Monday, October 20, 2014

Quote of the Day (Mel Brooks, on the ‘Exciting’ Campfire Scene in ‘Blazing Saddles’)

“I had a rough cut, and maybe I had 16 farts. Things didn’t get exciting until the fourth or fifth one, and the laughter began to diminish around the 12th fart, so I said, ‘Okay, cut it off at 12.’ I did it kind of systematically. I do a lot of homework.”—Writer-director-actor Mel Brooks, recalling the making of the bean-filled campfire scene in his 1974 film Blazing Saddles, quoted in Jeff Labrecque, “Still Blazing After 40 Years,” Entertainment Weekly, May 9, 2014

(This is for my friend Jayne, a great fan of Blazing Saddles, a film celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Flashback, October 1929: Hemingway’s ‘Farewell’ Ends Serialization

Recipients of the October 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine read the last of six installments of what may have been the literary sensation of the year: A Farewell to Arms. What they didn’t know was how relentlessly novelist Ernest Hemingway had labored to produce an ending that would satisfy him—and how advice from another author in the publishing house’s stable, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had widened the gap between these frenemies.

Hemingway faced a particularly stiff challenge with this novel: how to top the conclusion of his prior one. In all its bitterly resigned irony, the last line of The Sun Also Rises—“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” —was so memorable that it led many readers to overlook the fact that nearly all the novel’s characters were in largely the same psychic place where they began.

Any other author might have simply resolved the Romeo-and-Juliet tale of Lt. Frederic Henry and nurse Catherine Barkley and let it go at that. Not Hemingway. Though he was fully capable of doing so, he wasn’t puffing himself up in his Nobel lecture in 1954, when he said that for a true writer, “each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.” By his own philosophy of “the thing left out,” he had to write an ending that resonated with a meaning not apparent on the surface, so natural would it seem.

But there was another personal, less noble, reason for Hemingway’s desire for just the right conclusion: he’d be proving that he didn’t need the counsel of Fitzgerald, who had applied crucial tough love to the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises three years before. In this way, the younger, more competitive writer was about to treat his Lost Generation champion the same way he would Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Gertrude Stein.

All five shared one characteristic in common: they had strongly influenced Hemingway when he was transitioning from an expatriate news correspondent trying to live cheaply in Paris to a writer who could make a profitable, full-time career out of fiction. He couldn’t abide any suggestion that he needed help, so he proceeded to trash them. It’s all too apparent that an “anxiety of influence” (a phrase coined by critic Harold Bloom in another context) animated Hemingway.

Fitzgerald’s mentoring may have been the most crucial to Hemingway; in fact, if critic and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson was (in Fitzgerald’s phrase) his "intellectual conscience,” then the novelist performed this same function for Hemingway.

At the height of his creative power following completion of The Great Gatsby, he had alerted Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins to his friend’s great promise as a writer; then, after Hemingway had completed the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises, he had handwritten 10 pages of editing advice that shrewdly mixed praise with blunt criticism of the novel’s “condescending casualness.” Taking this wise counsel to eliminate the book’s snarkiest passages, Hemingway had created a style that would be much imitated, as well as a code of tight-lipped stoicism and strict adherence to ritual, whether fishing or writing.

Now, four years after the successful results of this mentoring relationship, the dynamics had shifted between the two men. Fitzgerald’s health, financial, and marital situation had all deteriorated, draining his energy and confidence so much that he was having trouble finishing his next novel. (Tender Is the Night would not appear until 1934.)

Hemingway was now a more volatile person than the young, hungry artist Fitzgerald had first known. His demonstrated creative and personal potency (a new wife and son to go along with a new novel) had given him only a surface confidence of a new master: his father’s suicide the prior year had roiled all kinds of emotions, and he had exhibited considerable stress toward second wife Pauline while struggling with the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms.

How much had he struggled? Hemingway later told biographer Carlos Baker that he had tried 39 different last pages. For once, the novelist wasn’t exaggerating: I have heard estimates as high 70 for this ending. Perhaps the most authoritative source on the novel was Hemingway’s grandson, Sean Hemingway, who, for while editing a new edition that appeared two years ago, counted 47.

