Wendell Berry’s Elegy for John F. Kennedy: “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three.”

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John Kennedy speaking in Berlin.

John Kennedy speaking in Berlin.

It is fifty-one years now since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the greatest shocks the American people have ever experienced, one of those beautiful sunlit days like 9/11 in which everything suddenly went wrong. In the days that followed there was a massive outpouring of commemoration and reflection, including an elegant straightforward elegy for the President in the magazine The Nation by a twenty-nine year old poet from Kentucky: Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry as a young man.

Wendell Berry as a young man.

Now eighty years old, Wendell Berry is one of the most significant voices of our literature. A distinguished poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist, he is perhaps best known now for his powerful essays in defense of stewardship, conservation, and the preservation of culture. He moved back to his home county in Kentucky from New York in the early 1960s to write, farm, and teach, and he still lives today on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky to which he returned with his wife Tanya and their two children in the sixties. He has developed a worldwide reputation as a profound critic of our industrial economy. He speaks eloquently of the need for healthy agriculture, ecological sanity, and civilized relationships among citizens, family members, communities, and nations.

Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry.

You may have been influenced by Wendell Berry without even knowing it. If you are a supporter of local farmers, farmer’s markets, healthy agriculture, and just about any kind of ecological sustainability, know that Wendell Berry has been writing about these things for decades, exerting a powerful philosophical influence on these movements through well-crafted essays reaching a wide audience over time.

John and Jackie Kennedy with their family and pets in Hyannisport, MA. 1963.

John and Jackie Kennedy with their family and pets in Hyannisport, MA. 1963.

But fifty-one years ago it was his poem in memory of John F. Kennedy that had plenty of readers taking notice. Titled “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three,” the poem, in the words of scholar Andrew Angyal, “makes use of repetition and refrain and incorporates the traditional elegiac cycle of shock, grief, mourning, the funeral procession, the internment, and the apotheosis of the subject’s memory.” The title comes from the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. The poem has eleven stanzas.

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In early 1964, a book edition of the poem was published by George Braziller Inc. of New York with drawings by Ben Shahn, the distinguished painter, graphic artist, and photographer. In a short introduction, Shahn writes that he found the poem “extraordinarily moving.” He adds “It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared. When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me.”

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The book has a total of twenty-nine pages, twenty-two pages devoted to both text of the poem and illustrations on the left side pages. Only one page is in color—the final illustration of a man standing in a field. The book was lettered and illustrated by Shahn and was printed at The Meriden Gravure Company in Meriden, Connecticut. The books were bound by Haddon Craftsmen, Inc. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to the poem’s virtues, the book is an interesting example of Shahn’s style and a cultural artifact of the early 1960s in America.

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Shahn’s work would be used again for one of Berry’s books. Shahn’s “Sunday Painting” (1938) is featured on the cover of Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998).

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While the idea for a stand alone book edition of the poem seems to have been Shahn’s idea, 1964 was also the year in which Berry published his first collection of poetry: The Broken Ground. Many distinguished volumes have followed.

Here is the poem in its entirety. This is how it appeared in the pages of The Nation, except for the fact that any line after the first was tabbed over about five spaces. I tried to do it in WordPress, but the lines jumped back to the margin.

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young
President, and the early dark falling:

we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and
wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;

we know his name written in the black capitals
of his death, and the mourners standing in the
rain, and the leaves falling;

we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells,
candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;

we know the children who begin the youth of loss
greater than they can dream now;

we know the night long coming of faces into the candle-
light before his coffin, and their passing;

we know the mouth of the grave waiting, the bugle and
rifles, the mourners turning away;

we know the young dead body carried in the earth into
the first deep night of its absence;

we know our streets and days slowly opening into the
time he is not alive, filling with our footsteps and
voices;

we know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth
he is given to, and the light of all his lost
days;

we know the long approach of summers towards the
healed ground where he will be waiting, no longer the
keeper of what he was.

—Wendell Berry

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portrait

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three. Wendell Berry. Illustrations by Ben Shahn. George Braziller Inc., New York, 1964.

Wendell Berry. Andrew J. Angyal. Twayne Publishers. Connecticut, 1995.

