Oct. 6, 2013

A selection from "Three Songs at the End of Summer"

by Jane Kenyon

A white, indifferent morning sky,
and a crow, hectoring from its nest
high in the hemlock, a nest as big
as a laundry basket....
                                        In my childhood
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.

The damp dirt road gave off
this same complex organic scent.

I had my new books—words, numbers
and operations with numbers I did not
comprehend—and crayons unspoiled
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.

Spruce, inadequate, and alien,
I stood at the side of the road.
It was the only life I had.

A selection from "Three Songs at the End of Summer" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1930 that William Faulkner published As I Lay Dying (books by this author). And on this same day in 1932, he published Light in August. He wrote As I Lay Dying in a couple of months during his night shifts at the University of Mississippi power plant. He said, "Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again."

He had more trouble with Light in August. He rearranged the story lines many times, reordering and editing. He claimed that the inspiration for Light in August was "the idea of a young girl with nothing, pregnant, determined to find her sweetheart," and so he created the character Lena Grove, who opens the novel. But the novel ended up focusing most of all on Joe Christmas, telling his story as a victim of racial hatred. Faulkner set out to call his novel Dark House — he also tried out that name for the novel that ultimately became Absalom, Absalom — but when his wife commented that the light in August was unlike the light at any other time of the year, he got up, went to his office, crossed off "Dark House," and wrote "Light in August."

It was on this day in 1847 that Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was published (some sources say October 16) (books by this author). The public reception was divided. William Thackeray, who wrote Vanity Fair, called it "the masterwork of a great genius." One reviewer said: "This is not merely a work of great promise; it is one of absolute performance. It is one of the most powerful domestic romances which have been published for many years."

But not everyone liked the novel. A lot of reviews were focused on trying to figure out who had written Jane Eyre, and especially whether the author was a man or a woman. Charlotte Brontë had published the book under the androgynous pseudonym Currer Bell, the same one she had used a year earlier when she published poems by her and her sisters, Emily and Anne. She changed Charlotte to Currer Bell, Emily to Ellis Bell, and Anne to Acton Bell.

Charlotte decided to publish the poems after she accidentally found some poems that Emily had written, and the three sisters realized that they had all been writing poems secretly for years. When she published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846, only two copies sold. But she submitted Jane Eyre for publication the next year. It was rejected five times, and then she sent it to Smith, Elder, and Co., her eventual publishers. She sent it with a note that said: It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present.

They agreed to publish it, and it became a huge success, although a controversial one. Many reviewers were shocked at the possibility that a woman could write it. They thought Jane was too independent, too coarse, and too interested in what one reviewer called "the grosser and more animal portion of our nature."

Jane Eyre is the story of a plucky orphan who becomes a governess for Mr. Rochester. When Charlotte was five years old, her mother died, and she was sent along with Emily and their two older sisters to a miserable boarding school. The conditions were awful, the teachers were harsh, and Charlotte's two older sisters died from illnesses there. When she wrote Jane Eyre, Charlotte used that school as a model for the one Jane attended.

It's the birthday of novelist Caroline Gordon (books by this author), born at her family's plantation in Todd County, Kentucky (1895). She grew up immersed in her mother's tight-knit family, the Meriwethers, a clan with its own mythology (as well as some inbreeding). Gordon's father had founded an academy in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, the Classical School for Boys, and he was so determined to give his daughter a good education that he enrolled her there. Armed with this classical boys' education, she went to college and then got a job with the Chattanooga News. She was one of the first reporters to write good reviews about a new magazine called The Fugitive, which was started by a group of poets and writers known as the Southern Agrarians. She met and fell in love with one of these poets, Allen Tate, and soon they were married.

Gordon gave birth to a daughter a few months after the wedding, but the girl spent a lot of her childhood living with Gordon's mother while her parents traveled around. Gordon and Tate spent the early years of their marriage living the Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village and Paris. Finally, they settled back in Clarksville, at an estate named Benfolly after Tate's brother Ben, who had gifted them the big old farmhouse and 100 acres. At Benfolly, the couple became famous for their Southern hospitality, and the farmhouse was often filled with guests seeking a quiet retreat where they could spend time on their writing — guests like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren, and many more. But Gordon ended up spending most of her time as a hostess and neglecting her own writing. She wrote in a letter: "It is, certainly, much harder for a woman to write than it is for a man. It is so much harder that I am in a panic half the time fearing something will happen to prevent me from writing."

Finally the novelist Ford Madox Ford came to visit, and he was so impressed with Gordon's writing that he demanded she show him 5,000 words a day before proceeding to all her hostess duties. It was the push she needed to finish her first novel, Penhally (1931). Penhally was a thinly veiled portrait of the Meriwether family, inspired by many of the stories and characters she knew so well from growing up.

Gordon's marriage slowly disintegrated. Tate was a notorious womanizer, which he blamed on Gordon — he said she was "going Meriwether" on him, becoming more and more like her family. They divorced in 1945, remarried a year later, and finally divorced for good in 1959.

Gordon won two prestigious literary awards, the Guggenheim and the O. Henry, and her editor was the famous Max Perkins, who also worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But Gordon herself was never famous. She finally wrote a book that she expected to be popular, a Civil War novel called None Shall Look Back (1937). Unfortunately, it was published about nine months after Gone With the Wind, and nobody noticed it. Gordon wrote to a friend: "Margaret Mitchell has got all the trade, damn her. They say it took her ten years to write that novel. Why couldn't it have taken her twelve?"

Gordon wrote 10 novels, three short-story collections, and three books about writing. Her books include Alec Maury, Sportsman (1934), The Forest of the South (1945), and The Malefactors (1956).

She said, "A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way."

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