight at the Garden)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 150 years later: How he listened and revised

Lincoln delivers his inaugural address at the partly finished U.S. Capitol.

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

As Abraham Lincoln stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he certainly had cause to reflect on the course he was about to take. Washington D. C. resembled an armed camp as rumors flew that the new president would be the target of violence. General Winfield Scott’s troops, complete with cavalry and sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings, lined the short parade route. The president-elect had spent the last days in a different sort of warfare, wrangling over who would join his cabinet. Now it was time to speak to a divided nation and set forth a policy that was firm but not threatening, that sought peace without making concessions.

Lincoln had not always fared well in his remarks to waiting crowds as he made his way from Springfield to Washington. He had cut an embarrassing figure when, to avoid the possibility of assassination in Baltimore, he slipped into the capital in disguise. The document that he had initially composed in Springfield (and which, at one point on the trip, had been carelessly mislaid by his eldest son, Robert) he had revised in response to suggestions that it was too defiant, too confrontational. Half of its writing had indeed been in the rewriting; its composition reflected Lincoln’s willingness to listen to his supporters and advisers at a moment of impending crisis.

Among those readers was secretary of state–designate (and former rival presidential candidate) William Henry Seward, who had spent the better part of the previous week trying to get Lincoln to recast his cabinet by threatening to withdraw from it. Although the New Yorker failed in that endeavor, he succeeded in convincing Lincoln to make alterations that would soothe excited emotions and facilitate a possible reconciliation, if cooler heads ever prevailed. Coming from a man who had once predicted an irrepressible conflict between North and South, such comments showed how much Seward had changed over the last few years.

Lincoln accepted many of Seward’s suggestions, reworking the wording to suit his own style of expression. He knew he was introducing himself to the American people, including those already determined to seek independence. Lincoln sought to reach out while standing firm. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” he reminded secessionists. “The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”

Seward had been particularly critical of Lincoln’s close, which ended with the charge “Shall it be peace or sword?” His own urged reconciliation:
I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Adopting Seward's tone, Lincoln deftly transformed his prose into one of the most memorable passages he ever penned:
I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
But neither guardian nor better angels intervened. Nearly forty days later the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, and the war began.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (paperback); The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection; The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It; American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

White House Announces the 2010 National Humanities Medals

The White House announced today the ten recipients of the 2010 National Humanities Medals—and it reads like a Who’s Who of The Library of America’s advisors, editors, and authors.
Stanley Nider Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, and Roberto González Echevarría, the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University, will also receive National Humanities Medals.

Also announced were the National Medals of Arts; among the ten recipients are Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and former Poet Laureate Donald Hall—two of whose poems were included in American Religious Poems, the Library of America anthology edited by Harold Bloom.

The awards ceremony is planned for tomorrow. Congratulations to all the winners!

The five playwrights in The Library of America

Mike Boehm, at the Los Angeles Times’s Culture Monster blog, notes the forthcoming Library of America boxed set of The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams and performs a quick calculus on the representation of playwrights in the series:
Out of more than 80 authors in the Library of America series (not counting anthologies), the only other playwrights are Eugene O’Neill, with three volumes totaling 3,203 pages, the Broadway plays of George S. Kaufman and his various collaborators (911 pages), Arthur Miller through 1961 (774 pages) and Thornton Wilder through 1943 (888 pages).
We are able to report that we're currently at work on the second volume of Arthur Miller’s plays, but Boehm asks:
Are there other American playwrights who ought to be honored with a volume in this series?
We do hope (and plan) to include more playwrights, but which dramatists do you think would make great additions to the series?
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