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Allen Tate: The Man of Letters Confronts The Modern Wasteland

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Allen Tate

Allen Tate

Today marks the birthday of John Orley Allen Tate, born in Winchester, Kentucky on November 19, 1899. In his lifetime, Tate made his mark as poet, critic, and novelist, although he never achieved the level of both critical and popular success achieved by his friend and fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren.

Tate attended both private and public schools and also spent a year studying violin at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music before entering Vanderbilt University in 1918. Tate displayed a precocious talent early on and soon became one of the “Fugitives”—the influential group of writers and philosophers who met to critique one another’s writing and to discuss literary, philosophical, and aesthetic ideas in Nashville, Tennessee. Fellow Fugitives included men who would become distinguished writers: John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle, among others. Tate was cosmopolitan in spirit, deeply aware of the currents of modern poetry, and was drawn to early Modernist works like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The emptiness of the modern world would be a major theme of Tate’s as well.

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren

Tate married a woman who would make her own mark as a novelist and short story writer: Caroline Gordon of Todd County, Kentucky. She and Tate moved to New York, joining the creative ferment of Greenwich Village in the 1920s and spending time with other important writers like Hart Crane, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley. In 1928 Tate published his first volume of poetry—Mr. Pope and Other Poems, and also a biography of Stonewall Jackson, demonstrating early on an interest in southern history and themes he shared with his good friend Warren. Tate followed his book on Jackson with one on Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1930. Incidentally, Warren’s first book was a critical biography of abolitionist and Harper’s Ferry raider John Brown.

Caroline Gordon

Caroline Gordon

Tate and Gordon went to Europe in 1928, experiencing the vibrant literary scene there and meeting the famous literary expatriates of the time, such as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the Fitzgeralds. But by 1930 the couple and their daughter had returned to the south, this time to Tennessee, where Tate assumed a teaching post at Vanderbilt University.

Tate and Caroline Gordon.

Tate and Caroline Gordon. (Photo courtesy of the Leaf Chronicle.com).

Now the country had entered the Great Depression. Tate, along with other southern intellectuals, was sensitive about criticism of supposed defects in the region’s culture from people such as H.L. Mencken, and he joined a number of fellow writers and academics—including some of the former Fugitives—in a group called the Southern Agrarians, which issued a famous critique of the industrial culture of the northern United States and a defense of the south’s traditional rural values. That volume was called I’ll Take My Stand, and Tate’s fellow contributors included Warren, Lytle, and Ransom, along with scholars in other fields, such as Herman Nixon, a political scientist, and historian Frank L. Owsley.

"Ill Take My Stand"

“Ill Take My Stand” (Image courtesy of The Greatest Books.org).

The issues raised by I’ll Take My Stand are complex and multilayered, and beyond the scope of this biographical portrait, but perhaps it is sufficient to say that Tate and his fellow writers felt the industrial culture of the north lacked meaningful connections to community, family, and the past, breeding alienation and isolation as a result. They felt the south’s rural culture provided a model for a culture anchored in meaningful local traditions that bound people more closely to the land, community, and family. Of course, the Achilles heel in this defense of the south was the difficult issue of race and the treatment of black Americans. Warren, for one, would later repudiate his comments on race in I’ll Take My Stand, and Tate would modify his views as well–and Tate’s views of the time were pretty harsh in regard to minorities.

On the other hand, the issues raised in the book are still with us today as we debate the effects of technology on culture, the necessity of healthy farms and farm communities, and the anomie and dislocation many feel in our “postmodern” world. Noted essayist, novelist, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry, in my opinion, has a kinship of sorts with the Agrarians because of his concern for preserving rural communities and culture and his criticism of industrial society.

Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry.

During the 1930s, Tate published two of his most famous works: the poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and his novel The Fathers. “Ode to the Confederate Dead” is, among other things, a meditation on history and culture contrasting the courage of  dead Confederate soldiers and the sacrifice of earlier generations with the aimlessness and confusion of modern society. It is not a mindless celebration of Confederate heroics; rather, it is a reflection on the modern world’s chaos and meaninglessness—a disorder characterized by a separation from the past and the sacrifices of those now gone, and a lack of sustaining values that can provide form and meaning to modern lives. The poem is complex and has been seriously studied through the years since its publication, and my own description here gives but the barest idea of its themes, but I hope it provides some sense of the poem’s nature.

