Tuesday

Dec. 7, 2010

I started Early -Took my Dog -

by Emily Dickinson

I started Early - Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -
And Frigates - in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground - opon the Sands -

But no Man moved Me - till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron - and my Belt
And past my Boddice - too -

And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve -
And then - I started - too -

And He - He followed - close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle - Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -

Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know -
And bowing - with a Mighty look -
At me - The Sea withdrew -

"I started Early Took my Dog " by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Willa Cather, (books by this author) born Wilella Cather in the village of Back Creek near Winchester, Virginia (1873). The Cathers had a hired girl named Margie, and when Margie would go home to visit her mother, Mary Ann, she would bring young Willa with her. Mary Ann was illiterate, a "hill woman" from Timber Ridge, a stretch of the Appalachians. Willa soaked in the stories that Mary Ann told — the gossip, family feuds, stories of lovers and murderers and legacies from the Civil War. Many years later, Willa Cather said that this was the beginning of her life in storytelling.

Cather's family had a tense relationship with many of their neighbors. Willa Cather was the fifth generation of Virginian aristocracy. They lived in a large, elegant farmhouse. Even worse, her father's family were known supporters of the Union during the war — her father and uncle had crossed the border into West Virginia to avoid being drafted, and people suspected her grandfather of being a Union spy. The year that Willa was born, her uncle moved to Nebraska to homestead, and her grandparents soon followed their son. Willa's parents wanted to stay in Virginia and keep farming sheep. However, a few years later their four-story sheep barn burned to the ground, and there were rumors that it was an act of arson by resentful neighbors. The Cathers took that as a sign and headed off to join the rest of their family in Nebraska.

So in 1883, Willa, her three brothers and sisters, her parents, Willa's grandma on her mother's side, two of her cousins, their hired girl Margie, and Margie's brother all set off together for Nebraska. They took a train to Red Cloud, then a covered wagon out to the precinct of Catherton, which her relatives had named after themselves. She wrote later, "That shaggy grass country had ripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life."

After a childhood on the prairie, growing up with immigrant pioneers, Cather went off to college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, intending to become a doctor. But after one of her professors sent in an essay of hers without her knowledge and it was published, she decided to become a writer instead.

She had a stint working for the Nebraska State Journal, then moved to Pittsburgh and ended up with a job at the Daily Leader. Crawford Peffer was a law student and friends with Edwin Couse, the editor of the Daily Leader. Peffer wrote: "I often went to his office at the close of the day's work, about 4 p.m. One day I found a young lady with flashing blue eyes, sitting opposite him at his large flattop desk, whom he introduced to me as 'Miss Cather, my new assistant.' […] Miss Cather was unconventional in both dress and conversation. She wore skirts much too short for that day and mannish looking shirtwaists. Soon we were calling her 'Bill,' a name she seemed to like. Bill Cather was the most argumentative person I have ever met. She disputed any subject that Couse or I brought up." That was in 1898. In 1906, she moved to New York to work on the editorial staff of McClure's. But the prairie remained her inspiration. She serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in McClure's in 1912. Her second novel, O Pioneers! (1913), was her first book about Nebraska — it was published when she was almost 40 years old. She wrote to a friend, "I wanted to let the country be the hero."

O Pioneers! begins: "One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.”

She quit her job at McClure's to write full time, and her many novels include The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

It's the birthday of novelist Susan Minot, (books by this author) born in Boston (1956). She was one of seven children, and they grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a town on the Massachusetts coast. Their father came from old money, descended straight from the Boston Brahmins, and their mother was a lively Irish-Catholic woman. Susan Minot said: "I didn't like what was going on. I didn't like being stuck in a house. Too many people around. One of the reasons I became a writer is that I had to go into a room and sit down in order to know what was going on in my head."

She said: "I started writing because I was compelled to. When I was 13 or so, I spent two or three hours a day writing in that adolescent, struggling, angst-ridden way. By the time I was 21 I'd spent so much time doing it that I allowed a small practical idea to enter my thoughts: Well, if I'm doing this so much, maybe I can make something of it. I was learning to write, learning what it took to write." Her father was an alcoholic, and when she was a senior at Brown, her mother died in a car crash. Her sister Eliza was seven years old, and so after she graduated from college Susan moved back home to be with her sister. She figured that writing would be a nice flexible job that she could do while Eliza was at school.

