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Letter that Changed My Life


I was not yet 30 years old and was working as a firefighter(消防队员) in the South Bronx's Engine Co. 82, probably the world's most active firehouse at the time. It was warm and sunny, the kind of leisurely1 Sunday that brought extra activity to the neighborhood and to its firefighters. We must have had 15 or 20 calls that day, the worst being a garbage fire in the rear of an abandoned building, which required a hard pull of 600 feet of cotton-jacketed hose.

Between alarms I would rush to the company office to read Captain Gray's copy of the Sunday New York Times. It was late in the afternoon when I finally got to the Book Review section(纽约时报的书评版). As I read it, my blood began to boil. An article blatantly2 stated what I took to be a calumny3 -- that William Butler Yeats(叶芝,威廉·巴特勒1865-1939爱尔兰作家,被认为是20世纪最伟大的诗人之一), the Nobel Prize-winning light of the Irish Literary Renaissance4, had transcended5 his Irishness and was forever to be known as a universal poet.

There were few things I was more proud of than my Irish heritage, and ever since I first picked up a book of his poems from a barracks shelf when I was in the military, Yeats had been my favorite Irish writer, followed by Sean O'Casey and James Joyce.

My ancestors were Irish farmers, fishermen and blue-collar workers, but as far as I can tell, they all had a feeling for literature. It was passed on to my own mother, a telephone operator(话务员), who hardly ever sat down without a book in her hands. And at that moment my own fingernails might have been soiled with the soot6 of the day's fires, but I felt as prepared as any Trinity don to stand up in the court of public opinion and protest. Not only that Yeats had lived his life and written his poetry through the very essence of his Irish sensibility, but that it was offensive to think Irishness -- no matter if it was psychological, social or literary -- was something to be transcended.

My stomach was churning, and I determined7 not to let an idle minute pass. "Hey, Captain Gray. Could I use your typewriter?" I asked.

The typewriter was so old that I had to use just one finger to type, my strongest one, even though I could type with all ten. I grabbed the first piece of clean paper I could find -- one that had the logo of the Fire Department of the City of New York across the top -- and, hoping there would be a break in the alarms for 20 minutes or so, wrote out a four-paragraph letter of indignation to the editor of the Sunday Book Review(「纽约时报」书评).

Throughout his poetry, I postulated8, Yeats yearned9 for a messiah to lead Ireland out from under the bondage10 of English rule, and his view of the world and the people in it was fundamentally Irish.

Just as I addressed the envelope, the final alarm of my tour came in, and as I slid down the long brass11 pole, I felt unexpectedly calm, as if a great rock had been purged12 from the bottom of my stomach.

I don't know why I felt it my obligation to safeguard the reputation of the world's greatest poet, at least next to Homer and Shakespeare, or to inscribe13 an apologia for Irish writing. I just knew that I had to write that letter, in the same way a priest has to pray, or a musician has to play an instrument.

Until that point in my life I had not written much of value -- a few poems and short stories, the beginning of a coming-of-age novel. I knew that my writing was anything but refined. Like a beginning artist who loves to draw, I understood that the more one draws, or writes, or does anything, the better the end result will be, and so I wrote often to better control my writing skills, to master them. I sent some material to various magazines and reviews but found no one willing to publish me.

It was a special and unexpected delight, then, when I learned something I'd written would finally see print. Ironically it wasn't one of my poems or short stories -- it was my letter to the Times. I suppose the editor decided14 to publish it because he was first attracted by the official nature of my stationery15 (was his staff taking smoke breaks out on the fire escape?), and then by the incongruity16 of a ghetto17 firefighter's using words like messianism, for in the lines below my letter it was announced that I was a New York City firefighter. I'd like to think, though, that the editor silently agreed with my thesis.

I remember receiving through the fire department's address about 20 sympathetic and congratulatory letters from professors around the country. These letters made me feel like I was not only a published writer but an opinion maker18. It was as if I was suddenly thrust into being someone whose views mattered.