Following an encounter with Fitzgerald in June 1929, Hemingway agreed to Scott’s suggestion that he review the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms. Biographer Michael Reynolds, in Hemingway:The 1930s, suggests that little if any good could have come from the move, because the May segment of the serialization had already been published.

But Hemingway had withheld the last page of the novel from the serialization at that point, saying that, after several days working on the last three paragraphs, they were “almost right.”  But he must have sensed something wrong, because he spent yet another month revising it. Perhaps, at some level, he thought something Fitzgerald wrote might spark an idea—even if he was still not willing to acknowledge any from his onetime mentor.

At this point, Fitzgerald sent back a critique that, in length and acuity, approaches the one he delivered for The Sun Also Rises. This time, he may have made a grave mistake: entering not so much Hemingway’s creative consciousness, but the psychosexual morass from which Catherine Barkley sprang. 

Frederic Henry’s lover, Hemingway biographers now know, essentially was derived from American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who treated the future novelist after he had been wounded as a Red Cross volunteer on the Italian front in WWI. After an eight-month relationship that appears to have been marked by mild flirtation on her side and intense infatuation on his, she ended matters with a “Dear John” letter that pointed out that she was seven years older while implying his own relative immaturity.

Did Fitzgerald know this backstory? Hard to tell. But he did point out, in a roundabout way, something that critics have underscored about the book: Catherine’s infantilizing manner of speaking to “my boy.”

"You're seeing him [Frederic Henry, the novel's narrator] in a sophisticated way as now you see yourself then," Fitzgerald writes, "but you're still seeing her [Catherine] as you did in l9l7 thru nineteen yr. old eyes. In consequence, unless you make her a bit fatuous occasionally, the contrast jars-either the writer is a simple fellow or she's Eleanora Duse disguised as a Red Cross nurse.”

Very likely, Fitzgerald sensed that his friend had become unusually sensitive about his work, because he confessed his fear that "Our poor old friendship probably won't survive this but there you are..." That wasn’t the only cause of their soon-to-be strained relationship, but it was surely a contributing factor.

Fitzgerald’s sense that he had probably gone too far (for Hemingway, anyway) in his comments proved correct; although “Papa” never sent a direct written response, at the bottom of the final page of Fitzgerald's comments he had written, "Kiss my ass."

Still, Hemingway did not dismiss out of hand one suggestion: transfer an earlier paragraph to the conclusion. Perhaps this was because Fitzgerald observed that it came from “one of the most beautiful pages in English literature.” Many—including me—have agreed with that evaluation, but you be the judge, Faithful Reader:

You learn a few things as you go along and one of them is that the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Those that it does not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Scholarly analysis of the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms shows that Hemingway did, indeed, try it out, but it didn’t work. Or, to put it more accurately, Hemingway thought it didn’t work.

If there is a phrase that describes how Hemingway produced some of the most influential fiction of the last century, it lies in the title of Scott Donaldson’s biography of him: By Force of Will. The truth of that was proven on this occasion, when Hemingway set out, in a manner that might have pleased those artists of obsessiveness Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, to refine his raw materials.

It wasn’t pretty in the early going. Readers of the finished novel are undoubtedly glad Hemingway didn’t go with Ending #1, the “Nada Ending”: “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” No. 7, the “Live Baby Ending,” is only somewhat better: “There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.”

The one that Hemingway settled on, in which Frederic goes into the hospital room to see his wife for the last time, is considerably more satisfactory:

"You can't come in now," one of the nurses said.
 "Yes I can," I said.
 "You can't come in yet."
 "You get out," I said. "The other one too."
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

Writing instructors would say that this adheres to the old rule, “Show, don’t tell.” Frederic’s rage and grief are all too apparent in his response to the warnings by the officious nurse (who is nothing like his beloved Catherine). The passage is also the fulfillment of the first chapter, in which the rain becomes symbolic of death.

