Sep. 16, 2013

They're Taking Chocolate Milk Off the Menu,

by Kim Dower

and that's only the beginning.
I hear other junk food is at risk:
brownies, pastries, name it,
they're removing it, the only chance
fifth graders have at happiness.
The only thing I looked forward to
was chocolate milk, especially after
getting yelled at by Miss Paniotoo.
I once poured a carton over her "in"
box, watched the ink bleed down
the equation-filled pages, blurring
the names of my classmates,
never told anyone, not even Donna Nagy,
and now they're taking it off the menu.
What will our kids be forced to do?
Will they devour each other?
Eat one another's faces, run across
the handball court sword fighting
with dry straws, wasted with desire?
Word just in they're even removing
strawberry milk. We never had that.
I'm sure it didn't smell like the chocolate:
a little sour like yesterday's dessert.
We had to drink it before it turned,
when it was still cold enough
that even our mittens couldn't protect us.

"They're Taking Chocolate Milk Off the Menu," by Kim Dower, from Slice of Moon. © Red Hen Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1853 that Henry Steinway, who had come here from Hamburg in 1849, sold his first American-made piano. He introduced the first cast-iron frame, which allowed a piano to be strung with greater tension on the strings and with the bass strings crossing above the treble strings so they could be longer and make a grander sound.

It's the birthday of James J. Hill, one of America's most successful railroad tycoons, born in southern Ontario (1838). By 1870, Hill had established his own railroad company and laid track to the Red River Valley in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. He eventually began construction of a line from the Twin Cities to Seattle. The land he purchased was full of valuable resources, and thousands of settlers followed his railroad across the Great Plains. By 1893, the track was finished, and his Great Northern Company ran the only private transcontinental railroad.

It's the birthday of novelist John Knowles (books by this author), born in the coal-mining town of Fairmont, West Virginia (1926). John's father was the vice-president of the Consolidated Coal Company, so the family had enough money to send 15-year-old John to Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite New Hampshire boarding school. In those days, the school only admitted boys. Knowles said, "I wasn't sure I liked the guys much [...] too Eastern for me, too Yankee, too tough. They largely left me alone, and I them. [...] It was that summer that I realized I had fallen in love with Exeter. Most students don't experience summer there: I did so for two consecutive summers. [...] The great trees, the thick clinging ivy, the expanses of playing fields, the winding black-water river, the pure air all began to sort of intoxicate me. Classroom windows were open; the aroma of flowers and shrubbery floated in. We were in shirt sleeves; the masters were relaxed. Studies now were easy for me. The summer of 1943 at Exeter was as happy a time as I ever had in my life."

Knowles went on to Yale. He worked for the student newspaper, and one of his assignments was to cover a lecture by playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder lived near the university, and after the lecture, Knowles pretended that he couldn't remember all the details and asked if he could do a personal interview at the playwright's home. While he was there, Knowles asked if Wilder would read over some of his fiction. Wilder not only agreed, but also he was so impressed that he became the younger man's mentor. Knowles said of Wilder: "He was the most brilliant man I ever met."

Knowles' first full-length novel was called Descent Into Proselito. He wrote it during a couple of years that he spent working as a freelance writer in Italy and southern France. He found a publisher for the novel; but he also sent the manuscript to Wilder, who wrote back and said that he couldn't make it past page 128. Wilder wasn't convinced that Knowles was actually interested in what he was writing about, and told the young man that if he was going to write a good novel, he needed to really care about the material. Knowles withdrew the novel from publication.

Knowles joined the staff of Holiday magazine, where he wrote drama reviews, short stories, and articles. One of his pieces was about Phillips Exeter, his boarding school alma mater. He visited the campus to gather material for his essay, and he was transported back to his years there, especially the summer of 1943. He realized that this was material he knew well and cared about deeply. He sat down to write a novel set during the World War II years, but with all the action taking place in a summer session at an elite boys' boarding school. That novel was A Separate Peace (1959). Knowles said, "I wrote A Separate Peace for myself and perhaps for Thornton Wilder. I had no idea of impressing a wide readership." But it became a huge best-seller.

A Separate Peace tells the story of two boys: Gene and his best friend, Finny. Gene is quiet and academic; Finny more athletic and popular. They are members of a secret society, whose initiation rite is to jump off a tree into the river. Gene slowly grows jealous of Finny. And one night, when the boys are jumping off the tree together, he shakes the branch; Finny loses his balance and shatters his leg. Finny can no longer participate in sports, and his leg ultimately causes his death during an operation. Although Knowles faithfully reproduced many of the details from his days at Phillips Exeter, the main narrative was all fiction — he said: "The only elements in A Separate Peace which were not in that summer were anger, envy, violence, and hatred. There was only friendship, athleticism, and loyalty."

Knowles wrote eight more novels, but none were nearly as successful as A Separate Peace. He said: "How could I mind? It's paid the bills for 30 years. It has made my career possible. Unlike most writers, I don't have to do anything else to make a living. In addition, A Separate Peace gave me an identity."

It's the birthday of scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (books by this author), born in Keyser, West Virginia (1950). He is known for his books on literary history, and he wrote about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley, the first published black poet in the United States, in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).

Gates also held great interest in a story of a slave's life written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. In the winter of 2001, while he was at home in Cambridge nursing a sore hip, Gates was looking through a New York auction catalog when the Hannah Crafts manuscript caught his eye.

More than 150 years before, a young African-American woman escaped from slavery and took with her the makings of a novel based on her own life. In her own handwriting, Crafts wrote about the distinctions slaves made among themselves based on skin color, house-versus-field jobs, and class. She wrote about sex but argued against slaves marrying and having children on the grounds that slavery is hereditary and can't be escaped. She portrayed the relationship of a white mistress and black slave as full of mutual intimacy.

Gates didn't believe that white authors would pretend to be black in the mid-19th century. He was convinced the manuscript was the first novel by a female slave and possibly the first novel written by any black woman. He believed there was more literacy among the slaves than anyone imagined.

Because Gates' hip injury prevented him from traveling to New York, a colleague attended the auction and bid on the manuscript on Gates' behalf. He got it for $8,500. The manuscript was recently valued at $350,000.

Gates and a group of experts set to work proving that Hannah Crafts' book was the real thing. The most compelling evidence was Crafts' own words and the natural way she treated black characters. Slaves weren't identified first by their race, as was the custom with white writers of that time. For Crafts, their basic humanity came first.

Her seemingly normal, ordinary thoughts on slave life convinced Gates that Hannah Crafts was a real person. Gates turned Crafts' manuscript into The Bondwoman's Narrative and published it in 2002. It quickly became a national best-seller.

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