Confederate graves at Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.

Confederate graves at Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.

Tate’s one novel, The Fathers, also deals with issues of culture and values. Here the values of an established member of the Old South, John Buchan, are contrasted with a man who represents the values of the modern age, and brings disaster in his wake through his failure to operate with a unified and coherent sense of values within his society.

Allen Tate's one novel--"The Fathers." (Image courtesy of Amazon).

Allen Tate’s one novel–“The Fathers.” (Image courtesy of Amazon).

Tate was a lifelong teacher, working not only at Vanderbilt, but at Southwestern University in Memphis, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Minnesota. He also held visiting writer and lecturer posts at other institutions. In addition, he appeared on a CBS radio program called “Invitation to Learning,” founded the creative writing program at Princeton, and served as an editor of The Sewanee Review. It is also important to note that he mentored other writers, among them Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He became known for his literary essays as well, and played a role in the development of what became known as the “New Criticism,” which emphasizes close reading of a text, focusing only on the literary elements and steering clear of contextual issues such as the writer’s biography, historical circumstances of composition and so on. Tate was the first of the Fugitives to publish a book of literary criticism: Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas in 1936, and this volume played a role in forming the New Criticism approach to literature that would have a profound effect on literary study in the U.S. He continued to publish criticism through the 1940s and 50s. Tate became a Catholic in 1950, and former wife Gordon converted to Catholicism as well.

Allen Tate (courtesy of The Poetry Foundation).

Allen Tate (courtesy of The Poetry Foundation).

Tate was married four times, twice to Caroline Gordon. He divorced Caroline Gordon in 1945, then remarried her one year later. But the couple divorced again, this time for good, and Tate married a poet named Isabella Gardner in the early fifties. They divorced as well, and Tate married for the last time in 1966, this time to Helen Heinz, a nun enrolled in one of his classes. Tate had a daughter with Caroline Gordon in the late 1920s, and then became a father again in his later years, having three sons with his last wife.

Allen Tate died on February 9, 1979 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1978.

A Literary History of Kentucky. William S. Ward. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1988.

The History of Southern Literature. General Editor: Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1985.

Collected Poems, 1919-1976. Allen Tate. Introduction by Christopher Benfey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.

Plainsman from Ohio: Jack Schaefer, Author of “Shane.”

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Jack Schaefer

Jack Schaefer

Jack Schaefer, author of the western classic Shane, was born on November 19, 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended local schools and went on to Oberlin College, where he studied English, then attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. He left grad school for a career in journalism, doing mostly editorial work in cities such as New Haven, Baltimore, and Norfolk. It was while working at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 1945 that Schaefer began to write fiction, mostly for recreation. He created a short story about a cowboy, gradually transforming it into a short novel. This story was entitled “Rider from Nowhere,” and Schaefer published it in the magazine Argosy as a three part western-serial. This book became Shane, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1949. Four years later the famous film version was released starring Alan Ladd. After the success of Shane, Schaefer moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Alan Ladd as Shane.

Alan Ladd as Shane.

Shane has been a western favorite ever since, but Schaefer went on to create many other works, such as the novels The Canyon (1953), Old Ramon (1960), and Monte Walsh (1963), which was made into a film with Lee Marvin and then remade with Tom Selleck.

Critical edition of "Shane" published by the University of Nebraska Press (image courtesy of Powell's Books).

Critical edition of “Shane” published by the University of Nebraska Press (image courtesy of Powell’s Books).

I’ve had quite a bit of experience with the novel Shane, having taught it for a number of years as a middle school teacher. I’ve always enjoyed it. It is one of those simple and straightforward stories that carries a lot of depth. I look forward to writing more about Shane, Jack Schaefer, and his other works here at Buckeyemuse. He’s a writer who deserves to be better known.

Jack Schaefer died on January 24, 1991.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Shane: The Critical Edition. Jack Schaefer, edited by James C. Work. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1984. Shane originally published by Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1949.

