Wednesday, August 03, 2016

We've All Come to Look For America

My recent reading has tended to center on the 20th century, especially the 30s and 40s.  As usual it's been partly intentional, partly serendipitous, as one book led naturally to another.

One hand of chance was finding a 1968 first edition of The Generous Years by Chet Huntley, in a "free box" on the street (common in our campus town as students move out.)  This particular volume had been a gift.  Though the recipient's name is smudged, it appears to have been a birthday gift from "Mary Ellen & Lyle," when this book was new.

This is Huntley's vivid autobiographical account of his early years in the northern Montana frontier--literally a frontier, for his family was among the first to settle and attempt ranching and farming on this recently available government-deeded land.

It was incredible to me that this was Chet Huntley's early 20th century childhood--the newscaster on the Huntley-Brinkley report I watched in the 1960s, reporting on the space program.  His writing is surprisingly precise, descriptive and evocative. (Surprising perhaps because his on-camera persona was so spare and matter of fact.) Through his recollections, the specifics of the land and the times as he experienced them says a lot more generally about America in the first 30 years or so of the 20th century.

Also by chance I happened on a video version of another TV journalist's autobiography (though it's likely that it caught my eye because I'd started reading the Huntley book.)  It was so fascinating that I got a copy of the book itself--Not So Wild A Dream by Eric Sevareid.  Originally published in 1946, it is a more lengthy autobiography covering more of his life.  The edition I got (U. of Missouri Press 1995) includes an introduction he wrote for the 1976 anniversary edition.

I knew Sevareid from his reporting and commentaries on the CBS television news, and I have a vague idea I saw him in person once covering the 1972 McGovern campaign.  His boyhood in North Dakota had definite similarities to Huntley's though his book also covers his college years and early reporting in Minnesota, his pre-World War II reporting in Europe, and his war reporting in China, Africa, Italy, Paris and London (where he began and ended the war, working with Edward R. Murrow.)

It's a fascinating book, not only for the pith and depth of his thoughts but for his sharp scene creation and narrative.  The book describes at least two outsized adventures, once when he was young, and another when he survived an emergency parachute jump and several weeks among a tribe of headhunters in remote Asian mountains.

The book has a shape as well.  It begins describing the functioning democracy of his small North Dakota town of Velva, and ends with the end of the war that tied the world together as never before, with a new role for the US.  "America was involved in the world, all its little Velvas were in the world, and the world was now in them, and neither the world nor America would ever be the same."

The bulk of this book about the late 30s and 40s is a window on that era, and on what the war meant to those close to it.  Sevareid's title--Not So Wild A Dream--is a quote taken from one of the most famous radio programs to that date, "On A Note of Triumph," about the end of the war in Europe, written by Norman Corwin.

A separate stream of my reading had already brought me to Corwin.  I came upon Gerald Nachman's Raised on Radio among books that Margaret had on her office shelves as she prepared to retire from chair of the theatre, film and dance department.  From this book I learned how many more than I realized of the early TV programs I watched as a child were originally radio shows, and I learned about Norman Corwin.

I didn't know the name, but Norman Corwin was famous and influential from the late 30s into the 50s, but most prominently during World War II.  As a writer, producer and director, he was variously called the Bard, the poet laureate, the Shakespeare of radio.  Corwin's works, Nachman writes, "were sui generis, blending drama, history, journalism, verse, narrative, music, and sound into a kind of radio tone poem, using the finest actors, composers, poets and special effects available."

 Yet as strange as they may sound now they were very popular programs, and CBS gave Corwin a free hand, never even asking to see scripts in advance.  There are several of the actual broadcasts available on the Internet, including "Untitled" , and the more directly topical (and patriotic) "We Hold These Truths" and the aforementioned "On A Note of Triumph," probably the most famous of his many World War II programs.  They still sound impressive.

Scripts for a selection of mostly World War II programs comprise the volume  Untitled And Other Radio Dramas by Norman Corwin (Holt 1947--available in libraries and ex-library used.) Especially with Corwin's explanatory postscripts, it is a document of the times, with insights well beyond the surviving cliches about WWII.  Some of these scripts were subsequently done on stage all around the US and elsewhere in the world.

I suppose the chief surprises, especially in the postscripts, are a couple of cliches knocked down.  We think of soldiers marching off to fight Hitler with a firm idea of what they were fighting for, and everybody on the homefront pitching in happily to do their bit for the boys in uniform.  In fact, a lot of businesses and individuals groused about wartime restrictions, including businesses on the coasts that were irate about being told to turn out their lights so that American transport ships weren't sitting ducks for enemy submarines.  And a lot of soldiers--and the general public--had no idea what the war was about.

So Corwin gave an American's perspective on England (the two peoples were not especially close at the time) with a series about an American's experiences visiting England.  He made founding concepts contemporary--and gave them some flesh and blood--in "We Hold These Truths."  And so on.

Another insight lost in the cliches was a purpose that gets ignored but that Corwin emphasizes--bringing the values of equality and cooperation that helped win the war into a lasting peace--not another debacle like the Great War's end.  It meant in part sustaining international cooperation, raising standards of living, and breaking down old barriers like the class system.  They weren't fighting just to defeat evil.  They were fighting for a better future.

That was expressed for example in those final words of "On A Note of Triumph" that Sevareid quotes: "Post proofs that brotherhood is no so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend..."

Also (and not unrelated) in these months I read playwright Arthur Miller's collected prose pieces (Echoes Down the Corridor) and re-read his autobiography (Timebends.)  I'm currently reading the third volume of his Collected Plays (Library of America) which includes his unjustifiably neglected late plays and some early work, including--for the first time in print--his 1930s/40s radio plays, commissioned by Norman Corwin.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Coincidental Genius

Four hundred years ago today, the deaths of two literary giants were recorded: William Shakespeare and Cervantes. Though there's dispute over the actual day they died, officially it is the same day for both: April 23, 1616.

