Nov 20, 2011

The Writer's Almanac for November 20, 2011

 
 
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Nov. 20, 2011

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Joyce Sutphen
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Holy Ghost

by June Beisch,

The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.

A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,

but it didn't look like reality.

The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.

Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy Ghost descending at Pentecost

Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,

but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn't it look like home?

"Holy Ghost" by June Beisch, from Fatherless Women. © Cape Cod Literary Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist Don DeLillo (1936) (books by this author). He was born in the Bronx, New York, and said, "I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else." He developed a reading habit when he was a teenager, working a summer job as a playground attendant, a "parkie": "I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck — which they provided — the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wore blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my pocket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And I got paid for it." All that reading eventually led to an interest in writing, particularly in emulating Hemingway, who was one of his early heroes. After college, he took a job as an advertising copywriter, but quit just as he was getting good at it, he said.

He began his first novel, Americana (1971), in 1966. "I don't always know when or where an idea first hits the nervous system, but I remember Americana. I was sailing in Maine with two friends, and we put into a small harbor on Mt. Desert Island. And I was sitting on a railroad tie waiting to take a shower, and I had a glimpse of a street maybe fifty yards away and a sense of beautiful old houses and rows of elms and maples and a stillness and wistfulness — the street seemed to carry its own built-in longing. And I felt something, a pause, something opening up before me. It would be a month or two before I started writing the book and two or three years before I came up with the title Americana, but in fact it was all implicit in that moment." It was in the process of writing that book that he finally began to see himself as a writer.

It's his 1997 Cold War epic Underworld that critic Martin Amis said marked "the ascension of a great writer." DeLillo didn't expect much of the book when he finished it, feeling that, at 800 pages and with more than 100 characters, it was too complicated.

He published his 15th novel, Point Omega, in 2010, and his most recent, a collection called The Angel Esmeralda (2011), was just released this fall. The book gathers nine of his short stories over the span of his career, from 1979's "Creation" up to "The Starveling," which came out this year.

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America. The Essex hailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts, and was captained by George Pollard Jr. Pollard was only 29, the youngest man to ever command a whaling ship; the Essex, by contrast, was pretty old, and she was also small for a whaleship. She was considered lucky, though, because crews made money on most of her voyages.

This particular voyage, which was to last two and a half years, didn't start very auspiciously. Soon after leaving port en route to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America, the ship was hit with a squall, lost her topgallant sail, and nearly sank. It took longer than usual to reach the whaling grounds, and the crew began to get edgy and superstitious. Then, when they finally arrived near the Galapagos Islands, they found the grounds nearly fished out. They struck out for a new whaling ground, but it was thousands of miles off the coast, much farther from land than whalers usually felt comfortable hunting. But the risk appeared to pay off when a pod of sperm whales was sighted on the morning of the 20th. The crew harpooned a couple of the whales, but then found themselves face to face with an enormous whale, which appeared to be acting strangely. The whale rammed the ship repeatedly; first mate Owen Chase later recounted, "I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 44 kph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship." After crushing the bow, the whale swam off, never to be seen again.

The crew set off in some of the small whaleboats, but they didn't have enough food or water. The captain wanted to sail west, to the Marquesas, but Owen and the crew believed the South Pacific was inhabited by cannibals, so they set off east, for South America, and this decision proved disastrous. By the time they arrived at the Pitcairn Islands, some of them had already died of thirst, and the survivors soon depleted the meager fish and bird population of the uninhabited island they landed on. The crew set out again in hope of rescue, but again, food ran out, and they resorted to cannibalism themselves, first eating the crew members who died, and then drawing lots to determine which living member they would sacrifice. By the time they were rescued by another whaling ship, they were completely out of their heads, and were terrified of their rescuers.

Owen Chase, who survived, wrote an account of the event, called The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821). Twenty years later, Chase's son William met another seaman, Herman Melville, who had heard about the sinking of the Essex and asked him about it. William Chase gave Melville a copy of his father's book. Melville read it while at sea, not far from the site of the original shipwreck, and it inspired his Moby-Dick.

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