At the same time, the terse ending evokes emptiness. And no wonder: While all the protagonists of Hemingway’s novels are proud losers, none loses more than Frederic Henry: whatever few ideals he brought into the war; his position as an ambulance driver, through his desertion; the circle of friends he gave up to secure a “separate peace” for himself and Catherine in Switzerland; the couple’s baby; and Catherine herself, in childbirth. Like the ants on a log he remembers toward the end—like the European prewar civilization—they fall victim to fate.

Four weeks after publication, sales of A Farewell to Arms reached 33,000 copies; a month later, they surpassed 50,000. Moreover, due in no small part to a conclusion that evoked the absurdity of fate, the novel had been acclaimed as a definitive statement of The Lost Generation. 

Eleven years later, Hemingway would send Fitzgerald an inscribed copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but the senior writer--by now fighting to stay above water financially, as a Hollywood screenwriter--did not have a chance to review the manuscript beforehand. Too much had transpired since then-, anyway-notably, Hemingway trashing Fitzgerald's attitude toward the rich in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"--for the two to resume any of their old intimacy

Beginning in the 1940s,  after Fitzgerald's death, as critics began to raise their estimation of The Great Gatsby, Hemingway, with all his competitive ferocity, felt newly aggrieved at this potential challenger to his position as the major American novelist of their time. Papa could have simply produced work that would have laid such anxiety to rest, but he could no longer do so. 

As I recounted in a prior post on The Old Man and the Sea, while his ambition remained intact, declining mental and physical health precluded Hemingway from the intense concentration that had allowed him to finish A Farewell to Arms satisfactorily. That is partly why so many manuscripts (A Movable Feast, Islands in the Stream, Garden of Eden, True at First Light) remained unpublished at the time of his suicide in 1961.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, on the ‘Dance of the Lord in Emptiness’)

“For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.” —Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1962)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Day in Sports History (Rice Immortalizes Notre Dame ‘4 Horsemen’)

Oct. 18, 1924—In the fading afternoon twilight in the press box at New York’s Polo Grounds, New York Herald Tribune columnist Grantland Rice pondered how to convey the excitement of the University of Notre Dame’s 14-7 win over Army that day, in a way that would distinguish his piece from that of talented friends on rival papers. 

Suddenly, a chance conversation from the year before and an anecdote he’d heard that week about the moviegoing habits of the Fighting Irish inspired the courtly Southerner to compare the winner’s swift backfield to a whirlwind force and to the “Four Horsemen” of the Apocalypse, in perhaps the most famous lead in the history of American sports journalism.

Rice’s dramatic opening and the importance of the game itself (a major clash of collegiate football powers) led the sportswriter’s editors to splash the piece on the front page, above the fold, of the Sunday paper. The column proved a public-relations bonanza for Notre Dame, providing one of the legendary moments in an athletic history filled with them.

In his heavily distributed column “Sportlight,” Rice was not above alluding to the Greek and Roman literature he had studied at Vanderbilt University. This afternoon, however, he referred to a piece of literature better known to religious-minded Americans, including the winning team—the Book of Revelation:

"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.”

There was some poetic license involved with this—not a surprise, really, since, liberally sprinkled among the 67 million words produced throughout his five-decade career, Rice tossed in his own verses for the sake of variety. Purists noted, for instance, that there was no way that the Army team could be “swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds,” because the field sprawled out below the precipice under Coogan’s Bluff. Moreover, for subsequent generations of English majors raised on the prose of Ernest Hemingway, much of this is sounded like purple prose.

But Rice had his share of friends and admirers, even among those who wrote in ways that differed dramatically from his. Stanley Woodward, who acted as mentor to a generation of famous sportswriters as sports editor at the Herald Tribune, observed that among Rice’s legacies to subsequent practitioners of the craft was “rhythm and euphony.” Roger Kahn, author of the masterful elegy for the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, noted simply that the “Four Horsemen” passage was “the most remarkable lead ever written on a football game”—one that, like the cyclone that functioned as the article’s central metaphor, “swept away all before it.”