I also received a letter from True magazine and one from The New Yorker, asking for an interview. It was the latter that proved momentous19, for when an article titled "Fireman Smith" appeared in that magazine, I received a telephone call from the editor of a large publishing firm who asked if I might be interested in writing a book about my life.

I had little confidence in my ability to write a whole book, though I did intuit that my work as a firefighter was a worthy20 subject. And so I wrote Report From Engine Co. 82 in six months, and it went on to sell two million copies and to be translated into 12 languages. In the years that followed, I wrote three more best-sellers, and last year published a memoir21, A Song for Mary: An Irish-American Memory.

Being a writer had been far from my expectations; being a best-selling author was almost unfathomable. How had it happened? I often found myself thinking about it, marveling at it, and my thoughts always came back to that letter to the New York Times.

For me, the clearest explanation is that I had found the subject I was searching for, one I felt so strongly about that the writing was a natural consequence of the passion I felt. I was to feel this same kind of passion when I began writing about firefighters and, later, when writing about my mother. These are subjects that, to me, represent the great values of human life -- decency22, honesty and fairness -- subjects that burn within me as I write.

Over the years, all five of my children have come to me periodically with one dilemma23 or another. Should I study English or art? Should I go out for soccer or basketball? Should I take a job with this company or that one?

My answer is always the same, yet they still ask, for reassurance24 is a good and helpful thing. Think about what you're feeling deep down in the pit of your stomach, I tell them, and measure the heat of the fire there, for that is the passion that will flow through your heart. Your education and your experience will guide you toward making a right decision, but your passion will enable you to make a difference in whatever you do.

That's what I learned the day I stood up for Ireland's greatest poet.


