Literary daybook, Nov. 12

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published November 12, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On Nov. 12, 1928, Leonard Zelig admitted to Manhattan Hospital.
-- "Zelig" (1983)
by Woody Allen, writer and director

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to


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Today in literary history
On this day in 1935, 27-year-old Theodore Roethke was hospitalized for the first of the manic-depressive breakdowns that would recur throughout his life. Roethke had just begun a teaching post at Michigan State University and, according to colleagues, had been drinking heavily all semester, dozens of cups of coffee and bottles of cola a day as well as alcohol. On the previous evening, a cold one, he had taken a long walk in the woods without a coat and eventually with only one shoe; the next morning, after deciding "to cut my eight o'clock class deliberately just to see how long they would stick around," Roethke took another walk in the woods, also coatless. He was shivering and delirious when he arrived at the dean's office, where he planned "to explain one or two things about this experiment"; the dean, trained as a mathematician, called for the doctors. Roethke later told friends that while on his first walk he had had a mystical experience with a tree -- even pointed out the tree, while retrieving his shoe. The tree taught him "the secret of Nijinsky," he said, perhaps referring to that passage in Nijinsky's diary -- written while Nijinsky was a mental patient -- that describes learning from a tree that "human beings do not understand feelings."

One of Roethke's most well-known poems concerns dancing, though hardly ballet. "My Papa's Waltz" is regarded as one of Roethke's "greenhouse poems," as being both earlier and about his important relationship with his father, who had a greenhouse business. In a passage written probably in high school, sometime after his father's sudden death, Roethke wrote this early draft of their dance: "Sometimes he dreamed about Papa. Once it seemed Papa came in and danced around with him. John put his feet on top of Papa's and they'd waltz. Hei-dee-dei-dei. Rump-tee-tump. Only babies expected dreams to come true ..." The poem first appeared in "The Lost Son and Other Poems," 1948:


"The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.


You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt."

Roethke's biographers say that he kept working with characteristic intensity even when ill. Roethke's first psychiatrist said, "You can't cure a personality"; the psychiatrist Roethke liked best said, "I think his troubles were merely the running expenses he paid for being his kind of poet."


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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