Jul. 1, 2012
This summer my nephew
is old enough for his first job:
mowing the lawn.
I watch him lean his skinny chest
to the bar of the pushmower,
put his weight into it, and become,
for the first time, a beast in harness,
a laborer on the face of the earth,
somehow withering and expanding at the same time
into something worn and ancient, but still
a kid withal. And I remember
how bitterly I went into the traces,
hating that Saturday ritual
for a while, then growing inexplicably
into it, gradually mastering
the topography of the yard,
sometimes using the back and forth technique,
sometimes going for the checkerboard effect,
or my favorite, the ever-diminishing square
that left, at the lawn's center, one
last uncut stand of grass, a wild fortress
I annihilated with a strange thrill,
then stood back to take a look—
to survey the field. To cast
a critical eye on my work.
Just as this kid is doing, standing
at the edge of the mowed clearance.
Taking his own measure. And liking it.
It's the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford (books by this author), born in Covina, California (1915). She's the author of several novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952). She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to the New Yorker magazine. When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died 10 years later and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.
It's the birthday of the man who told writers to "Omit needless words!": William Strunk Jr. (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He was an English professor at Cornell, where he published his grammar book The Elements of Style (1918). He intended it as a reference for his students, and one of those students was named Elwyn Brooks White. E.B. White went on to become a famous writer, and in 1957, White was commissioned to revise and expand the original grammar book. The new version of The Elements of Style, also referred to simply as "Strunk & White," has sold more than 10 million copies.
It's the birthday of French novelist George Sand (books by this author), born Lucile Aurore Dupin in Paris (1804). She was raised by her grandmother at the family's estate in rural Berry in central France, and was sent to an English convent in Paris to be educated. Although she started out as a troublemaker, Aurore underwent a spiritual conversion and decided to become a nun. She was an enthusiastic convert, and the other girls called her "Saint Aurore." When her grandmother discovered her granddaughter's intentions, she promptly removed her from the convent and brought her home.
Back in Berry, she abandoned her dreams of the convent and did whatever she pleased. She loved to ride horseback, and her tutor at the time encouraged her to wear men's clothing since it was more comfortable, so she rode all over the countryside in pants and a loose shirt. She smoked tobacco, learned to shoot, and flirted outrageously with all the local men. When her grandmother died, she inherited her money and estate.
She briefly went to Paris to live with her mother, then got married and had two children. But her marriage soon deteriorated — her husband drank too much and was unfaithful. She fell in love with other men, including the novelist Jules Sandeau. Her relationship with Sandeau was short-lived, but while they were together, they co-wrote a novel, Rose et Blanche (1831). It was published under Sandeau's pseudonym, J. Sand. When the publisher asked for another book, she had one written entirely by her, but Sandeau did not want it under his pen name. As a compromise, she published her new novel, Indiana (1832), under the name George Sand. It was a big success.
She was a prolific writer; she wrote more than 90 novels, 35 plays, and a multivolume autobiography.
Sand was one of the most famous women of her time, not just for her writing but for her scandalous behavior — everything from her men's clothing and cigars to her sexual exploits were in the public eye. She had a long string of lovers, including Frédéric Chopin, and her many friends included Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Eugène Delacroix, Ivan Turgenev, and Gustave Flaubert. Sand and Flaubert were especially close, although the two novelists disagreed on just about everything from politics to the role of women to the purpose of art. They spent long hours together, smoking and discussing literature and humanity; they exchanged frequent letters, and read each other's unpublished work. Sand was 17 years older than Flaubert; he addressed his letters to her "dear master," while she addressed hers "friend of my heart."
She said: "The world will know and understand me someday. But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®