Monday

Feb. 18, 2013

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

"When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats, from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. © Scribner, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In the summer of 1883, Mark Twain (books by this author) wrote in a letter: "I am piling up manuscript in a really astonishing way. I believe I shall complete, in two months, a book which I have been fooling over for seven years. This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie." And on this day in 1885, Twain published that manuscript, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Almost a decade earlier, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) had been a huge success, and the public was enthusiastically awaiting Twain's newest installment, a sequel to the escapades of Tom and his friend Huck.

It was set to be published in time for Christmas in 1884. But in late November, someone in the publishing house of Charles L. Webster and Company realized something that had escaped the notice of Webster, the writer William Dean Howells, and Twain himself when they looked over the proofs: Somewhere along the way, someone had tinkered with the illustration of Uncle Silas on page 283, making it look like he was indecently exposing himself. Two hundred and fifty copies of the book had already been sent out, as advance reader's copies; but 30,000 more were printed and ready for people who had ordered the book on subscription. The publishing house had to make a new plate, then go through every printed copy, cutting out the offending picture and replacing it with a cleaned-up illustration.

Eventually it was printed, and for readers who had pre-ordered a book, there were several editions available. There was a regular cloth-bound book in either olive green or blue, there was a sheepskin leather binding, or a sumac-tanned goatskin with marbled edges. Prices ranged from $2.75 to $4.25.

Although it was a big seller and got great reviews in England, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn got poor reviews in America. A San Francisco paper said that it was dreary, and "nor is it [a book] that most parents who want a future of promise for their young folks would select without some hesitation." A Boston paper said that it was "so flat, as well as coarse, that nobody wants to read it"; another that it was "pitched in one key, and that is the key of a vulgar and abhorrent life"; and a New York paper that it was "cheap and pernicious stuff." In 1885, it was banned by the public library of Concord, Massachusetts, and Louisa May Alcott explained, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them."

But Twain said, "The public is the only critic whose judgment is worth anything at all." Three months after Huck Finn was published, in early May of 1864, Webster had sold 51,000 copies of the book, and as of today, an estimated 20 million copies have been sold.

It's the birthday of Toni Morrison (books by this author), born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). Lorain was a steel town. Her father worked at the steel mill and in construction, and her mother raised the kids. Morrison said about her mother: "When an eviction notice was put on our house, she tore it off. If there were maggots in our flour, she wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt. My mother believed something should be done about inhuman situations."

Morrison went to college, got interested in theater and traveled around in an acting troupe, then went on to get a master's in English. She loved to read, but had never been a writer except for a few stories in high school. But after she got married and had two children, her marriage started to dissolve, and she needed an escape. She joined a writing group, but after she had workshopped her stories from high school, she was out of things to share, so she wrote a story about a black girl who wanted blue eyes. And then she started to expand it into a novel called, The Bluest Eye (1969). She went on to write eight more novels, including Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), and most recently, Home (2012). She was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

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