The Last Word: Even great writers don't get much respect

By BENNY HORNSBY,

Gertrude Stein, the expatriate American writer and critic who ran the Paris “salon” frequented by such figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Pablo Picasso, famously referred to herself as a mere “newspaper mechanic” when one of her early articles was published in the “Le Figaro” newspaper.

Such a “declasse” statement seems odd coming from someone who coined such phrases as “the lost generation” and “there’s no ‘there’ there.”

I really don’t think Stein meant to marginalize the importance of newspapers, especially in the early 20th century. I know that they certainly had a great impact on my life in the 1940s.  You see, newspapers taught me how to read.  

I knew how to read when I started first grade. While the rest of the class was dutifully repeating the teacher’s incantations of “See Spot Run,” and pondering over the adventures of Dick and Jane, I was sitting on the back row, looking out the window, thinking to myself: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I’m not particularly smart: I learned to read by looking at the “funny papers” in The Times Picayune.

Every Sunday, I would be at the station and meet the bus from New Orleans that brought several bundles of newspapers, buy mine, and hurry home to catch up on the exploits of Prince Valiant, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Little Orphan Annie.

I can’t tell you when or how I learned to read, but before I was six the captions just made sense.

I’ve since found out that I learned to read by what is known as the “whole language approach.” Simply put, one learns to read by reading. Today, however, the emphasis is on phonics, or learning the individual sounds that make words.

There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but they make a total of 44 sounds. A student learns these sounds, puts them together, and they eventually form words. Or something like that. It doesn’t make too much sense to me now and it certainly would not have then. I would have been placed in a remedial class, or worse.

My theory, totally unsubstantiated, is that math-talented people learn best by the phonics method. Unfortunately for me, that side of my brain is undeveloped.   

I’ve always been interested in language and the power of words. Words can make you rich or break your heart.

As someone who spent 20 years at sea and who read voraciously to pass the time, I’ve always kept a “weather eye” open for the deftly turned phrase or the apt figure of speech.

Take “palindromes,” for example. First popularized by the English playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century, palindromes are special words or phrases that are spelled exactly the same when read forward or backward.

Random words like “radar,” “kayak,” “deed,” and “Hannah” come to mind. However, it’s more interesting when you can put phrases together, especially if in a historical context.

How about this from Teddy Roosevelt: “A man, a plan, a canal, panama?”

Maybe Napoleon Bonaparte: “Able was I ere I saw Elba?” How about owls? “Too hot to hoot?”

Or you can go philosophical: “Do geese see God?” or even biblical: “Madam, in Eden, I’m Adam.”

Just east of Hattiesburg, on Highway 98, we have an example of a “place name” simply spelled backwards, the community of Mahned.

It’s named for a Mississippi Civil War veteran, Joseph Wyatt Denham. Denham served in the 7th Mississippi Infantry Battalion and fought at Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Spanish Fort, Alabama.

After the war, he settled on the Leaf River to farm, and while the small community which grew up around him could well have been named “Denham,” there was already such a place in Wayne County, so it was called “Mahned” instead, which is Denham spelled backwards.

Reading and writing are solitary pursuits, fitting for a life at sea. Someone once said, “There are three kinds of people: the living, the dead, and those at sea.”

Often, when one has been at sea for a long time, months even, a feeling of what the French call “ennui” or what we might call lassitude sets in.

Sailing with a good collection of books to read helps one stay grounded in reality. I always left a working library on the ships when I transferred. Like Tim Robbins’ character who built up the prison library in the movie, “Shawshank Redemption,” I would write to major publishers and they would send me boxes of unsold books, known in the trade as “remainder” books. It’s amazing what you can get if you just ask for it.

Speaking of Stein and Paris, I picked up rudimentary French early on, overhearing it in dockside cafes, patisseries, and boulangeries. Unfortunately, it was the kind of French that purists refer to as “Franglais” or even “Tarzan-speak.”

A few years ago, I attended a month-long French language immersion course in Nice, France. All instruction was totally in French, and during class hours, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., students were fined one Euro for every word spoken in their native tongue.

One day, after one of my recitations, the instructor turned to me in exasperation and said: “Benny, where did you learn French? In the gutters of Marseilles and Toulon?” I said “Well, as a matter of fact . . .”

While we’re on experiences, let me tell you about writing my novel, a work in progress.

A Jesuit priest (my other vocational choice, by the way) and now a chaplain is sitting in his sea cabin on a Navy ship in port in the Philippines during a monsoon rainstorm. An old sergeant from the Marine detachment onboard knocks on his door and asks Father Damien (for now, after the famous priest of the leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii) to hear his confession. He does and this turns into a long conversation about the Marine’s life: multiple tours down range in Vietnam; his guilty conscience at being a “life taker and a heart breaker;” his lost love, etc. At the end of the novel, the big “denouement” is that it’s all been introspection: the “Marine” is actually Father Damien himself, and he is thinking about his own past. Look for it.

I have no illusions. It most likely won’t be the next great American novel. Writers get no respect.

When Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, which probably was the greatest American novel, died, his obituary in The New York Times referred to him as “Henry.”

As for Gertrude Stein, the next time you go to Paris, check out her grave in Montmartre Cemetery as I have.

For whatever reason, she and her literary and life partner, Alice B. Toklas, are buried in the same grave. No respect.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at bennyhornsby.com.