Monday

Oct. 29, 2012

Bedtime

by Denise Levertov

We are a meadow where the bees hum,
mind and body are almost one

as the fire snaps in the stove
and our eyes close,

and mouth to mouth, the covers
pulled over our shoulders,

we drowse as horses drowse afield,
in accord; though the fall cold

surrounds our warm bed, and though
by day we are singular and often lonely.

"Bedtime" by Denise Levertov from Poems 1960-1967. © New Directions Publishing, 1983. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the folk artist and quilt maker Harriet Powers, born into slavery outside Athens, Georgia (1837). She was married at 18 and gave birth to nine children. She lived most of her life in Clarke County, where in 1897, she begin exhibiting her quilts at local cotton fairs. She was believed to have been a house slave and first learned to read with the help of the white children she cared for.

Powers quilts used a combination of hand and machine stitching along with appliqué to form small detailed panels. She then organized these squares to unfold a larger story, much like a modern graphic novel. This teaching style of quilting has its roots in West African coastal communities, and her uneven edging of panels mirrored the complex rhythms of African-American folk music. Through her quilts, she recorded legends and biblical tales of patience and divine justice. Only two pieces of her work have survived: Her Bible quilt of 1886, which she sold for $5 in the aftermath of the war, now hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Her Pictorial quilt of 1888 is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Powers' work is now considered among the finest examples of Southern quilting from the 19th century.

The city of Athens held a centennial celebration in her honor in 2010, and the mayor officially declared October 30th as Harriet Powers Day.

It's the birthday of Henry Green (books by this author), born Henry Vincent Yorke in Tewkesbury, England (1905). He grew up as a privileged son of a wealthy foundry owner. He studied literature in college, and moved in a circle of elite intellectuals, discussing philosophy and art, but he found that whenever he saw people doing physical labor, he felt guilty. So one day, he took a job as an iron molder in his father's foundry. The men he worked with knew he was the boss's son, and they couldn't figure out what he was doing there. They decided that he had committed some unspeakable crime, and he was working in the foundry as a punishment. The thing he loved most about the job was listening to the foundry workers talk, and he incorporated their voices into a novel about his experience, called Living (1929). His novel got good reviews, but he published it under the pseudonym Henry Green, so no one knew he had written it. He quit his job at the foundry and became a successful industrial businessman, but he continued to write novels in secret, including Caught (1943), Loving (1945), and Nothing (1950).

He was popular among his contemporaries, and many writers have credited him as the best novelist of his time, including W.H. Auden and Eudora Welty. John Updike wrote an introduction to three of Green's novels. He said: "Henry Green was a novelist of such rarity, such marvelous originality, intuition, sensuality, and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious." And Rebecca West said: "He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before."

It's the birthday of journalist and current editor of The New Yorker magazine, David Remnick (books by this author), born in Hackensack, New Jersey (1958). This is his first editing job. He worked as a sports reporter for The Washington Post and then as their Moscow correspondent, where he covered the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He interviewed politicians, generals, intellectuals, and workers to get a complete picture of the effect on Russian society. One day, three of his stories from Moscow appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. His first book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

In 1992, he started as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and six years later was asked to be the editor. When a room full of staff writers at The New Yorker heard that he'd accepted the post, they burst into applause — a five-minute-long standing ovation.

He continues to report and write for The New Yorker as well as edit it, and he's also the author of a 672-page biography of President Obama, called The Bridge (2010).

On this day in 1929, more than 16 million shares of stock were sold off in a panic in the stock market crash known as "Black Tuesday." Thirty billion dollars disappeared, 1,300 banks closed within a year, and almost 30 percent of the workforce was unemployed. Within four years, 11,000 of the 25,000 banks in America had failed, and the Great Depression was in full swing.

The economy had been so good during the 1920s that people kept speculating in the markets, so stock prices were too high, much higher than the stocks themselves were worth. When they suddenly fell, it was a snowball effect. People had borrowed money to buy stocks, thinking that they could turn around and sell the stocks at a profit, and now they went bankrupt. On Black Tuesday, stock prices fell so fast that by the end of the day many companies couldn't sell their shares at any price.

The front-page story in The New York Times on this day read: "Wall Street was a street of vanished hopes, of curiously silent apprehension and of a sort of paralyzed hypnosis [...] Men and women crowded the brokerage offices, even those who have been long since wiped out, and followed the figures on the tape. Little groups gathered here and there to discuss the fall in prices in hushed and awed tones."

It was the most disastrous trading day in the stock market's history. The stock market lost $30 billion, more than a third of its value, in the next two weeks. By 1932, more than 100,000 businesses had failed and 13 million people had lost their jobs.

It's the birthday of James Boswell (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1740). He is best known as the author of Life of Johnson (1791), a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is considered by many people to be the greatest biography ever written in English. As a young man, Boswell's father wanted him to settle down and take care of the family's ancestral estate in rural Scotland. Boswell wanted adventure, excitement, and intrigue, so he ran away to London and became a Catholic. He began keeping a journal in London, and instead of describing his thoughts and feelings about things, he wrote down scenes from his life as though they were fiction. He described his friends as though they were characters and recorded long stretches of dialogue.

As a young man, Boswell was the life of the party, and everyone who met him liked him. The French writer Voltaire invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour. David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He hung out with the philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau's mistress liked him so much that she had an affair with Boswell. He was even friends with the pope. And then on May 16, 1763, he met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson in the back room of a bookstore. Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him. The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you." Johnson was 30 years older than Boswell and he was the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but Boswell never tried to compete with Johnson's intellect. Their relationship was like an interview that went on for years. Boswell would just ask questions and listen to Johnson talk, and then he would go home and write it all down in his journal.

The two men eventually became great friends. They talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. Boswell knew early on that he would write Johnson's biography, but he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow going. He watched as several others published books about Johnson, and he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it. He had to fight with his editor to keep the odd details, like the things Johnson had said to his cat and what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. He felt that these were the details that revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it was a huge best-seller. No one had ever written such a personal biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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