February 2006


Ted Kennedy Has Written a Children's Book

We came across a press release last month indicating that:

Ted Kennedy has written a children’s book, My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C., to be released by educational publisher Scholastic this coming May.”

In so doing, the senior Senator from Massachusetts joins an ever growing and diverse list of celebrities who have penned children’s books. They include the likes of: Jerry Seinfeld, Julie Andrews, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, soccer star Mia Hamm, former NY Mayor Ed Koch, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Duchess Sarah Ferguson, Jimmy Carter, Director Spike Lee, James Carville, Katie Couric, John Travolta and even Madonna and…we’ll stop right here. You get the idea. A lotta lotta people!

The press release goes on to state that:

“The book explains how a bill becomes law; the roles of Congress and the Senate in the U.S. system of government.”

This 56 page book promises to be, in a word— B-o-o-o-o-r-r-r-r-r-ing!!

And this is really too bad, as the Senator is sitting on one heck of a story that can be told in just one page, and yet be every bit as adventurous as anything J. K. Rowling can turn out.

For example, in just taking a blind stab at this, we already believe we’ve come up with something a whole lot more compelling than what the Senator has planned. Here goes.



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Writer’s Block or… Six Authors in Search of a Character?

Having finally gotten around to reading what is considered the classic novel of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, we found it indeed to be fabulous and worthy of its reputation. But upon finishing this robust book with its effusive prose, we could not help recall hearing, that this is the same Roth who had had such a notorious case of Writer’s Block.

This in turn led us— off the top of our head— to quickly number five other equally riveting cases of WRITER’S BLOCK. Classic cases of important writers of a generation, who apparently suffered from this malady big time. Their names are inscribed in the literary Rubik’s cube above.

As a poet and writer, this of course, would be a subject close to our heart. But it can also be of interest to anyone who has ever experienced other forms of so called “blocks,” or wondered about what it is that nourishes or suffocates the creative process. And let’s face it, there is a certain comfort in the messages that read loud and clear: we’re not alone!… and that yes indeed, misery does love company. Especially when the companions are geniuses who can’t get their car out of “Park.”

First off, a working definition of what we mean by Writer’s Block, is in order. While there is no hard fast definition—in fact some don’t even think it is something that exists—essentially for our purposes here, it consists of four components:

a writer of tremendous talent

• who has been acknowledged and rewarded by literary experts and the general reading public alike

• who has not published anything over an extended period of time

• for no apparent or stated reason

The source of much of the information in putting this piece together, was an excellent article that appeared in The New Yorker (“BLOCKED Why do writers stop writing?” By Joan Acocella; issues June 14 and 21, 2001; heretofore referenced by TNY).


Henry Roth (1906-1995)

His first novel Call It Sleep was published in 1934 when he was twenty-eight. It got little notice. It was reprinted 30 years later (1964) in paperback and became a sensation.

He didn’t start on his second novel until 1979 which turned into a four volume tome entitled Mercy of a Rude Stream; the first volume of which appeared in ’94 a year before his death.

In effect, he went 60 years between publication of his first and second novel! And then seemingly, he tried to make up for lost time, by going out in one last big hurrah. He had, by the way, the good sense to call his autobiographical work, novels and not memoirs, lest he get “Frey-ed”. (We couldn’t resist).


Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996)

This writer is particularly close to our heart, as he wrote pieces about real people and real places, many of which we knew from our wondrous youth growing up on the Lower East Side of New York.

We will quote TNY piece here directly, which confirms what we once heard Tina Brown, former editor of that magazine, say at an advertising luncheon one afternoon.

“A story that haunts the halls of The New Yorker is that of Joseph Mitchell who came on staff in 1938, wrote many brilliant pieces, and then, after the publication of his greatest piece, ’Joe Gould’s Secret,’ in 1964, came to the office almost every day for the next 32 years, without filing another word.” (The underline is ours).

Tina said that they would hear typing…but alas, no copy ever emerged from behind that closed door. TNY goes on:

“In a series of tributes…upon Mitchell’s death…Calvin Trillin recalled hearing once that Mitchell was ‘writing away at a normal pace until some professor called him the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence and stopped him cold.’“

Imagine what would have happened if this professor had spoken ill of him?


Truman Capote (1924-1984)

“Rediscovered” via the excellent movie Capote and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary performance as the title character, we now all know that he never finished another book after the publication of In Cold Blood in 1966.

For the last 18 years of his life, he was at work— in fits and starts— on what was to be a major novel Answered Prayers. But alas, it was still incomplete at the time of his death; the prayer of matching his previous success going unanswered.

Of course with Capote there is always the issue of his alcoholism. In fact it seems to be an occupational hazard. TNY piece notes that five of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, were alcoholics. But it does raise a question. To wit:

“when an alcoholic writer stops writing, do we call this a ‘block’ or just alcoholism?”


Harper Lee (1926- )

A childhood friend of Capote’s, she too is a very prominent figure in the Capote movie as she was in Truman’s life.

She published her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird in 1964 at age 34 and it became an immediate best seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. But beyond that, it has been a fixture on required reading lists of High Schools and Junior High Schools in America for these past 45 years. And, of course, it was turned into an Academy Award winning film of the same name in 1962.

