Monday

Sep. 9, 2013

Grandmother

by Sherman Alexie

old crow of a woman in bonnet, sifting through the dump
salvaging those parts of the world
neither useless nor useful

she would be hours in the sweatlodge
come out naked and brilliant in the sun
steam rising off her body in winter
like slow explosion of horses

she braided my sister's hair with hands that smelled of deep
roots buried in the earth
she told me old stories

how time never mattered
when she died
they gave me her clock

"Grandmother" by Sherman Alexie, from The Business of Fancy Dancing. © Hanging Loose Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1830 that the first American aeronaut, a man named Charles Durant, completed his first balloon flight. He took off from Castle Garden in New York City and landed in Perth Amboy, New Jersey — a trip of about 25 miles.

Americans were late to embrace hot-air balloons. The first manned balloon ride had taken place in Paris in 1783 — almost 50 years before Durant's flight. Within a year of the Paris flight, a group had crossed the English Channel. The first flight in America actually occurred in 1793, and it was observed by a crowd that included President Washington; but the aeronaut was French, and despite a number of fundraising schemes, he was unable to pay off the debt from his flight, and he returned to France.

So when Durant took off from Manhattan in 1830, ballooning seemed new and exciting to Americans. A huge crowd gathered to watch. The New York Post reported: "The spectacle drew many persons to the Battery, which was literally covered with an immense multitude of every age, sex, condition and color, whose faces were all turned upwards. It is estimated that upwards of twenty thousand persons were collected to see a man risk his neck for their amusement and for their money."

Durant dressed up for the occasion, wearing a top hat and tails. From the air, he dropped copies of poems praising the joys of flight. The flight took about three hours, and he landed in a farm field, surprising a New Jersey farmer by the name of Johnson.

In 1831, Durant published an essay in the Journal of Commerce called "A New York Balloon Ascension,"describing one of his flights. He wrote: "Here burst upon my sight one of the most imposing views I have ever beheld. Call it majestic, splendid, or sublime, — invoke a Shakespeare's mind to describe, or a painter's to portray it, — they, and even thought must fail to conceive the rich downy softness and white fleecy accumulation of clouds piled in waves as far as the eye could reach, covering the earth, and closing to my sight the land, water, and everything, animate or inanimate, that I had so long and often viewed with delight. Above me nothing but a clear, cerulean expanse, — the golden sun-beams spreading over the vast ocean of clouds, and extending through immensity of space where sight is bounded, and from whence even thought returns, unable to traverse the confines of the vast field beyond. Here was a scene sufficient for the writer to fill volumes, and the painter to exhaust his skill, in trying to delineate the infinitely delicate and mellow tints reaching to boundless extent."

It's the birthday of novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author), born into nobility near Tula, Russia (1828). Besides the pain of losing his mother as a young boy, his childhood was one of relative ease: He read books from his father's extensive library, went swimming and sledding, listened to stories, and played in the fields and woods on his family's large estate. After his father died, he lived with relatives and then enrolled at the University of Kazan. His teachers thought he wasn't very bright, and although he managed to teach himself about 12 languages, he was less interested in academics than he was in gambling, drinking, and women. He dropped out of college and spent years visiting brothels, binge drinking, and racking up such huge gambling debts that he had to sell off part of his estate. Finally, Tolstoy's brother suggested that he needed a change and encouraged him to sign up for the army. He agreed, joining his brother's artillery unit in the Caucasus in the spring of 1851. The following winter, 23-year-old Tolstoy wrote his first novel, Childhood (1852). It was praised by Turgenev and established Tolstoy's reputation as a writer. Over the next few years, he published two more novels in the same vein, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856).

In 1854, he was promoted and sent to the front to fight in the Crimean War. He was horrified by the violence of war, and in 1857, he witnessed a public execution in Paris, which affected him deeply as well. He wrote: "During my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I."

By 1863, he had finished a draft of what would become the first part of a novel he was calling 1805. It was set during the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russia, but he channeled his experiences in the Crimean War. A version of 1805 was published in 1865, but Tolstoy did not like it, so he went to work rewriting and expanding the novel. He gave it a new name: War and Peace.

In 1867, the first three sections of War and Peace were published, and sold out in a matter of days. Tolstoy began writing furiously, publishing the sections as he wrote them, and finally, in December of 1869, he published the sixth and final volume. He said, "What I have written there was not simply imagined by me, but torn out of my cringing entrails."

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace." In the article, he wrote: "What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." Tolstoy published Anna Karenina between 1873 and 1877, and he declared that it was his first true novel.

It's the birthday of British novelist James Hilton (books by this author), born in Leigh, Lancashire, England (1900). In the first decade of his writing career, he published more than 10 novels without receiving any attention. Then he wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), about an old, beloved schoolmaster whom Hilton based on his father. When the story was published in the United States, it became a huge best-seller. All of his previous novels were reissued and they became best-sellers too. The most popular of the earlier novels was Lost Horizon (1933), about an imaginary Tibetan village called Shangri-La.

Hilton said: "Surely there comes a time when counting the cost and paying the price aren't things to think about any more. All that matters is value — the ultimate value of what one does."

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

 









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