Wednesday

Mar. 20, 2013

Fiction

by Lisel Mueller

Going south, we watched spring
unroll like a proper novel:
forsythia, dogwood, rose;
bare trees, green lace, full shade.
By the time we arrived in Georgia
the complications were deep.

When we drove back, we read
from back to front. Maroon went wild,
went scarlet, burned once more
and then withdrew into pink,
tentative, still in bud.
I thought if only we could go on
and meet again, shy as strangers.

"Fiction" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the first day of spring. The vernal equinox occurs today, the time when the earth's axis is not turned toward the sun (summer, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), or away from it (winter), but is aligned with the center of the sun. The word equinox comes from Latin: aequus means equal, level, or calm; nox means night, or darkness. The equinox, in spring or fall, is a time when the day and night are as close to equal as they ever are, and when the hours of night are exactly equal for people living equidistant from the equator either north or south.

Spring of course is the time when gardeners begin their work for the growing season. Margaret Atwood wrote: "Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."

It's the birthday of the playwright Henrik Ibsen (books by this author), born in Skien, Norway (1828). One of his best-known plays is A Doll's House (1879), the story of a woman named Nora who is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage. The play ends with Nora slamming the door and walking out on her husband. Ibsen was so well-known, and his ending was so shocking to 19th-centry viewers, that it was known as "the door slam heard around the world."

But he almost didn't make it as a writer. He had a love-hate relationship with his home country — as he said in a letter to the playwright Olaf Skavlan: "Norway is a free country, peopled by unfree men and women." He left Norway in 1864 for a life of self-imposed exile. But life abroad was still hard. He and his wife were living in poverty. Ibsen wrote constantly, but his plays weren't getting noticed, and he couldn't support his family. He had appealed to the king for a pension, but his request was denied. It got to the point where he couldn't even afford postage stamps to put on his business letters. He was depressed and exhausted.

In the winter of 1865, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he became seriously ill with a high fever. Too poor to afford decent medical treatment, he almost died. The next spring he was waiting for his play Brand (1866) to appear in Norway, a drama about a priest grappling with issues of God and free will. He expected the worst, and just before its publication he sent a letter to his friend Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, also a playwright. He wrote: "My book will appear in a day or two, I expect. About my present position — waiting, worn out with anxiety and suspense — looking forward to the appearance of the book and to the possibility of its producing strife and attacks of all sorts — unable in such circumstances to begin something new, which, nevertheless, is already fully developed within me — about all this I will say no more. [...] There is nothing so enervating and exhausting as this hopeless waiting. I dare say this is only a transition period. I will and shall have a victory some day. If the powers that be have shown me so little favor as to place me in this world and make me what I am, the result must be accordingly. [...]

He sent off the letter with a postscript apologizing that he could not afford to prepay the postage. Less than two weeks later, Brand was published and got great reviews. Finally Ibsen got the literary victory he was dreaming of, and King Carl of Sweden and Norway granted Ibsen his request for a "poet's pension." He went on to write many more plays, including Peer Gynt (1887), A Doll's House, An Enemy of the People (1882), and Hedda Gabler (1890).

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe's (books by this author) novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, selling 10,000 copies in its first week, and about 2 million copies by 1857.

It's the birthday of dime novelist Ned Buntline (books by this author), born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Stamford, New York (1813) — probably, but not certainly, on this day. As a boy, he got in a fight with his father and ran away to sea. He started out as a cabin boy, but as a teenager he rescued the drowning crew of a boat, and President Van Buren was so impressed that he appointed the young man a midshipman, a low rank of officer.

After a few years at sea, he decided to take up writing sensational adventure stories. He took his pseudonym, Ned Buntline, from the "buntline" knot that went at the foot of a square sail. He started out writing about gangs and violence in New York, then he took a trip out West, and realized that it was the ideal setting for the type of stories he wanted to tell. He met Buffalo Bill Cody, and adapted his adventures into wildly popular and exaggerated stories, a series called Buffalo Bill Cody — King of the Border Men. It was so successful that he made the stories into a play, Scouts of the Prairie, and though it wasn't well-received by critics, it was a commercial and financial hit and toured all over the country. Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill parted ways after that, but Buntline had made the western hero so famous that he was able to open his own show, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," and Bill's story had set Buntline on his path to earn more money from his writing than any other author in the country.

Buntline's life was one big adventure, and he didn't slow down even after he became wealthy and famous. He fought in the Everglades in the Second Seminole War, and was an officer in the Civil War until he was given a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness. He went around preaching temperance despite his own outrageous drinking habits — he interrupted every show of Scouts of the Prairie for a temperance lecture, and he was frequently drunk during those lectures. He was thrashed in public in the streets of New York City by a woman who was the target of gossip in his magazine. He incited several riots. He got in plenty of trouble with women, too — he was married seven times, and was jailed for bigamy. At one point he was flirting with a married teenager named Mary Porterfield. Her husband, Robert, challenged Buntline to a duel, which of course he accepted, and he killed Robert Porterfield. The angry townspeople attempted to lynch Buntline, and in fact they strung him up hanged him from an awning post. At the last minute, his friends cut the rope and he managed to survive.

He died in 1886, by which time he had already sent out several false obituaries, further exaggerating his life and claiming that he had been a colonel in the Civil War. At least three of his wives or ex-wives attempted to claim that they were his official widow.

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

 









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