As Rice recalled the creative process that led to this in his autobiography nearly 30 years later, The Tumult and the Shouting (excerpted in a fine football anthology just published by the Library of America, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport), after being nearly run over by three of the players in the Notre Dame backfield as he was standing on the sideline, he told a friend, “They’re like a wild horse stampede.”

But when he remembered this, Rice was in his early 70s, ailing, and, likely, forgetful about a more immediate influence on his thinking. Back in October 1924, George Strickler, then coach Knute Rockne's student publicity aide and later sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, told Rice and other reporters during halftime who were marveling over the exploits of quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, left halfback Jim Crowley, right halfback Don Miller, and fullback Elmer Layden that they were “just like the Four Horsemen,” a reference to the movie the team had seen the Wednesday before they traveled east for the game: The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, starring an exotic new newcomer to Hollywood named Rudolph Valentino.

Reporting that day was as talented a group of sportswriters as may ever have watched a single game: Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, Gene Fowler, Westbrook Pegler, Jack Kofoed, Davis Walsh, and Frank Wallace. Significantly, though, it is only Rice’s account that is still remembered.

The hyperbolic nature of his prose and the prominence given his story by The Herald Tribune accounted for much, but not all, of the reasons for this. Once Notre Dame made it home to South Bend, Strickler quickly got Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, all dressed in their uniforms, to mount horses from a local livery stable, and made sure that the wire services received the resulting image. The photo became indelibly associated with a team that went on to win the Rose Bowl and compile an undefeated record. The power of Rice’s words, then, was multiplied by a single image.

If the 1920s represented the Golden Age of Sport, then Rice was its bard. What he did with this passage illustrated what contemporaries regarded as his greatest gift, and what many today see as his greatest failing: transforming a transitory athletic moment, place, and people into mythological status.

A couple of years ago, Tommy Craggs posted a devastating critique of Rice’s literary failings (“Why Grantland Rice Sucked”) on the sports Website Deadspin. The notion of a sportswriter comparing a minor-league baseball game to Gettysburg, Bull Run or Waterloo is, indeed, laughable.  

But at least some of this is unfair to Rice. As a onetime college athlete himself, he knew intimately the competitive instincts and stresses of those who played sports, and he was part of a writing fraternity that was not interested in exposing the peccadilloes of players. It would take a full two generations after the appearance of the “Four Horsemen” column before that laissez-faire attitude changed.

What had altered, too, was the nature of the media covering these events. For No Cheering in the Press Box, a 1974 oral history of sportswriting edited by Jerome Holtzman, Strickler mused that by then, it would have been impossible for Rice and his brethren to practice the craft the way they had before:

“Your stories today are shorter because of the economics of getting out a newspaper. Your columns are narrower. Your type is larger. And when you start to trim a Grantland Rice or a Davis Walsh, you get down to the straight Associated Press story. You trim out the little touches, the man's nuances. You trim out the man himself. So how are they going to build up another Red Grange?”

(The reference to Grange is apropos here. While Notre Dame was crushing Army, Grange was leading the University of Illinois to victory over Michigan with an electrifying, five-touchdown performance, leading Rice, in a typical bit of versification, to term him the "gray ghost.") 

The other basic change was what boosted this particular column by Rice to begin with: the image. With the rise of television—and especially the multiple cameras and instant replay that were increasingly used—viewers could now see for themselves, in real time—and repeatedly thereafter—any plays. They didn’t need the likes of Rice to talk about the action. The emphasis, then, switched to the individuals associated with the game.  

More has disappeared, however, than the romantic style of sportswriting epitomized by Rice (who, incidentally, in perhaps his best-known bit of verse, wrote: "For when the One Great Scorer comes/To write against your name,/He marks--not that you won or lost/But how you played the game"). The Polo Grounds, scene of countless legendary baseball and football contests, was demolished in 1964. 

Even the types of backs hailed by Rice could no longer exist today. The biggest of the Four Horsemen, Layden, weighed only 164 pounds. In contrast, on this year's much-ballyhood Fighting Irish roster, quarterback Everett Golson and running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant average 200 pounds.