Jul. 11, 2009
Pink and White
Peonies are the only flower I care for
and when I saw them from the window
yesterday, tumbled and heavy along
a fence, fully exploded, nodding
at the ground, hanging their heads but not
yet spoiled, I remembered
a summer (maybe seven years
ago, or was it ten?) I wasn't sure
our love would come again,
and here I am, almost
kissing the grass like that,
bursting and rich, cracked
all over like broken cake—
makes you cry but still sweet.
It's the birthday of the woman who first said "Well-behaved women seldom make history": historian and writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, (books by this author) born in Sugar City, Idaho (1938). She wrote several books about the lives of women in colonial New England, including A Midwife's Tale (1990), which won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And back when she was a graduate student, she wrote an obscure academic article about Puritan funeral services, and she included the quote "Well-behaved women seldom make history." She was saying that nobody paid much attention to the group of ordinary law-abiding Puritan women she was writing about, because everyone was so focused on the women accused of witchcraft in Salem. But her quote got taken out of context and used as a rallying cry for women to break away from their expected roles and misbehave. It got reprinted on T-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, and tote bags. And finally she decided that if she was getting so much press in the mainstream culture, she might as well use it, and she wrote a book with the same title, published in 2007. The cover features a woman wearing a shirt with the author's own famous quote.
After college, he had a few gigs as a journalist, taking time in between to travel across the country with a friend in a Model T and to work on a cruise ship in Alaska. Then he moved back to New York, and he picked up The New Yorker the year it came out, liked it, and sent some pieces in. He was a regular contributor and a couple of years later became a staff member. He married Katharine Angell, an editor at the magazine.
After 11 years in the city, they moved to a farmhouse in rural Maine. White kept writing for The New Yorker, but he also started publishing a monthly essay in Harper's called "One Man's Meat," about his experience with rural life. He especially liked to write about the animals he kept on his farm.
E.B. White had 18 nephews and nieces, and they were always asking him to tell stories. He wasn't very good at thinking up stories on the spot, so he started working on a children's book so that he would always have a story on hand. He had gotten the idea years before — as he remembered it, "I took a train to Virginia, got out, walked up and down in the Shenandoah Valley in the beautiful springtime, then returned to New York by rail. While asleep in an upper berth, I dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing. When I woke up, being a journalist and thankful for small favors, I made a few notes about this mouse-child — the only fictional figure ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep." So he slowly collected more and more stories about the mouse-child, and after about 15 years he had a real manuscript, and his wife suggested that he send it to a publisher. He did, and that book was Stuart Little (1945), which begins: "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse."
After a young pig he was raising got sick and he failed to save its life, he wrote one of his most famous essays, "Death of a Pig." Then he wrote a children's novel in which the pig doesn't have to die: Charlotte's Web (1952). It's the story of a runt pig named Wilbur who is saved the first time by a little girl and the second time by a wise spider, and it was inspired by White's observations of the animals on his farm, including the spiders. It is one of the best-selling children's books of all time.
E.B. White said, "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."
It was on this day in 1960 that To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It was written by Nelle Harper Lee, (books by this author) who dropped the "Nelle" because she didn't want anyone calling her "Nellie."
She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, which was the model for her fictional town of Maycomb. When she was a kindergartner, she made friends with her next-door-neighbor, a boy of the same age named Truman Capote. The character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird was based on him.
When Lee was in her early twenties, she dropped out of law school in Alabama and moved to New York to join Capote and write. She spent eight years working on a novel, and she had several drafts but couldn't get it to come together, and she got so frustrated that she threw it out her apartment window. It was the middle of winter, and all the pages landed in the snow. She called her editor, who sternly told her to get outside and pick up those pages, which she did. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It became a best seller within weeks, and won the Pulitzer Prize. It has sold more than 30 million copies.
It's the birthday of John Quincy Adams, born in Braintree, Massachusetts, (1767). He was the sixth president of the United States, but he almost didn't become president. In the year he was elected, 1824, none of the six candidates had an electoral majority. So the decision went to the House of Representatives, which was still divided, and the decision came down to one last member of the New York delegation, a man named Stephen Van Rensselaer. Everyone was giving him advice, telling him to vote for one candidate in order to avoid the election of someone else, or to block a certain candidate so that another part of the party didn't gain footing, and eventually the poor man was so confused that he closed his eyes and prayed to God to give him an answer. When he opened them he saw a ballot with John Quincy Adams written on it, and so Adams became the sixth president.
It's the birthday of Thomas Bowdler, (books by this author) born in Ashley, Somerset, England (1754). He wrote a censored version of Shakespeare's plays, called The Family Shakespeare (1807), because he thought that the Bard's sexual humor was inappropriate for women and children. He said that he "endeavored to removed every thing that could give just offence to the religious and virtuous mind." And we remember him today in the verb bowdlerize, which was named for him.
It's the birthday of the literary critic Harold Bloom, (books by this author) born in New York City (1930). His parents were Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish, but he fell in love with English poetry and read it before he had ever heard English spoken aloud. He started reading Walt Whitman and Hart Crane when he was eight years old. Like Walt Whitman, he has written reviews of his own books. And he went on to become one of the most influential literary critics in the country. He is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn't read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition. He said, "In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read."
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