Mar. 9, 2013

The courage that my mother had

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.

Oh, if instead she'd left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

"The courage that my mother had" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Collected Poems. © Harper Collins, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf (books by this author) delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter to her friend Violet Dickinson in 1907, full of excitement at the thought of a future, however uncertain, as a writer; she wrote, "I shall be miserable, or happy; a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages."

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, but the extensive revision process took its toll on Woolf and may have contributed to a mental breakdown that delayed the novel's publication. The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915 and received generally favorable reviews. The London Observer remarked that the book showed "something startlingly like genius ... a wild swan among good grey geese." It sold slowly in spite of its reviews; it took 15 years to sell 2,000 copies. The novel does show glimpses of what would become Woolf's Modernist style, and what's more, one of its characters — Clarissa Dalloway — would stick in Virginia Woolf's mind for more than a decade, until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).

It was on this day in 1933 that newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation. For the next several months, bills were passed almost daily, beginning with the Emergency Banking Act, followed by federal programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

As part of the New Deal's cultural programs, grouped together as Federal One, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers' Project, which employed more than 6,600 out-of-work writers, editors, and researchers — among them Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and Ralph Ellison — and paid them subsistence wages of around $20 a week. The main occupation of the Federal Writers' Project was the American Guides Series. There was an American Guide for each of the existing states of the time, as well as Alaska, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several major cities and highways. Not mere travel guidebooks, they were also collections of essays on various subjects from geography and history to architecture and commerce.

In addition to the American Guides Series, the FWP collected the life histories of more than 10,000 Americans. Under the direction of folklore editor Benjamin A. Botkin, the FWP writers interviewed people of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Botkin, like many intellectuals of the period, was deeply disturbed by the growing Fascist movement in Europe, and wanted to promote tolerance and pluralism at home. He saw the collection and publication of these life histories as a way to do that.

Perhaps the FWP's most valuable contribution to American history and culture was the collection of the first-person accounts of more than 2,300 former slaves, which were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves."

It's the birthday of writer Vita Sackville-West (books by this author), in Sevenoaks, Kent, England (1892), born to luxury in a mansion with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. She started writing early; before her 19th birthday she'd written eight novels and five plays. She was also prolific, going on to write a great many more books, including several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies. She is best known for her novels, including Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour (1932).

When she was 21, Vita married the dashing diplomat Harold George Nicolson, and the two — both bisexual — had an open marriage. They enjoyed a close and companionable relationship, and wrote each other frequent and affectionate letters whenever they were apart.

One of Vita Sackville-West's most famous romances was with writer Virginia Woolf. Virginia's brother-in-law, Clive Bell, introduced the two in December 1922. Vita wrote of the meeting to her husband: "You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality ... she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain; then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. ... She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well. ... I have quite lost my heart." Virginia, for her part, later wrote that Vita was "like an over ripe grape in features, moustached, pouting, will be a little heavy; meanwhile she strides on fine legs, in a well cut skirt, & though embarrassing at breakfast, has a manly good sense & simplicity about her. ... Oh yes, I like her; could tack her on to my equipage for all time; & suppose if life allowed, this might be a friendship of a sort."

Vita was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography (1928).

On this day in 1997, Jean-Dominique Bauby (books by this author) died of pneumonia. Born in Paris in April 1952, Bauby was a journalist and the editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine ELLE. He suffered a massive stroke late in 1995, at the age of 43, and awoke nearly three weeks later to find himself a victim of "locked-in syndrome." Although his mental faculties remained intact, he was almost entirely paralyzed, save for his left eyelid. Taken from his life as worldly bon vivant and a father of two, he spent his final year and a half in Room 119, in the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the Channel coast. His days settled into a routine of doctors and therapists, alleviated by weekly visits from his young children, with whom he could still play Hangman.

He also wrote a book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a Memoir of Life in Death. He would compose and edit entire chapters of it in his head early in the mornings, and then would dictate it, a letter at a time, to his secretary. She would recite the alphabet slowly and he would blink when she came to the correct letter, and in this manner a brief and beautiful book was born. The memoir was published in France on March 7, 1997; two days later, Bauby died. In 2007, the memoir was made into a film, directed by Julian Schnabel.

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