She never published a second novel.

She continues to live a quiet, almost reclusive life in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born and raised. She did come to LA in June of 2003 for Gregory Peck’s Funeral mass and memorial at Los Angeles Cathedral (where the actor’s body is interred). Our parish priest reports that she is a sweet and endearing woman, and there are no apparent outward signs of eccentricities which would suggest why she was “just” a one-book wonder.

That we all could have but one hit in our lives, of such enduring magnitude: 10,000,000 copies sold since 1960 making it one of the best-selling novels of all time..

Footnote: And so a day after writing this, there’s a picture of Harper Lee right on the front page of The Arts section of The New York Times (January 30, 2006) at an awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Well we did say she was almost a recluse.


Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

Ellison was also a hit right out of the box. His first novel published in 1952, Invisible Man, was a best seller.

“It was an ‘art’ novel, a modernist novel, and it was by a black writer. It therefore raised hopes that literary segregation might be breachable. In its style the book combined the arts of black culture—above all, jazz—with white influences: Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Faulkner.” (TNY)

Beyond being just a writer, he was virtually a hero, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Eisenhower.

But there would be no second novel. This, despite having worked on it for 40 years!

When he died at the age of 80, he left behind more than 2,000 pages of manuscript and notes. His executor pieced together a novel out of it, something called Juneteenth and published it in 1999. Hardly a success.


J(erome).D(avid). Salinger (1919- )

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic writers in the history of American Letters, he burst on the scene in 1951 with The Catcher In The Rye. Word for word, this has got to be one the best of our literary classics— it’s only about 200 pages long. Salinger tended to “write short”. Short stories; short novels; novellas.

After “Catcher” hit the scene, Salinger retreated from public view and began a life as one of the most interesting and sought after recluses this side of Howard Hughes. Going in search of Salinger has become a sport for many of his still rabid fans. Some of whom, unfortunately, are a bit misguided and read their own message into the book. On the night when Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon, he was toting a copy of The Catcher In The Rye, which he was calmly reading when the police arrived on the scene.

While Salinger has not published anything in over 40 years, there is much speculation that he has been writing all this time. And there is always the hope that upon his passing, this work will be made public. He is now 87. And in his longevity, you get the sense that he is purposefully busting our chops.



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In the Department of:

Antithetically Speaking

Without the arts
  we are the ants:

heavy lifters
  of crumbs;

the masters of
  the commute to and fro;

noble             negligible;

crashers at The Big Picnic.



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Master of American Comics and one Winsor McCay

For those of you living in LA, there is a wonderful exhibit in progress until March 12, 2006 entitled Masters of American Comics, in joint display at The Hammer Museum in Westwood. and The Museum of Contemporary Arts .

Featuring the works of fifteen “cartoonists”, the raison d’etre for this exhibit is to provide insight into the medium of comics as an art form. Or to quote the press release:

“This exhibition has been founded on the premise that comics are a bona fide cultural and aesthetic practice with its own history, protagonists, and contribution to society, on a par with music, film, and the visual arts, but is still in need of the kind of historical clarification that has been afforded those other genres.’

Amen. Hey, you had us on: “This exhibit has been founded…” For we grew up with the “Sunday funnies” and the comics in our lives; a key source of entertainment in a pre-video-game age. And so we were familiar with many of the comics or their illustrators that were presented in this exhibit, including the likes of Dick Tracy (Chester Gould), Popeye (E.C. Segar), Peanuts (Charles Schulz), Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon (Milton Caniff), Gasoline Alley (Frank King) and Mad Magazine (Jack Kurtzman).

And then there were those we had never heard including one in particular that caught our eye and captured our imagination: Winsor McCay (1867-1934).

He is acknowledged to be the first master of both the comic strip and the animated cartoon. His masterpiece was a comic strip that was first published in the New York Herald in 1905 entitled Little Nemo in Slumberland.

The man was so far ahead of his time he might have been a product of the 60’s what with his surrealistic approach and use of a sort of “op art”, his refusal to “stay within the lines” and a style that suggests the use of hallucinogens while at the drawing board. The imagery of many of his strips is at once filled with lovely childhood evocations and yet a sense of the dark, the grotesque, the foreboding.

The premise was always about a young boy, Nemo, who upon falling asleep, would drift off into a bizarrely graphic and distorted dream, from which he would awaken in the final panel. The reprint below from 1905, will provide some sense of the strip, though the captions here are not readable.


And now Winsor McCay is in the process of being rediscovered big time. A giant book retailing for $150 was published in 2005 with a second printing due in March of this year.

        Winsor McCay’s masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland, as it has never been reproduced before. A magnificent limited first edition hardbound volume with Nemo's best from 1905-1910, FULL original newspaper size. An essential piece of American cultural history. 16x21 inches, 120 pages.

We invariably can’t help but wonder whenever looking back at a piece of pop culture that was so ubiquitous in its time, what will happen to the “big hits” of our time. Will South Park, for example, be rediscovered and be the subject of a museum retrospective 100 years from now?


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