In 1986, she published Monkeys, a book of connected stories drawing heavily on her own life — it tells the story of a family of seven children raised in an upper-class New England family, with an alcoholic father and a warm Irish-Catholic mother who dies in a car crash.

And Susan Minot is not the only one in her family to turn their history into fiction. All seven siblings are writers or artists. Her sister Eliza published The Tiny One (1999), which retold that same family saga from the point of view of an eight-year-old trying to cope with her mother's death. Then George Minot, the fourth oldest, published The Blue Bowl (2004), a murder mystery about the animosity between an alcoholic father and his son. Then Sam, a landscape painter and the next after George, was so furious with his siblings for putting his life into fiction that he self-published an online memoir, The Strange Poverty of the Rich (2004).

Susan Minot went on to write several other novels, including Evening (1998), and most recently, Rapture (2002). She also wrote a book of poems, Poems 4 A.M. (2002).

She said: "The word dysfunction has, I think, served its purpose and now has lost its meaning. Every family, like every person, is imperfect, after all. The idea that there is a Family somewhere who functions is an odd concept. In my youth I was running from my family to try to find out who I was — their influence distracted me. Now I see what a powerful hold they have, no matter what."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the public intellectual, political writer, and the man known as the "father of modern linguistics," Noam Chomsky, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1928). He grew up during the Great Depression, surrounded by poverty and anti-Semitism. His father was a Ukrainian immigrant and a famous Hebrew scholar, and growing up, Chomsky read the drafts of his father's books, and that's where he got some of his early education on the historical aspects of linguistics. Young Noam liked to take the train down to New York City to visit his uncle, a fourth-grade dropout who owned a newspaper stand where Jewish intellectuals would hang out and discuss workers' rights, political organizing, and debate the virtues of Communism versus anarchism. When he was only 10 years old, Noam Chomsky wrote a political article about the fall of Barcelona to the fascists­.

He went to college, became interested in linguistics. He disagreed with the accepted idea in linguistics that children learn language through practice and habit. Chomsky said that language is instinctive in human beings — he said that fish swim, birds fly, and people talk. His theories were radical, and he had a tough time publishing anything, but he finally came out with a book called Syntactic Structures (1957), in which he argued that there is a universal grammar innate to the human brain.

He might easily have stayed in the field of linguistics — he got a job teaching at MIT when he was 26 years old — but he started protesting the war in Vietnam. He urged his students to resist the draft, he stopped paying his taxes, and he helped organize a march on the Pentagon. He got arrested and ended up sharing a jail cell with the novelist Norman Mailer, who described Chomsky as "a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity."

Since then, Noam Chomsky has continued to publish books about linguistics, but he's also written a number of books critiquing U.S. foreign policy, books like Manufacturing Consent (1988) and What We Say Goes (2007).

Noam Chomsky said, "Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune."

And, "We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas."

It was on this day in 1941 that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States had frozen Japanese assets and declared an embargo on shipments of petroleum and war materials to Japan. On the morning of December 7th, soldiers at Pearl Harbor were learning how to use a new device called radar, and they detected a large number of planes heading toward them. They telephoned an officer, who said they must be American B-17s, and not to worry about it.

Because it was Sunday, there was a bonus ration of milk to go along with breakfast that morning. There was a sailor named James Jones in the mess hall, who later wrote From Here to Eternity (1951). He said, "It was not till the first low-flying fighter came whammering overhead with his MGs going that we ran outside, still clutching our half-pints of milk to keep them from being stolen."

The Japanese planes dropped bombs and torpedoes, and ships started capsizing and sinking. Altogether, 2,390 Americans were killed. President Roosevelt got on the radio, talked for less than 10 minutes, and said that December 7th was a day that would "live in infamy." Congress declared war the following morning, and the United States officially entered WWII.

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