Monday, August 15, 2005

Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse

When I think of Ogden Nash, I think first of a poem I read in school a long time ago titled “The Purist.” I have read it too many times to actually laugh out loud again, but I still smile when I read it. I become the kid I once was somehow, happy to hear the joke over and over again.

I think Ogden Nash brings back memories for many older Americans. When I was reading the new biography Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse by Douglas M. Parker, while eating a sweet roll in Panera last week, an older man noticed. As he passed my table he said, “Ah, Ogden Nash, he was a wonderful man.” I noticed the older man, who looked like a retired executive, having a look of competence and industry, was cleaning tables. Was he laid off by a corporation, replaced by someone young? Was he working at Panera because he was unable to find a management job in the new economy, which disvalues the older, experienced worker? Is Nash for him a link to a happier time, his time?

Nash has often been a bright spot in a dark time. He became popular for his humorous poetry during the Great Depression when his works began to appear regularly in The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. Because he was never paid much for his poems, he had to write and sell a lot of them, which he continued to do into the 1960s, when changing tastes made his work harder to sell. By the time of his death in 1971, he had published over a thousand poems.

Nash did not only write poetry. He tried his hand as a book editor, magazine editor, screen writer, playwright, lyricist, and game show panelist. He was valued as an editor at Doubleday and other publishers, but the pay was poor and he left the profession to write fulltime. His efforts in Hollywood and on Broadway always started with lots of promise but usually fizzled. Radio and television appearances eventually paid fairly well, but poetry was his steady income.

Being a writer, he often worked from home. Unlike many men of his era, he seems to have spent much time with his two daughters. On several occasions, he was the primary parent as his wife took long European vacations. It may not have been difficult to do, as the family always had servants. His wife had her own money inherited from her “old family” Baltimore ancestors. She and Nash were always able to live the country club and martini life.

I think readers will enjoy learning how involved Nash was in the literary scene of the 1920s and 1930s. He knew Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, and many others. Douglas M. Parker also tells much about mid-twentieth century world of publishing. Fans of The New Yorker will especially want to read this book.

Some will enjoy the book for their own memories. There are many Nash verses scattered throughout the text.

Read “The Purist.” The punch line ends with a word that rhymes with “smile.”

Parker, Douglas M. Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 156663637X

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