Jul. 27, 2012
Count That Day Lost
If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.
But if, through all the livelong day,
You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay —
If, through it all
You've nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face —
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost —
Then count that day as worse than lost.
It's the birthday of the journalist Joseph Mitchell (books by this author), born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He wrote for The New Yorker from 1938 until his death in 1996. He was famous for writing about people on the margins of New York — criminals, evangelists, con artists, the fishmongers at the Fulton Fish Market, a flea-circus operator—without passing judgment on them.
It's the birthday of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (books by this author), born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She moved to New York to study at Columbia. In 1946, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a party. He was in the middle of an ugly divorce from his first wife, the writer Jean Stafford, but Hardwick and Lowell reconnected at a writers retreat and married in 1949. During their honeymoon, Lowell had a manic depressive attack, and throughout their marriage, he had frequent affairs and breakdowns. She said: "I didn't know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful."
In 1959, an editor at Harper's named Robert Silvers put together an issue about the state of literature in America, and he asked Hardwick to write a piece. Her essay, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," sparked a huge controversy — even the owner of Harpers wrote a letter condemning it. She wrote: "In America, now ... a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have 'filled a need,' and is to be 'thanked' for something and be excused for 'minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'"
In early 1963, Hardwick and Lowell were having dinner with Jason and Barbara Epstein, their friends and neighbors on West 67th Street. The New York Times was on strike, and Jason Epstein joked that life was nice and easy now that they had nothing to do, with no New York Times Book Review to read. They talked about starting their own book review, and realized that it actually was the perfect time to do it, since publishers were getting desperate without the Times. The next morning, Lowell went to the bank and took out a $4,000 loan secured by his trust fund. They called Robert Silvers, the editor at Harper's, and asked if he would be interested in working as an editor for their not-yet-existent publication; he accepted immediately. They put together the first issue of The New York Review of Books at the dining room table in Hardwick and Lowell's apartment. It was published in February of 1963, featuring work by Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Mary McCarthy. They printed 100,000 copies, which sold out right away. Hardwick was not an official editor — that role went to Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers — but she was an editorial advisor. She helped shape the overall content and image of the review; Jason Epstein described Hardwick as "a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to satisfy."
Hardwick's books of fiction and essays collections include Sleepless Nights (1979), Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), and Sight Readings: American Fiction (1998).
She said, "There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge."
It's the birthday of novelist Bharati Mukherjee (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1940). She said: "As a bookish child in Calcutta, I used to thrill to the adventures of bad girls whose pursuit of happiness swept them outside the bounds of social decency. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina lived large in my imagination."
She went to college in Calcutta, and after graduation, she asked her father if she could go abroad and study to be a writer — afterward, she would come home for an arranged marriage with a nuclear physicist of her same caste and class. Her father agreed, thinking it would be a harmless way for her to pass a couple of years. Her family was hosting a group of UCLA professors and students for dinner, so her father asked them where he should send his daughter in America to learn to be a writer. They suggested the University of Iowa, so off she went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
She started dating someone in her program, a Canadian named Clark Blaise, and after just two weeks, they went downtown during their lunch break and got married in a lawyer's office above a local coffee shop. She said: "Until my lunch-break wedding, I had seen myself as an Indian foreign student who intended to return to India to live. The five-minute ceremony in the lawyer's office suddenly changed me into a transient with conflicting loyalties to two very different cultures."
Mukherjee's novels include The Tiger's Daughter (1971), Jasmine (1989), Desirable Daughters (2004), and, most recently, Miss New India (2011).
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