Wikipedia entry on Jack Schaefer

Published 70 Years Ago: Ernie Pyle’s “Brave Men”

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Ernie Pyle with the GI's at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle with the GI’s at Anzio.

There was no shortage of outstanding reporters in World War II. In the United States alone, journalists such as William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey, Quentin Reynolds, Martha Gellhorn, and Richard Tregaskis are still read today for their reporting of this titanic conflict of the twentieth century. Literary lights also served as war correspondents, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Erskine Caldwell. But there was one newspaperman whose reportage is inseparable from World War II, a reporter who occupied a special place in the hearts of those fighting the war: Ernie Pyle.

Ernie Pyle wasn’t just popular with the GI’s. He had a huge audience in the United States who valued the simple, direct approach he took to the people and events he wrote about in his columns. He had become a “roving reporter” for the Scripps-Howard syndicate in the 1930s, traveling throughout the U.S. as well as deep into both Central and South America, sharing with his readers what he encountered along the way.

Ernie Pyle talks with members of the 191st Tank Battalion at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle talks with members of the 191st Tank Battalion at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle was born in Dana, Indiana on August 3, 1900. His family worked as sharecroppers for a prosperous farm family. He grew up among plain people and learned to value the stories and experiences of everyday folk. He served briefly in the Navy towards the end of World War I, then went to Indiana University to study journalism. He served as a reporter and city editor for the campus paper, earned a position at the LaPorte (Indiana) Herald six months before graduation, and was lured away from there after just six months to the Washington Daily News of the Scripps-Howard chain. He married his wife Geraldine on July 7, 1925.

Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Several years later, Ernie Pyle broke new ground in journalism–he became the first writer to have a column devoted entirely to aviation. He held this position from 1928-1932, then became a managing editor for the Daily News, but hating being deskbound. By 1935 he convinced Scripps- Howard executives to let him become a roving reporter on the condition he provide six columns a week. Some of these columns about life in the U.S. would be published in the posthumous collection Home Country (1947).

Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle

Pyle began covering the war with the Battle of Britain in 1940. When America entered the conflict he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected due to his age. He went on to cover the North Africa and Italian campaigns and the drive through Europe following D-Day. His next assignment was  covering the Pacific war in 1945. He was killed on April 18, 1945 by a sniper on the island of Ie Shima. Ernie Pyle was only forty-four years old. He was buried on Okinawa, but his remains were later taken to the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, known informally as “The Punchbowl.” Many veterans of the Pacific campaign are buried there.

Funeral for Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Funeral for Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Ernie Pyle’s book Brave Men was published seventy years ago. Brave Men is divided into four sections. The first covers the invasion of Sicily and subsequent campaign there between June and September of 1943. The second is devoted to the Italian campaign from December of 1943 to April of 1944. Then follows a section on Pyle’s time in England in April and May of 1944. Some of this material includes reflections on the war in Italy, a visit to American airmen in England, and a portrait of a tank destroyer unit. The book concludes with the battle through France from June to September of 1944. Pyle arrived in Normandy one day after the D-Day landing and followed the fighting into Paris.

First edition of Ernie Pyle's "Brave Men" from 1944.

A real find: I found this first edition hardcover of Ernie Pyle’s “Brave Men” from 1944 at the Friends of the Public Library Warehouse in Cincinnati for the price of three dollars. This book  looks virtually brand new.

Brave Men is fascinating reading. Pyle’s prose reads so easily, and the stories are so fascinating that it’s easy to get pulled into the book. It is chock-full of accounts of everyday soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Often when profiling someone he will tell where the man is from and sometimes even provide a street address and some family history. This makes for an intimate first-hand look at the war.

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The legacy of Ernie Pyle lives on. There is a museum at the Erie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana, Indiana, and Indiana University’s School of Journalism is located in Ernie Pyle Hall. There is also an Ernie Pyle journalism scholarship at Indiana U. Visitors can also tour the Ernie Pyle Home and Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His home has been converted into a branch library, and they have Ernie Pyle material and memorabilia stored there as well.

