Wednesday, August 27, 2008

From Writer's Almanac

Today's literary birthdays:

It's the birthday of travel writer William Least Heat-Moon, (books by this author) born William Trogdon in Kansas City, Missouri (1939). He's best known for an account of his journey across the back roads of America, Blue Highways.

Of mixed English-Irish-Osage ancestry and the son of a lawyer, he spent the first part of his life immersed in academia, earning four degrees: a bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. in literature, and then a bachelor's in photojournalism. He had been a university professor in the late 1970s when, within the course of a few months, his life seemed to have fallen apart: He lost his teaching job because of declining student enrollment at his school, and his wife of 11 years separated from him

He decided to take to the open road and "live the real jeopardy of circumstance." He had a 1975 Ford van, which he made into a camper, and he gave it the name "Ghost Dancing" — a reference to ceremonies by Plains Indians of the 1890s, who "danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new ... the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was delusion." He brought along a sleeping bag, portable stove, four gasoline credit cards, some cameras, a cassette recorder, various notebooks to write in, and his remaining life savings, which totaled less than $500. He also brought a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

He wrote that he began his journey "with a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land. ... I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected."

Over the course of several months, he traveled 13,000 miles around the United States. He sat in local coffee shops and diners and parks and conversed with residents, listening to people narrate stories of their town. He said, "I wanted a journey that would present people, specific people, with names and addresses almost, so that the reader could pick up a Rand McNally and follow along and know almost mile by mile where this particular traveler was."

The book in which he chronicled his adventures, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, was published in 1982 and garnered widespread acclaim.

He's also the author of PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country (1991) and River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America (1999).

It's the birthday of novelist Theodore Dreiser, (books by this author)born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He came from a big family; he was the 12th of 13 children. When he was a boy, his father was injured by a falling beam, and his mother had to take in lodgers and washing to keep the family afloat. Dreiser had to walk across the railroad tracks looking for stray lumps of coal. He left home at the age of 16 and moved to Chicago, where he eventually became a newspaper reporter. One of his co-workers persuaded Dreiser to try writing fiction. One night, when he was trying to come up with an idea for a novel, he wrote the words "Sister Carrie" on a half-sheet of yellow copy paper. And within a year, he had finished the first novel, titled Sister Carrie (1900), about a chorus girl who advances in life by sleeping around.

Doubleday agreed to publish the book, on the recommendation of the novelist Frank Norris. But after Frank Doubleday and his wife read the manuscript, they refused to give the book any advertising or marketing because they thought the novel was shocking and amoral. And it was a big flop when the book came out in 1900. Only 456 copies were sold.

Afterward, Dreiser started taking manual labor jobs, working in factories and on railroads. But his wealthy brother, who was a successful songwriter, helped him get a job as an editor. In 1907, Dreiser used his influence to get Sister Carrie republished, and it went on to become a great success.

Dreiser was a great American realist, as a writer, and he had an ability to describe the way things worked: the inner workings of a factory, a stock exchange, a hotel.

Theodore Dreiser said, "Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail."

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