121st Think Tank Discussion, vol.3: Writer’s Birth Order,


January 10, 2012 by David Gillaspie

Important Or Not? Zelda?

Run, Scott, Run. She's A Maneater

In an effort to create better context for Dead White Male Authors, or DWMA, Think Tank 121 offers 20th Century giants of letters’ birth order to the general public.

Director of Writing / Maintenance, Story Teller, no relation of the physicist Edward Teller, presented a paper from his street research:

“A man on the Portland bus mall beat plastic buckets in dance club rhythms. He agreed to answer questions on the first author.

Q: What is your opinion of the writer Thomas Wolfe?

A: Same as your opinion of my music, man. He’s cool. Wolfe went long, then longer. That happens when you’re the first, when you’re the ground breaker planting new seeds.

Q: Do you think his birth order had anything to do with the length of his novels?

A: He’s last of eight, right? If a man comes from a large family, at the end of the line, the youngest, he gonna write long stories. Obvious thing? He’s gonna turn it on and keep it on like the Iron Butterfly drummer in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Q: Would you be offended if someone, another drummer, called you ‘the over-bloated Lil Abner of American literature’ like Hemingway called Wolfe?

A: See that tip jar? Put something in there and I’ll listen. Until then, you listen. Wolfe had a Master’s from Harvard. Hemingway graduated from high school. Whose opinion carries more weight? Besides, the man showed interest in older ladies, know what I mean? He knew the drill.

From there, I talked to a skate boarder on Waterfront Park about Ernest Hemingway.

Q: Do you have time for a couple of questions? I’m interviewing Portlanders on writer’s birth order.

A: What is this, bro, too much time on your hands? Shouldn’t you be in the library or a bookstore asking these questions?

Q: You’ve heard of Ernest Hemingway?

A: Who hasn’t?

Q: Did his birth order affect his writing? He had an older sister and two younger than him.

A: He was the oldest boy in the family? Just like me. I’ll tell you this, with that set-up you are the king. Big sister breaks in the parents, then she and momma compete to make you the special kid.

Q: Do you think his work would have been better if he’d gone to college?

A: He won a Nobel Prize with a high school education, bro. How’re you doing? I think he did just fine. It’s not the diploma, it’s what you do with it after you get it.

Q: He seemed to enjoy the company of older women.

A: So? Again, not a question. That’s not a question, but it goes with the territory. His mom and older sister set it up. He was married four or five times so he couldn’t make up his mind. Maybe a misguided momma’s boy?

Q: Is he a role model?

A: You mean like Tony Hawk? That’s what a role model is.  Late.

From the park I went to Old Town where homeless drunks lined up on Burnside.

Q: Hello. Hello? Can I ask a few questions about F. Scott Fitzgerald? Have any of you heard of him?

A: Spare change? Scott’s here. Scotty?

Q: If you’ll answer a few questions.

A: Like if I read The Great Gatsby?

Q: Have you read any Fitzgerald?

A: Just said I did. That’ll be a dollar. He was married to Zelda, our kind of girl.

Q: What?

A: That’s another buck.

Q: You’re very well read for a, uh, for a…?

A: Drunk? Stoner? Hobo? Street trash? Pick one. I didn’t start out with this in mind, but here we are. I still know how to read, man.

Q: Fitzgerald was born third in his family with two older sisters dead before he was born.

A: Bad trip, man. No way to start.

Q: Do you think his birth order has anything to do with his writing?

A: Can’t say, but with two dead sisters ahead of him, he was lucky to make it long enough to die as young as he was. I’m older than him. Besides, dude went to Princeton. That probably had something to do with his writing.

Q: Is The Great Gatsby the Great American Novel?

A: Whatever it is, it’s not 700 pages like Wolfe. If there has to be a Great American Novel, make it a short one. That’s another dollar. Boy, have you got the money on you, or do we take it out of your hide?

Q: I’ll ask the questions. Who’s your favorite writer?

A: Willamette Week. That’s my favorite writing. Now give me a five or you’ll be answering questions like, “Why is your nose bent?”

The Multnomah Library came next with all sorts of people outside. It was an interview-rich region, perfect for the next author.

A tall man in tears leaned against a tree handing out books.

“I’m sorry Ken Kesey, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wrote Acid Christ. I am so sorry. Please, Chief, forgive me,” he cried.

Q: Excuse me? Did you say Ken Kesey?

A: I’m sorry, Ken. You’re right, I didn’t fit in.

Q: Ken says he forgives you. Can I ask you a couple of questions, Mark? You are Mark Christensen?