It you’re looking for a great first-hand look at World War II, you can’t go wrong with Brave Men. It is an outstanding collection of columns by a great American journalist.

Patrick Kerin

Links:

Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Indiana: http://www.erniepyle.org/

Ernie Pyle Home/Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico: https://www.facebook.com/ErniePyleLibrary

Sources:

Brave Men by Ernie Pyle. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1944.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Ernie Pyle by Krista Ann Greenberg.

Remembering Vachel Lindsay

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Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay

The Midwestern poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born on November 10, 1879. He is best known today—and was in his own time–for his poetry, but also wrote film criticism and essays. He was a visual artist as well.

Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abe Lincoln, and the image and memory of Lincoln was important to Lindsay. One of his most famous poems is “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight,” which contrasts the melancholy figure of prairie democracy with the menacing clouds of approaching war in the Europe of 1914.

Lindsay in 1912 on the verge of success.

Lindsay in 1912 on the verge of success.

Lindsay attended Hiram College in Ohio to study medicine, but left the school after three years to study art at the Chicago Art Institute and then the New York School of Art. Lindsay was an idealist with a vengeance. He walked from Florida to Kentucky, sharing his poems and art with those he encountered. He saw himself as a prophet speaking on behalf of beauty and democracy, but encountered harsh realities on his travels. He returned to Springfield, did some lecturing, and published his first book of poetry: The Village Magazine. Buoyed by positive response to this volume, he made another voyage on foot, this time traveling through the west and carrying copies of a pamphlet he gave in lieu of payment for help along the way: Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread.

"Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread" (courtesy of Amazon).

“Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread” (courtesy of Amazon).

Lindsay next published his book General William Booth Enters Into Heaven and Other Poems in 1913. He followed this one year later with The Congo and Other Poems. The latter volume featured an introduction by Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and a powerhouse figure in the poetry scene of that time.

Lindsay was also a natural performer and lecturer. He developed a kind of chanting, bard-like delivery of his poetry, and became immensely popular on the lecture circuit. Some of his poems, such as “The Congo,” contain stage directions of a sort on how each particular part of the poem should be recited. Lindsay once referred to these crowd-pleasing pieces in his oeuvre as a kind of “higher vaudeville.”

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

In addition to his poetry, Lindsay also wrote about film. He had his own ideas about how the medium worked, and it is no exaggeration to describe him as an early film theorist. His 1915 book The Art of The Moving Picture was republished in 1970 and again in the late 1990s. Lindsay was steeped in populist values and believed that the Midwest was capable of developing a high civilization, and that the cities and towns of the region held the seeds of greatness. He wrote about his vision of the Midwest in books such as Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914), and The Golden Book of Springfield (1920).

"The Golden Book of Springfield" (courtesy of ak press).

“The Golden Book of Springfield” (courtesy of ak press).

By the early 1920s, however, Lindsay had fallen on hard times. Although he married and had two children during the decade, the loss of his mother affected him deeply, and he suffered nervous collapse in 1923 and experienced spells of severe depression in his remaining years. He died on December 5, 1931 after drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Lindsay’s reputation was diminished through the 1950s and 60s, but the later years of the century brought a resurgence of interest, in part because scholarship concerning Midwestern literature and culture has evolved and deepened in recent decades, but also because of his work on film and the plain fact that he is an interesting writer. He was written off too easily as some kind of one-dimensional troubadour.

Lindsay in his later years.

Lindsay in his later years.

I also find Lindsay interesting in light of our current poetry culture. Some may describe our American poetry culture as being broken up into several camps: one centered in the academy; one more at home on the streets and within urban bohemia (the world of poetry slams, for example); and one that partakes somewhat of both and attempts to spread poetry throughout other parts of society–for example, those poets teaching poetry to elementary school students or the elderly, or efforts to spread poetry through initiatives like Ted Kooser’s newspaper column poetry project.

Lindsay seems to me a figure in line with these second and third cultures. He deeply enjoyed reaching a popular audience through the colorful performance of poetry, and he also wanted to spread what he called “the gospel of beauty” to everyday people. I find him to be a figure both remote and yet very much in spirit with our own times.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Lindsay by Tom L. Page.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.