Happy Birthday to me.
I face my future (relatively) unafraid, having today completed my 47th year on this orb. This puts me ahead of H. P. Lovecraft, a favorite author and creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, who died 5 months before his 47th birthday. Lovecraft in his lifetime wrote a large amount of “weird fiction”, but never got a cover credit in any of the pulp magazines during his lifetime. Never got the recognition due him when he was alive.
This year I pass him – this is my Lovecraft Year.
It is always tempting to compare oneself with other (successful) writers, but when doing so make the mistake of viewing their entire body of work versus one’s continuing work in process. I have written and seen published over a dozen novels, a passel of short stories, and more games than you can shake a stick at (if shaking a stick at games is your thing). I’ve been doing it for over twenty years. But writers in general tend to be a long-lived group, and so I went back and looked, not at their entire body of works, but rather where they were at the tender age of 47.
One of my favorite detective authors, Raymond Chandler was 47 in 1935. So far in life he had been a substitute teacher, a poet, served with the RAF, wrote for the Daily Express and was an accountant for an oil syndicate. It has been two years since his first publication, the short story "Blackmailers Don't Shoot". The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely have yet to be written. [Note - Corrected from initial draft, which had him born in 1870, not 1888]
Dashiel Hammett was 47 in 1941. By that time has been 11 years since he met Lillian Helman, 11 years since the Continental Op first showed up, and 12 years since The Maltese Falcon. There have been two previous attempts to film the Maltese Falcon. A third try releases in this year, this one starring Humphrey Bogart.
While on the subject, playwright Lillian Helman in her 47th year was called to appear before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She refused to reveal the names of associates and friends in the theatre who might have Communist associations. In a letter to the Committee she wrote: "But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions”
Frank Herbert was 47 in 1967 and was still working for the West Coast newspapers, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He will not retire from journalism until 1971, when Dune, Published in 1965, is finally optioned for a movie. The bulk of his published work is ahead of him. Dune Messiah is two years away.
J. R. R. Tolkien is the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1939, when he turns 47. The Hobbit is only two years in his past, the publication of Fellowship of the Ring is 15 years ahead of him. He writes scholarly works and meets every Tuesday Morning at The Eagle and The Child pub with fellow Oxfordians C. S. Lewis and other Inklings.
C. S. Lewis for his part hits his Lovecraft year in 1946 with the completion his Ransom Trilogy with That Hideous Strength. The Inklings still meet at this time, though one of their members, Charles Williams, had died the year before. Narnia was undiscovered country in Lewis’s Lovecraft year.
Argentinean fantasist Jorge Luis Borges loses his job this year at 47 (1946). Fired from his library position by Peronists, he becomes a Poultry Inspector, and takes up the editorship of Los Annales de Buenos Ares. The first piece of his I read, "The Library of Babel", was written five years ago, but he has a long career ahead of him.
Hemmingway is in Cuba in his 47th year, recently divorced. Its been 19 years since The Sun Also Rises and 7 years since For Whom the Bell Tolls Yet The Old man and The Sea is still 5 years in his future.
William S. Burroughs shot his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, his Lovecraft Year. Everything that was to come, including The Naked Lunch sprung from that bullet that just missed hitting the shot glass atop her head.
By 1928 P. G. Wodehouse is one of a number of exceptions: at 47 had his chops down - Jeeves, Bertie and Psmith had all made their appearances, and the pattern of a Wodehouse story already clattered along like syncopated clockwork. The author was living in NY and France, and writing musical comedies. He had found a rhythm that would last for the rest of his life. He also found tax problems, which in two years would send him to Cannes, France.
Charles Dickens was also at the top of his game when he turned 47 in 1859. Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol are behind him, and Little Dorritt had just finished in serialization. Tale of two Cities will hit this year. Great Expectations is yet a great expectation. And it during this period he starts lecturing and starts a new magazine, All the Year Round.
Ambrose Bierce is 47 in 1889. He's separated from his wife and living in San Francisco, working for the Examiner. An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge is two years ahead of him, the Devil's Dictionary more than a decade, and Pancho Villa no more than a dust cloud on the distant temporal horizon.
It is an eclectic group, and one that in general is still gathering steam in their 47th year. It gives me hope. Not everyone makes it – George Orwell died like Lovecraft, before seeing 47, but after the publication of Brave New World. Oscar Wilde has been dead over a year by his 47th natal anniversary, Robert Lewis Stevenson and F. Scott Fitzgerald are both dead three years at this point, Poe dead for seven. Jack Kerouac lives to see 47 but will not see 48.
Yet all in all, I have been part of a long-lived fraternity, and it is good to know there is still time to grow.
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