A: I’m sorry.

Q: Good. You’re a writer? Do you think birth order reflects in a writer’s work?

A: Tell Ken Kesey I’m sorry for smearing his memory.

Q: I was thinking Saul Bellow. He was the second of two sons. If monarchy requires every royal wedding to produce ‘an heir and a spare,’ Saul was the spare with a view from there.

A: He was?

Q: He worked the academic side and the artistic side, graduating from Northwestern with post-grad work at the University of Wisconsin.

A: K-k-ken was an Oregon D-duck and St-st-stanford.

Q: Saul Bellow? Nobel for Literature in 1976? Married five times? What’s Kesey, married once and no Nobel. The numbers don’t look good, neither do you.

A: I’m sorry, Ken.

Q: Listen, pal, Ken don’t care. It doesn’t matter to him now, didn’t matter to him then. You can try to make it matter, that you knew Ken Kesey well enough to talk trash, and maybe bring new context to his life. But that’s not what you’re doing, you know that, right?

A: You’re not making it better.

Q: Saul Bellow would write you into his tales. Maybe Humboldt’s Gift. You could be another dead guy on a park bench.

A: I wanna lay down. I’m sorry.

The Oregon Historical Society is the end of the line.

An old man sat on a bench near a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider. The Portland Art Museum sat behind him and history murals climbing ten stories high in front.

Q: Hello. Good to see you.

A: Nice of you to be on time. Welcome. Sit.

Q: Thank you.

A: You’re going to ask a few questions?

Q: Yes, I am.

A: Please make them interesting questions, after all, I am a trained Oral Historian.

Q: Good. I’ll start. You’ve read William Faulkner?

A: I most certainly have, every huge made up word and every five page sentence of Faulkner.

Q: Do you see any effect of his birth order in his writing?

A: Of course. As the oldest of four brothers, he made his own world from the beginning. It is no surprise that he continued making more new worlds in each book.

Q: What would you consider more important, his birth order, or his education. He dropped out of Ol’ Miss.

A: We like to say of someone very sharp that ‘not much gets by them.’ I don’t think anything helped him more than anything else. Nothing stopped him, nothing could have. The dropout got a Nobel Prize in 1949. That’s more than a little something.

Q: Do you consider Faulkner in that category? Very sharp?

A: I believe he tapped an American vein that hadn’t been seen before. He added a certain context to our collective story. He’s not a favorite.

Q: Who is your favorite between Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bellow, or Faulkner.

A: That’s quite a line-up. Why don’t I instead say how I feel about each? Fine. Wolfe, based on recent discovery, was not who we thought he was. It may be like the Sistine Chapel’s before and after cleaning pictures.

Hemingway gave us Europe and more Europe. He’s the answer to ‘how much Europe is too much Europe?’

Fitzgerald seems such a modern character, one who can’t understand why they have it so good, so that they ruin it.

Bellow’s my guy. He’s current enough to make the call without finding new material, exotic enough without Europe, good enough to go long and make it feel short like Scotty, and regional enough to deal his stories like Faulkner.

Q: Is there anyone you currently read?

“A: Let’s make another appointment.”

Thank Tank 121 offered a muted response, head nodding, raising a low fist, as Story Teller sat down.


4 thoughts on “121st Think Tank Discussion, vol.3: Writer’s Birth Order,

  1. Lyn LeJeune says:

    If you like The Great Gatsby? Try http://www.amazon.com/Elijah-Rising-Lyn-LeJeune/dp/1935725084/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310946856&sr=1-1

    “They came in gray tailored frocks with braided edges and striped trousers …

    This is how the rich experience the war: Last night I was at last ready to tell Mother that was I
    leaving. But she’d gone to dinner at Churchill’s, attending one of the patriotic reviews that had become the thing in dinning entertainment. When she came home she was escorted by several young men in Khaki uniform, their faces were flushed from the night air and too much liquor. And with them were their girls, all clothed in dresses that went up to their calves, spangles shimmered around their necks, and their mouths were painted dark red. They all looked the same, reflected like chimeras in the long Venetian mirror that adorned the library wall. They laughed unceasingly and begged mother to turn on the radio. “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was blasting and I longed to escape the assault of the night. The young men twirled their girls around until midnight. Then they all kissed Mother on the cheek and yelled adieu and we’re off to see the Kaiser. Mother was high in color, more than I had seen her in ages, as though the war had given her back her youth.”

  2. markmmullins says:

    Quite a bit of history there. Portland is chock full of street smart folks. Funny

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