Thursday, September 30, 2010

Umnak, 12 January 1945

My Coot Charmant…
Trying to get sleep today was similar to attempting slumber in a bowling alley. Two of the boys, Fleek and LaRue, have received their orders to proceed to Seattle for furloughs, and they were not only exuberant but packing. They packed with an enthusiasm which I can understand, but which bothered me as I fought the pad for six hours trying to get a furlough myself via the dream route. And then, just after I gave up and got dressed, they went out.  …
The only other high point of the day was a discussion of writing with Al Hesse. Al’s short story has come back again, returned with phenomenal dispatch by “The American Magazine” I simply haven’t the heart to tell him it hasn’t a chance, so I suggested that he send it to August Leneger, the critic that Bill James had work on his story. I felt that he would get a straight from the shoulder summary of the story’s faults – which include, absence of plot, absence of characterization, banality of approach and complete incomprehensibility—and that if he can keep on writing after being told that, he may develop into a writer. He is such a good-hearted egg that I can’t bring myself to give his brainchild a going over.
However today he said that he had an idea for another story. It was, simply, a GI at a USO show who is embarrassed because a girls singer sings all her songs to him. He almost wants to walk out. But when he gets back to the hut he feels good about it. That is all there is to it. “But what,” I asked, “is the plot and where’s the action?” “Well,” said Al, “I thought I’d write this like the New Yorker. They don’t have plot or action and it ought to be easy to write like they do, don’t you think?” I was honest enough to say I did not think it easy. Then Al, who is as subtle as a sack of cement, said, “I don’t know about that. Being light and gay ought to be easy.”
As for my own writing I am not very pleased with the chapter I enclose, [from Bridge to Russia] which I feel does not move. But since I have been pounding along so steadily it may be that my critical faculties are dull instead of my writing ones. Be sure to make elaborate suggestions about this one in particular so that I can pace it better when I type out the final copy. The two quotations are, of course, for the start of the first and fifth sections. I have found a good one for the Aleuts in “The People” section but not for the Russians. As for “The War” and “The Bering” I have discovered nothing yet.
I did about as little reading as I did sleeping today, getting through only a few chapters in “My Native Land.” One of them contains the complete text of the poem, “Kosovo,” which is an interesting an epic as I have yet encountered. [Here is a link to one translation, and historical background, of this Serbian folk classic:]
The only thing the radio came up with today of any interest was a rebroadcast of that Corwin “This is Radio” broadcast which, I believe, was last heard with Phyllis and Otto, although perhaps it was with the Gene Elliotts. Anyway it is the one with the song “Take a Vacation from the World Situation Blues.” It was good to hear again.
Nunny, I’m too groggy for lack of sleep to feel up to much of a letter today. This one will just have to serve to sort of keep up the franchise. I’ll do better tomorrow.   ….

[Norman Corwin wrote, among other things, an alphabetical listing of satirical verses that he broadcast on CBS Radio.  Here are his entries for “H” and “O,” referenced above.]

"H Stands for Hays Office. What is the Hays Office? The Hays Office is the office that saves you from being corrupted by any and all sin in the cinema. . . . There is a pledge of honor. . . . This oath is usually sung by the novitiate with the assistance of a massed choir. Novit:
"The races must not mingle;
Entendre must be single.
Our fiber will be better
If no girl wears a sweater.
And if a kiss has too much mash,
"O Stands for Ostrich Studio. What is an ostrich studio? An ostrich studio is a studio which believes social problems should never be taken up by movies, and there's nothing like good old entertainment, is there? Refrain:
"Let nothing interfere with your enjoyment.
We'll waltz our way through war and unemployment.
We're specialists in joy
And Girl Meets Boy.
We manufacture syrup
To cheer up
Your blues—
Have you got those
Need -a -vacation -from -the world-situation
0, those blues! . . ."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Glimpses of Eugene Elliott, Attu Island, 1945

Murray's first post, on Attu, was shared with his good friend from Seattle, Eugene Elliott, later an English professor at the University of Washington. Both were writing novels during the abundant indoor downtime provided by winter weather in the Aleutians.

29 January 1945
[During a bull session about religion] Gene said there was mention of life in the Aleutians in the Bible. He quoted the passage, the number of which I forget, but the words are: “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday today and forever.”
22 February 1945
The weather today was really rough. When I went to go out of the hut once I knocked myself out, quite literally, by running into a board. I hadn’t realized that snow had sifted through onto the floor of our tunnel and raised it so much that I no longer had clearance for my head. Then, later, after I had been out of the hut for about an hour, I could not find the entrance. The trap door was drifted over. I had to dig to find it, dig some more before I could burrow my way in. I had a bad claustrophobic moment when I was stuck in the elbow of the tunnel but finally made it. .. It is a queer feeling to walk in a high wind when there is much loose snow about. The snow blows up from the ground and you can’t see your feet. A flashlight is no help. You just walk slowly, trying to test the drift with each step before trusting your weight. Other men move past, dim, shapeless, truncated in the drifts. They look like shadows without their accompanying objects.
Tonight I read some more of Gene’s symphonic book. God, but he writes well. From a purely commercial standpoint, I am not sure whether there is enough movement and continuity in the book. But from the point of satisfaction to the author, of saying what he has to say in the form he wants to say it, I envy him very much. ..
3 April 1945
Gene is in the room with me, working on his novel. He really suffers. In fact he is about the closest thing to Larry Abbott I have seen when it comes to the agony of composition. While he doesn’t have Larry’s habit of banging his head on the desk in an effort to start the flow of inspiration, he does groan, swear with expected softness, and hold his forehead as though his temples were likely to shake loose. Like me, Gene will take any chance to keep from writing when the work is not going well – he will read anything (even the Readers Digest), cut his nails, go for a beer, sweep the floor, put tape on the crack in his eyeshade or trim his already too neat mustache. Currently he is cleaning the keys of his typewriter with a jackknife. A few moments ago he was trying to work out a chess problem in the London Sunday Times.