1 leisurely 51Txb     
  • We walked in a leisurely manner,looking in all the windows.我们慢悠悠地走着,看遍所有的橱窗。
  • He had a leisurely breakfast and drove cheerfully to work.他从容的吃了早餐,高兴的开车去工作。
2 blatantly rxkztU     
  • Safety guidelines had been blatantly ignored. 安全规章被公然置之不顾。
  • They walked grandly through the lobby, blatantly arm in arm, pretending they were not defeated. 他们大大方方地穿过门厅,故意炫耀地挎着胳膊,假装他们没有被打败。
3 calumny mT1yn     
  • Calumny is answered best with silence.沉默可以止谤。
  • Calumny require no proof.诽谤无需证据。
4 renaissance PBdzl     
  • The Renaissance was an epoch of unparalleled cultural achievement.文艺复兴是一个文化上取得空前成就的时代。
  • The theme of the conference is renaissance Europe.大会的主题是文艺复兴时期的欧洲。
5 transcended a7a0e6bdf6a24ce6bdbaf8c2ffe3d3b7     
超出或超越(经验、信念、描写能力等)的范围( transcend的过去式和过去分词 ); 优于或胜过…
  • He wanted assurance that he had transcended what was inherently ambiguous. 他要证明,他已经超越了本来就是混淆不清的事情。
  • It transcended site to speak to universal human concerns. 它超越了场所的局限,表达了人类共同的心声。
6 soot ehryH     
  • Soot is the product of the imperfect combustion of fuel.煤烟是燃料不完全燃烧的产物。
  • The chimney was choked with soot.烟囱被煤灰堵塞了。
7 determined duszmP     
  • I have determined on going to Tibet after graduation.我已决定毕业后去西藏。
  • He determined to view the rooms behind the office.他决定查看一下办公室后面的房间。
8 postulated 28ea70fa3a37cd78c20423a907408aaa     
v.假定,假设( postulate的过去式和过去分词 )
  • They postulated a 500-year lifespan for a plastic container. 他们假定塑料容器的寿命为500年。
  • Freud postulated that we all have a death instinct as well as a life instinct. 弗洛伊德曾假定我们所有人都有生存本能和死亡本能。 来自辞典例句
9 yearned df1a28ecd1f3c590db24d0d80c264305     
渴望,切盼,向往( yearn的过去式和过去分词 )
  • The people yearned for peace. 人民渴望和平。
  • She yearned to go back to the south. 她渴望回到南方去。
10 bondage 0NtzR     
  • Masters sometimes allowed their slaves to buy their way out of bondage.奴隶主们有时允许奴隶为自己赎身。
  • They aim to deliver the people who are in bondage to superstitious belief.他们的目的在于解脱那些受迷信束缚的人。
11 brass DWbzI     
  • Many of the workers play in the factory's brass band.许多工人都在工厂铜管乐队中演奏。
  • Brass is formed by the fusion of copper and zinc.黄铜是通过铜和锌的熔合而成的。
12 purged 60d8da88d3c460863209921056ecab90     
清除(政敌等)( purge的过去式和过去分词 ); 涤除(罪恶等); 净化(心灵、风气等); 消除(错事等)的不良影响
  • He purged his enemies from the Party. 他把他的敌人从党内清洗出去。
  • The iron in the chemical compound must be purged. 化学混合物中的铁必须清除。
13 inscribe H4qyN     
  • Will you inscribe your name in the book?能否请你在这本书上签名?
  • I told the jeweler to inscribe the ring with my name.我叫珠宝商把我的名字刻在那只戒指上。
14 decided lvqzZd     
  • This gave them a decided advantage over their opponents.这使他们比对手具有明显的优势。
  • There is a decided difference between British and Chinese way of greeting.英国人和中国人打招呼的方式有很明显的区别。
15 stationery ku6wb     
  • She works in the stationery department of a big store.她在一家大商店的文具部工作。
  • There was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery.文具一多,心里自会觉得踏实。
16 incongruity R8Bxo     
  • She smiled at the incongruity of the question.面对这样突兀的问题,她笑了。
  • When the particular outstrips the general,we are faced with an incongruity.当特别是超过了总的来讲,我们正面临着一个不协调。
17 ghetto nzGyV     
  • Racism and crime still flourish in the ghetto.城市贫民区的种族主义和犯罪仍然十分猖獗。
  • I saw that achievement as a possible pattern for the entire ghetto.我把获得的成就看作整个黑人区可以仿效的榜样。
18 maker DALxN     
  • He is a trouble maker,You must be distant with him.他是个捣蛋鬼,你不要跟他在一起。
  • A cabinet maker must be a master craftsman.家具木工必须是技艺高超的手艺人。
19 momentous Zjay9     
  • I am deeply honoured to be invited to this momentous occasion.能应邀出席如此重要的场合,我深感荣幸。
  • The momentous news was that war had begun.重大的新闻是战争已经开始。
20 worthy vftwB     
  • I did not esteem him to be worthy of trust.我认为他不值得信赖。
  • There occurred nothing that was worthy to be mentioned.没有值得一提的事发生。
21 memoir O7Hz7     
  • He has just published a memoir in honour of his captain.他刚刚出了一本传记来纪念他的队长。
  • In her memoir,the actress wrote about the bittersweet memories of her first love.在那个女演员的自传中,她写到了自己苦乐掺半的初恋。
22 decency Jxzxs     
  • His sense of decency and fair play made him refuse the offer.他的正直感和公平竞争意识使他拒绝了这一提议。
  • Your behaviour is an affront to public decency.你的行为有伤风化。
23 dilemma Vlzzf     
  • I am on the horns of a dilemma about the matter.这件事使我进退两难。
  • He was thrown into a dilemma.他陷入困境。
24 reassurance LTJxV     
  • He drew reassurance from the enthusiastic applause.热烈的掌声使他获得了信心。
  • Reassurance is especially critical when it comes to military activities.消除疑虑在军事活动方面尤为关键。
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