 The two men apparently did not meet (Shakespeare never left England, and after his soldiering days Cervantes stayed in Spain) and probably did not know about each other. Still the coincidence of this day is the occasion for a symposium at the Newberry research library in Chicago (and elsewhere), a which-said-what quotes quiz (it's predictably tricky) and an article on the subject in the Guardian, which points out that April 23 is also the death date given for William Wordsworth, Rupert Brooke and some lesser known poets.

 Also a comparison of the lives and work of Shakespeare and Cervantes that notes that a 2002 poll of 100 unnamed international writers named Don Quixote the "most meaningful book of all time."

 Oddly, I stumbled on the coincidental death day by sheer coincidence (Kowincidence?) I've started reading a few pages of J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man (1960--when "man" was still an acceptably encompassing synonym for human) before bed, and a week or so ago I got to the page where he noted these deaths on this date of April 23, 1616. Apparently my math skills were up to realizing this was an anniversary year, though it took a calculator to figure out the exact number of years.

(Though perhaps not directly pertinent, I began reading the Priestly book because it was recommended (or favorably mentioned) by novelist and playwright Roberson Davies.  He saw it as a Jungian view of literary history.  My desire to read it was instantly abetted by realizing I owned a copy of it, always an extra bit of confidence and delight.)

 What's fascinating about this coincidence of date is that these are not just two famous writers--their work is arguably the most famous in the western world and considerably beyond it. They are the most famous writers, in two areas of literature. As Priestly wrote, "Perhaps only Shakespeare has captured and delighted more minds than Cervantes."

Shakespeare worked in what became the dominant form of his time and place, plays for the stage. His work helped make it dominant, and transformed theatre for all time. The secret of his perennial appeal, Priestly writes, might be not only the range of what he dramatized but his insistence on not being one-sided.

 "In his desire to keep a balance, his wrestling with the opposites, even the very kinds of opposites they were, despite his immensely rich nature (and rich is surely his favorite word) and many-sided genius, he comes close to generations of ordinary Western men of intelligence and good will. It is perhaps the secret of his hold upon our world, century after century...."

 "Though he conjures up everything from lyrical young love and gossamer fairylands to darkest witchcraft and bloody murder, he always leads us home...If the day ever comes when Shakespeare is no longer acted, read, and studied, quoted and loved, Western Man will be near his end."

 Drama was also the dominant form in Spain, but Cervantes did something else. He put together some existing forms of tales to create something new. Don Quixote is generally considered to be the first novel.

 As Priestly writes: "...and in the gathering shadows of the age and his own time (in contemporary terms he was an old man), with no patron, no salaried place, few prospects, rich only in experience, memory, knowledge of men, the one-handed old soldier began to write his book. Then out of that experience, memory, knowledge, and an eruption of genius, he wrote the best novel in the world."

 But literary definitions aside, he certainly defined a huge area for the novels to come. "Through its bustle of roads and inns, its sense of movement, colour and life, he reached far forward to inspire all the novelists who set their characters wandering." So to Fielding, to Dickens, Melville, Kerouac, Jim Harrison. "And as the magical ironist of the relativity of reality, of truth at war with illusion, he might be said to have pointed further forward still..." To Ibsen, Joyce, and pretty much everyone since.

 "Of all our great novelists," he concludes, " he is the youngest, because he is the first, and the oldest, because his tale of the mad knight is an old man's tale. He is also the wisest."

 It is worth mentioning that though both writers were famous in their time, by April 1616 the world had seemingly moved on, never to return. Shakespeare's drama was already going out of style at the end of his career. Though some of his plays were always performed somewhere in the years after his death, his work was not so appreciated again until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the 19th century. Similarly, the novel did not emerge in a big way until about then, especially in England, and Cervantes' role as a pioneer as well as an exemplary became cherished.

 So these two geniuses, together responsible for much of what life and letters are like today, died on pretty much the same day. Or...did they just return to where they came from on the same spaceship?

Monday, March 28, 2016

R.I.P. Jim Harrison

Writer Jim Harrison is dead at the age of 78. He is one of the great American writers of his generation, and unique in his evocation of non-urban America. His poems, fictions, essays and interviews pulsed with a lively and engaged intelligence and humor.

 His most famous fiction is Legends of the Fall, but I believe his greatest achievement will prove to be his late 90s novel The Road Home, interlaced with an earlier work, Dalva, to form an 800 page epic that qualifies as much as any to be a Great American Novel.

Harrison might have agreed with at least that intention.  He said in a 1998 interview: "I like to think that The Road Home addresses the soul history of our country."

 There was a certain quality of elegy to The Road Home, and it seemed like the work of a lifetime in several senses. Yet he kept writing for nearly another 20 years. And he was aware of what those years meant.

The NPR story that ran on All Things Considered Sunday quoted one of his poems:

Before I was born I was water. 
I thought of this sitting on a blue
 chair surrounded by pink, red, white
 hollyhocks In the yard in front 
of my green studio. There are conclusions
 to be drawn but I can't do it anymore.
 Born man, child man, singing man, 
dancing man, loving man, old man,
 dying man. This is a round river 
and we are her fish who become water.

 I've written about several of his books here and for several publications over the past 18 years, but I couldn't begin to summarize what I've learned and what I've taken from his words. On Saturday, the day he died (though it wasn't announced until Sunday), I watched a video of the late psychologist James Hillman (who Harrison often quoted) saying that as humans, our job in the world is to fall in love with it. The New York Times obit Sunday quotes Will Blythe reviewing Harrison: “His books glisten with love of the world."

May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.