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13 Facts About A Prayer for Owen Meany

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Author John Irving’s novel about a boy with a “wrecked voice” who believes he’s an instrument of God is a staple on high school summer reading lists. Here are a few things you might not have known about it.

1. THE FIRST SENTENCE IS IRVING’S FAVORITE.

Irving always writes the ends of his novels first, and Owen Meany was no different: He wrote the penultimate paragraph of the novel first, and added the last paragraph two days later. “I never write the first sentence until I know all the important things that happen in the story, especially—and I mean exactly—what happens at the end of the novel,” he wrote after the book was published [PDF]. “If I haven’t already written the ending—and I mean more than a rough draft—I can’t write the first sentence.”

In the case of Owen Meany, Irving didn't write the first sentence (“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany”) until at least a year later. “I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it," Irving wrote. What makes the first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.”

2. IRVING BASED OWEN MEANY ON A CHILDHOOD FRIEND.

The author was home in Exeter, New Hampshire for Christmas in the early ‘80s, where he and his childhood friends were remembering other friends who had gone to Vietnam and never come back, or who had come back but were very messed up from it. “Suddenly one of my friends mentioned a name that drew a blank with me—a Russell somebody,” Irving wrote. “Then another one of my friends reminded me that, in Sunday School, we used to lift up this little boy; he was our age, about eight or nine, but he was so tiny that we could pass him back and forth over our heads.”

That jogged Irving’s memory. Russell had moved away before they had become teenagers, and had been killed in Vietnam. “I was amazed,” Irving writes. “I said one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said. ‘But he was too small to go to Vietnam!’ My friends looked at me with pity and concern. ‘Johnny,’ one of them said, ‘I presume he grew.’ That night I lay awake in bed, pondering the ‘What if...’ that is the beginning of every novel for me. What if he didn’t grow? I was thinking.” Irving would later incorporate the memory of passing Russell over the heads of kids in Sunday School into a scene in Owen Meany.

3. THE BOOK IS FULL OF HOMAGES TO OTHER NOVELS.

In the novel, Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball hit by Owen Meany—which, Irving said in an interview with the Denver Post, is an homage to the Robertson Davies novel Fifth Business, in which the protagonist’s mom is killed by a snowball. “I love that novel,” Irving said. “And Owen Meany has the same initials as Oskar Matzerath—the hero of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum.” (And, like Irving’s Meany, Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow.) “Many writers become writers because of something they read,” he told the Post. “Homage is simply recognizing and acknowledging your ancestors.”

4. HESTER IN OWEN MEANY IS SIMILAR TO ANOTHER OF IRVING’S CHARACTERS.

If Johnny’s abrasive cousin Hester in Owen Meany sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read Irving’s 1985 novel The Cider House Rules. “Certain minor characters repeat themselves,” Irving told Readers Read in 2005. “Melony in Cider House is reborn as Hester in A Prayer for Owen Meany, and they are both reborn and enlarged upon in the character of Emma in Until I Find You.”

5. HE PLAGIARIZED HIMSELF.

The physical description of Owen Meany who is first described as looking embryonic, not yet born, was a passage I lifted from the physical description of the orphan Fuzzy Stone who dies of respiratory failure in The Cider House Rules, the novel before I wrote, A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Irving said at a 2006 charity event with Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. I am unaware if it's possible to get in trouble for plagiarizing yourself but I did. If you look at the physical description of Fuzzy Stone and the physical description of Owen Meany, they're almost word for word the same.

6. IRVING DID HIS RESEARCH.

In an interview with Powells, Irving said he looked into both the quarry business and being a body escort to write Owen Meany. “I feel I have to be the dutiful journalist,” he said. “I have to put myself in the hands of someone whose life that is and learn it. You just have to know that stuff or you shouldn't write about it.”

7. OWEN’S VOICE IS PROBABLY CAUSED BY “SINGERS' POLYPS.”

The author writes Owen’s weird “wrecked voice” in all caps. When asked to describe what the voice sounds like to him, Irving told the Denver Post that “There's gravel damage, rock dust, granite quarry residue, in Owen's throat; he probably has what they call ‘singers' polyps.’ It is a damaged-sounding voice; it has to strain. It's always a little harsh-sounding—never soft. It's irritating to listen to—like the effect of those capital letters, I thought. It's an insistent voice—one that demands to be heard.” Another important reason it was necessary: In the novel's climactic scene, where he saves a group of Vietnamese children at an airport from the grenade-wielding half-brother of a dead soldier, Owen has to have a voice the Vietnamese children will pay attention to, which is why he also has to be small,” Irving said.

8. THE NOVEL IS PARTIALLY A COMMENTARY ON AMERICANS’ OBSESSION WITH SPORTS.

Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball, hit by Owen; his dog is killed when he’s hit by a truck chasing a football; and Owen dies after lobbing a grenade out a bathroom window—a move he and Johnny had perfected by practicing basketball dunking for years. “I think sports are altogether too important to American society,” Irving, a former wrestler, told the Denver Post:

We certainly celebrate sports, and sports heroes, more than we honor the arts, or any number of intellectual achievements. We are a sports culture. … This is a novel about the damage Americans do to themselves; sports are a part of that damage. If world news were covered as extensively, and in such detail, as the ceaseless March Madness over college basketball, wouldn't Americans be better informed about the world, and our place in it, than we are? … It's not literally, of course, that sports are killing us; but what we pay intense attention to it, and what we ignore is surely doing us some harm. And, as a former wrestler who is bored to tears by basketball, I thought: What possibly good reason can there be for insanely practicing sinking a basketball when you're Owen Meany's size? Well, how about saving the lives of children? In my view, there's no other good reason for it!

