The old settee actually exists.

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An unexpected realization when I was writing a book that briefly sketched the lives of Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie over the book’s length: I don’t enjoy reading biographies. For one thing, they’re all the same: A prominent person achieved prominence amidst a lifetime of tedious and often tawdry detail, and then they died. A good biographer minimizes the tedium, whether through discretion or style or both, but it seems that few biographies avoid the intense linearity of the form. 

That linearity points to another unexpected realization, in which a study of the phenomenon of nationalism (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson — I was writing a book about national anthems, so wrapping my mind around the history of nationalism seemed the thing to do — and I learned  a lot) shed light on my lack of interest in biographies. Among Anderson’s observations: that the novel developed around the same time as the newspaper, and that both evinced a tremendous sense of time’s simultaneity, with their sense of “meanwhile.” The newspaper page tells several stories simultaneously, which occurred in real time simultaneously, by featuring the lot of them on the same page, all of them jumping to other pages, where, often, they share space with still other stories. A whole lotta “meanwhile”s going on in the newspaper. Novels, meanwhile, usually have parallel stories running simultaneously, which  depend on the reader’s ability to hold both stories in their head as the novel jumps between them, showing that sense of “meanwhile.” 

 

Biographies tend to be weak on the “meanwhile.” I’m sure there are exceptions. Please share them with me! 

 

While I found it hard to slog through biographies, I found that I liked memoirs of prominent people written by people close to them. Memoirs of Guthrie written by friends, a memoir of Berlin written by his daughter — great stuff. Memoirists usually write not only because of the prominence of the achievements of their beloved friend or relative, but also because they love them. And in that love, they give a far better sense of what the prominent person was like as a person than the biographies do. The memoirs aren’t so hot on the sense of meanwhile either, but that lack is more than made up for by the writer’s love for their subject and the vitality and vividness of portraiture that that love engenders. Detail of character and dialog, not shopping lists or business itineraries. 

 I mention all of this by way of preface to a book I stumbled across and picked up a while back and have just  started digging into: The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, by Lida Keck Wiggins. Originally published in 1907, the year after Dunbar’s death, the Works portion of the book includes the majority of Dunbar’s poems, including — and here’s the kicker — Wiggins’s intimate head notes to many of the poems. Wiggins knew Dunbar well. 

The last head note comes late in the collection, to a poem Dunbar wrote after moving back to his childhood home, to die in his mother’s home. He died at age 33 of tuberculosis. It provides a vivid detail of Dunbar’s daily life, in addition to a sense of the memoirist’s grief, as well as the poet’s mother’s. 

Here’s the poem with Wiggins’s note. 

 

 Bein’ Back Home

Weary of his losing battle for health, assured that his days were numbered, and too weak to continue his literary labors, poor Paul Dunbar went home to Dayton to die. 

Show me another, who, under such heart-breaking conditions, could have written such a poem as “Bein’ Back Home.”

The old settee to which he refers in the fourth stanza, actually exists, and was the poet’s favorite seat. His mother counts it among the most precious relics of her son.

 HOME agin, an’ home to stay —
Yes, it’s nice to be away.
Plenty things to do an’ see,
But the old place seems to me
Jest about the proper thing.
Mebbe ‘ts ’cause the mem’ries cling
Closer ’round yore place o’ birth
‘N ary other spot on earth.

 

W’y it’s nice jest settin’ here,
Lookin’ out an’ seein’ clear,
‘Thout no smoke, ner dust, ner haze
In these sweet October days.
What’s as good as that there lane,
Kind o’ browned from last night’s rain?
‘Pears like home has got the start
When the goal’s a feller’s heart.
 

What’s as good as that there jay
Screechin’ up’ards towards the gray
Skies? An’ tell me, what’s as fine
As that full-leafed pumpkin vine?
Tow’rin’ buildin’s — yes, they’re good;
But in sight o’ field and wood,
Then a feller understan’s
‘Bout the house not made with han’s.
 

Let the others rant an’ roam
When they git away from home;
Jest gi’ me my old settee
An’ my pipe beneath a tree;
Sight o’ medders green an’ still,
Now and then a gentle hill.
Apple orchards, full o’ fruit,
Nigh a cider press to boot —
 

That’s the thing jest done up brown;
D’want to be too nigh to town;
Want to have the smells an’ sights,
An’ the dreams o’ long still nights,
With the friends you used to know
In the keerless long ago.—
Same old cronies, same old folks,
Same old cider, same old jokes.
 

Say, it’s nice a-gittin’ back,
When yore pulse is growin’ slack,
An’ yore breath begins to wheeze
Like a fair-set valley breeze;
Kind o’ nice to set aroun’
On the old familiar groun’,
Knowin’ that when Death does come,
That he’ll find you right at home.

 

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