Oct. 6, 2009

Two Cats

by Katha Pollitt

It's better to be a cat than to be a human.
Not because of their much-noted grace and beauty—
their beauty wins them no added pleasure, grace is
only a cat's way

of getting without fuss from one place to another—
but because they see things as they are. Cats never mistake a
saucer of milk for a declaration of passion
or the crook of your knees for

a permanent address. Observing two cats on a sunporch,
you might think of them as a pair of Florentine bravoes
awaiting through slitted eyes the least lapse of attention—
then slash! the stiletto

or alternately as a long-married couple, who hardly
notice each other but find it somehow a comfort
sharing the couch, the evening news, the cocoa.
Both these ideas

are wrong. Two cats together are like two strangers
cast up by different storms on the same desert island
who manage to guard, despite the utter absence
of privacy, chocolate,

useful domestic articles, reading material,
their separate solitudes. They would not dream of
telling each other their dreams, or the plots of old movies,
or inventing a bookful

of coconut recipes. Where we would long ago have
frantically shredded our underwear into signal
flags and be dancing obscenely about on the shore in
a desperate frenzy,

they merely shift on their haunches, calm as two stoics
weighing the probable odds of the soul's immortality,
as if to say, if a ship should happen along we'll
be rescued. If not, not.

"Two Cats" by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1930 that William Faulkner (books by this author) published As I Lay Dying, and on this same day in 1932 that he published Light in August. He wrote As I Lay Dying in a couple of months during his night shifts at the University of Mississippi power plant. He said, "Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again."

He had more trouble with Light in August. He rearranged the story lines many times, reordering and editing. He claimed that the inspiration for Light in August was "the idea of a young girl with nothing, pregnant, determined to find her sweetheart," and so he created the character Lena Grove, who opens the novel. But the novel ended up focusing most of all on Joe Christmas, telling his story as a victim of racial hatred. Faulkner set out to call his novel Dark House — he also tried out that name for the novel that ultimately became Absalom, Absalom — but when his wife commented that the light in August was unlike the light at any other time of the year, he got up, went to his office, crossed off "Dark House," and wrote "Light in August." Chapter six of Light in August opens with Faulkner's famous line: "Memory believes before knowing remembers."

It's the birthday of writer Caroline Gordon, (books by this author) born on a farm in Trenton County, Kentucky (1895). She was educated at a classical school for boys that her father had started and at Bethany College, and after college she got a job as a reporter. She met the poet Allen Tate and fell in love; soon after, she got pregnant, and they got married. The two writers had a stormy romance — they eventually got divorced, then remarried, and then divorced again.

Her first novel, Penhally, was published in 1931. Even though she published eight more novels and just two collections of short stories, she is best remembered for her stories.

Flannery O'Connor wrote about Caroline Gordon: "You walk through her stories like you are walking in a complete real world. And watch how the meaning comes from the things themselves and not from her imposing anything."

It was on this day in 1847 that Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (books by this author) was published (some sources say October 16). The public reception was divided. William Thackeray, who wrote Vanity Fair, called it "the masterwork of a great genius." One reviewer said, "This is not merely a work of great promise; it is one of absolute performance. It is one of the most powerful domestic romances which have been published for many years."

But not everyone liked the novel. A lot of reviews were focused on trying to figure out who had written Jane Eyre, and especially whether the author was a man or a woman. Charlotte Brontë had published the book under the androgynous pseudonym Currer Bell, the same one she had used a year earlier when she published poems by her and her sisters, Emily (books by this author) and Anne (books by this author). She changed Charlotte to Currer Bell, Emily to Ellis Bell, and Anne to Acton Bell.

Charlotte decided to publish the poems after she accidentally found some poems that Emily had written, and the three sisters realized that they had all been writing poems secretly for years. When she published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846, only two copies sold. But she submitted Jane Eyre for publication the next year. It was rejected five times, and then she sent it to Smith, Elder, and Co., her eventual publishers. She sent it with a note that said:
It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present.

They agreed to publish it, and it became a huge success, although a controversial one. Many reviewers were shocked at the possibility that a woman could write it. They thought Jane was too independent, too coarse, and too interested in what one reviewer called "the grosser and more animal portion of our nature."

Jane Eyre is the story of a plucky orphan who becomes a governess for Mr. Rochester. When Charlotte was five years old, her mother died, and she was sent along with Emily and their two older sisters to a miserable boarding school. The conditions were awful, the teachers were harsh, and Charlotte's two older sisters died from illnesses there. When she wrote Jane Eyre, Charlotte used that school as a model for the one Jane attended.

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