9. LIKE JOHN WHEELWRIGHT, IRVING NEVER WENT TO VIETNAM ...

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny Wheelwright escapes Vietnam after Owen cuts off part of his trigger finger with a diamond wheel—but Irving didn’t qualify for service because he was a Kennedy father.

“In 1963, relatively early in the Vietnam War, President Kennedy issued an executive order saying if you were the father of a child, and that child's necessary means of support, you were not to be drafted into military service,” Irving told the Denver Post. The author got married and had a son while he was still in college, so he went from a student deferment to a Kennedy father deferment. But that didn’t make him feel lucky. “I felt disappointed. I wanted to be a writer; therefore, I wanted to see what the war was like,” he said. “Years later, of course, I realized how lucky I'd been. That child—he's in his 40s now, with children of his own—reminds me from time to time about it. Whenever we get in an argument of some kind, he says, ‘Don't forget who kept you out of Vietnam.’” The deferment ended in 1970.

10. … BUT HE INSISTS THE CHARACTER ISN’T AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.

Still, despite the similarities between Irving and John Wheelwright—they share a similar childhood history, didn’t go to Vietnam, and both, as adults, live in Toronto—Irving emphasizes that he’s not Wheelwright. “I wouldn't be playing fair if I did not admit to sharing some of his opinions emotionally, but the point about Johnny Wheelwright is that he has no distance; he has no perspective,” Irving told the New York Times in 1989. “He is puerile. His sense of political outrage is strictly emotional.”

He doesn’t share John Wheelwright’s religious fervor, either. “I'm not religious,” he told the Denver Post. “In writing A Prayer for Owen Meany, I asked myself a fairly straightforward question—namely, what would it take to make a believer out of me? The answer is that I would have to meet someone like Owen Meany. If I'd had Johnny Wheelwright's experience in that novel, I would probably be a believer too. But I haven't had that experience—I only imagined it.”

11. IT COULD HAVE BEEN HIS FOURTH NUMBER ONE NOVEL.

The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules all hit number one on the bestsellers charts—and Owen Meany, released in 1989, might have, too, if not for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which got a sales boost thanks to the fatwa against him. “I called Salman briefly after he went into hiding back then,” Irving told Parade. “I told him congratulations, since we were one-two on bestseller lists all over the world. Rushdie laughed and came right back at me. ‘You want to switch places?’”

12. IRVING HAS MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE BOOK’S SPOT ON HIGH SCHOOL READING LISTS.

Irving told Nashville Scene in an email interview in 2008 that “It's ironic to me that the three of my eleven published novels most taught in A.P. English classes in high schools, and in colleges and universities, are the same three novels that have been banned in various schools—and in some libraries. (A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most frequently taught at the high-school level; The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp get more exposure in colleges and universities.)”

He had mixed feelings about the required part, he said:

I remember—this was mainly in high school—hating some of the novels I was required to read, though in most cases these required books introduced me to many of my favorite authors. In the area of Vermont where I live, I visit schools where my novels are taught; I've attended a fair number of A.P. English classes, just to talk to the kids and answer their questions. I'm lucky, as a writer, that I've always maintained a very young audience; that my novels are taught in courses, both in high school and at colleges and universities, helps to keep the age of my audience young. That matters more to me at sixty-six than it once did.

13. IT WAS ADAPTED INTO A MOVIE.

Irving, who penned the screenplay for his the film adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules over the course of 13 years—all the while writing novels—decided he was too busy and “had neither the desire nor the stamina to revisit the Vietnam years” to try to adapt a screenplay for a film version of Owen Meany. “Therefore, when Mark Steven Johnson approached me not to write a screenplay of A Prayer for Owen Meany but to allow him to write and direct the picture, I was very happy to let him try,” Irving said in a statement posted on Ain’t It Cool News. But he had some conditions: “I said I wanted to read the shooting script and decide at that time if I wanted them to use my title and the names of my characters. Mark agreed.”

Irving liked the script, he said, which was quite different from the novel: Everything about Vietnam had been excised and the ending was changed. “I felt it would mislead the novel's many readers to see a film of that same title which was so different from the book,” Irving said, and so he asked that the name be changed. The resulting movie, which starred Ashley Judd, Jim Carrey, and Oliver Platt, was called Simon Birch and hit theaters in 1998. “Simon Birch is really Mark Steven Johnson's story—with Owen Meany's beginning,” Irving said. “I think it was, therefore, a happy resolution for both Mark and me that he was able to make his film, which clearly was ‘suggested by’ (as credits say) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but which is clearly not A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Afterward, rumors circulated that Irving had hated the movie. “Mark took an unfair bashing in the American press,” Irving told The Guardian. “People wrote that I hated the film and took my title away. That is untrue.” He told The Guardian that the book is unfilmable because “film is two-dimensional. What you see is real. To visualize Owen's miracle is to make it unbelievable. It would be like those biblical movies of the 1950s and early 1960s. When the Red Sea actually does part, the audience just doesn't believe it.” The book has since been adapted into a stage play, a college production, and a BBC radio play.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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