Jan. 7, 2013


by William Stafford

This dream the world is having about itself
includes a trace on the plains of the Oregon trail,
a groove in the grass my father showed us all
one day while meadowlarks were trying to tell
something better about to happen.

I dreamed the trace to the mountains, over the hills,
and there a girl who belonged wherever she was.
But then my mother called us back to the car:
she was afraid; she always blamed the place,
the time, anything my father planned.

Now both of my parents, the long line through the plain,
the meadowlarks, the sky, the world's whole dream
remain, and I hear him say while I stand between the two,
helpless, both of them part of me:
"Your job is to find what the world is trying to be."

"Vocation" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1887, Thomas Stevens became the first person to circle the world by bicycle. Born to a grocer in the suburbs of London, Stevens convinced his father to let him sail to America, when at 17 he had already saved enough to cover his passage. Once in the States, he found work as a rancher and, later, in a Colorado mine, where he hatched a plan to make a name for himself by being the first man to ever cross the U.S. by bicycle. Seven others had already tried and failed. Stevens managed to stash away enough of his wages for the trip west to San Francisco where he promptly purchased a 41-pound 50-inch Columbia tall wheeler, called the "Ordinary." He had never before set foot on a bicycle and had no idea how to ride it, but after giving himself a crash course around Golden Gate Park, he soon set off toward Boston with a change of socks, a Smith and Wesson revolver, and a thin coat that he also used as a tent.

In 1884, there were no interstate roads or rest stops, and when crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, Stevens had to push his bicycle across railroad bridges, sometimes hanging his bike over the railing when an unexpected train passed. He scared off a mountain lion, was bitten by a rattlesnake, and was arrested in Chicago for riding on the sidewalk. He rode into Boston 103 days after leaving California, having traveled 3,700 miles.

That winter, he published an account of his trip in Outing magazine. Its publisher, Albert Pope, was also the owner of the country's largest bicycle manufacturer, and he pitched a worldwide tour to the young cyclist, offering to pay his way. Stevens accepted, and the following spring the 30-year-old set out from Liverpool headed east. He crossed through Europe unscathed and into the Ottoman Empire where he was often the first white man and first bicycle that locals had ever seen. Towering nearly four feet above others while on the bike, Stevens drew a lot of attention, and in Turkey he had to fend off would-be robbers at gunpoint. He had planned to travel through Russia, but was refused entrance by the authorities, and was arrested and deported as a spy while trying to work his way around Afghanistan. He doubled back through India and kept heading east through China, where he narrowly missed being stoned to death. Japan was more welcoming, and after pedaling 13,500 miles of since leaving California, Stevens rolled into Yokohama, then took a steamer on to the San Francisco Bay where his trip began.

Stevens published a two-volume account of his adventure, Around the World by Bicycle (1887), which was based on his letters to Harper's Magazine throughout the trip. It became an instant best-seller. He became a sought-after speaker and continued exploring and writing, famously tracking down the missing explorer Henry Morton Stanley in rural Africa, and riding 1,000 miles on horseback through pre-revolutionary Russia, where he interviewed Leo Tolstoy, for his 1891 book, Through Russia on a Mustang.

It's the birthday of novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (books by this author), born in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, America's first incorporated all-black town. Much of Hurston's writing is set there, and many of her characters are based on the residents. Although she loved her hometown, she felt set apart from others. "Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care," she said. "A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me." When she was 14, Hurston's mother died, and she was passed around from relative to relative. She took a job as a wardrobe girl for a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory touring company. She traveled with them for 18 months, reading constantly. She eventually finished high school in Baltimore while working full time as a live-in maid.

In 1920, she enrolled in Howard University. Her first story, Spunk, was published in Opportunity magazine five years later, when it won second prize in a fiction contest. At the awards dinner, Hurston met author Fanny Hurst, who hired Hurston as her assistant and arranged for her to receive a scholarship to Barnard College. While in New York, Hurston published the "Eatonville Anthology," a series of 14 brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, including glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backward farmer, the greatest liar in the village, and a cheating husband.

On returning to New York, Hurston became part of the Harlem Renaissance. And it was there, in just seven weeks, that she wrote her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937.) It's the story of a black woman in rural Florida named Janie Crawford and her three marriages: the first to the farmer Logan Killicks, who treats her like a slave, the second to the politician Jody Starks, who treats her like a queen, and finally to the penniless Tea Cake Woods, with whom she finally finds true love.

Although for a time Hurston was the most prolific and most famous black woman writer in America, interest in her work faded away in the 1950s, and so did her money. She worked at odd jobs for the next 10 years, writing a few magazine articles every now and again. She wrote three novels that were rejected for publication. Her death in 1960 in a welfare home went largely unnoticed and she was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1973, novelist Alice Walker visited the cemetery and placed a marker in the field where Hurston lay, which reads, "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South." She wrote an article about the event called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" (1975), which sparked renewed interest in Hurston's writing.

Zora Neale Hurston said: "Those that don't got it, can't show it. Those that got it, can't hide it."

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1957). He started out wanting to be a musician, and was good enough at the bassoon that he got into the Eastman School of Music. He planned to become a composer, and then one day he saw his mother laughing uncontrollably at a New York Times Book Review essay on golf by the writer John Updike. At that moment, Baker decided that instead of becoming a composer, he wanted to be a writer.

Baker has gone on to write a book about his love of John Updike, U and I: A True Story (1991), and a novel about a single erotic phone conversation between two strangers called Vox (1992), which was famously given as a gift to President Clinton by Monica Lewinski. He has also written Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), attacking libraries for getting rid of hard copies of newspapers and old books and replacing them with microfilm. His most recent book is The Way the World Works (2012), a collection of essays published last year.

Nicholson Baker said, "Books: a beautifully browsable invention that needs no electricity and exists in a readable form no matter what happens."

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