Dec. 19, 2013

After so long an absence
       At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
       Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
       And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet's two or three berries
       In the top of the uttermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
       In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
       How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
       And many a Happy New Year
But each in his heart is thinking
       Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
       And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
       And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
       Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
       Steals over our merriest jests.

"The Meeting" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Constance Garnett (books by this author), born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky's complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn't understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to "a safe blandscript: not a volcano ... a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original." Constance Garnett's translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.

It was on this day in 1936 that Zora Neale Hurston finished the manuscript of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (books by this author). She wrote the novel in Haiti, where she was doing anthropological research for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hurston had studied anthropology at Barnard College with Franz Boas before establishing herself as a writer, and she continued to work in both fields. With her Guggenheim Fellowship, she was studying Haitian Voodoo. She was also escaping from an intense love affair. Hurston was in her mid-40s, and she had fallen in love with a 23-year-old graduate student. She wrote: "He was tall, dark brown, magnificently built, but I did not fall in love with him just for that. He had a fine mind and that intrigued me. It seems to me that God must have put in extra time making him up. He stood on his own feet so firmly that he reared back." They adored each other, and embarked on a passionate affair — she considered him the love of her life. But he wanted her to give up her career, marry him, and leave New York City. She said, "I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do, but that one thing I could not do." She applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship and escaped to the Caribbean. She said, "This was my chance to release him."

In Haiti, she spent most of her days researching. She interviewed people, read scholarly articles, became fluent in Creole, and attended Voodoo ceremonies. She had hoped that the research would make her forget about her love affair, but she was still feeling miserable, so she began to write a novel, often working at night after her research was done. It's the story of a woman named Janie Crawford and her struggles to create the life she wants to live; she finally finds a fulfilling relationship with the much-younger Tea Cake. Thinking of the man she had left behind, Hurston wrote: "The plot was far from the circumstances, but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God." She worked feverishly, and the entire novel took her less than two months. She said: "It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish I could write it again."

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (books by this author). A year earlier, he had read a disturbing news story about child labor in England, and so he had visited Cornwall to see for himself the horrible conditions of child workers in the mines there. Then he visited free schools for poor children. By the time he was through, he was so angry that he decided to write a book exposing the terrible situation of children in poverty, and publish it at his own expense. That was A Christmas Carol in Prose, now called just A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol follows the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean old miser. At the beginning of the book, his view toward Christmas is: "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." And after hearing that some poor people would rather die than go to prisons or workhouses, all he can say is: "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." But by the end, he has taken on the role of a second father for the crippled son of a man who works for him. And he exclaims: "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!"

In 1840s England, Christmas was enjoying a comeback. It had once been a huge, ceremonial event. But in the 17th century, the Puritans declared it illegal. Since the actual date of Christ's birth is not named in the Bible, the Puritans were suspicious of Christmas, thinking it was too pagan. A significantly toned-down version started to be celebrated again in the 18th century. But it was only in the years before Dickens published A Christmas Carol that the holiday was really taking off — partly because in 1840, Queen Victoria married a German prince, Albert, and having a German influence in the royal family helped re-popularize traditions like Christmas trees.

A Christmas Carol showed Christmas as a time for family, for simple pleasures, for gathering around the table — what we call "the Christmas spirit." It was also a time for parties, for dancing and drinking and playing games, which was dangerously close to pagan rituals in the eyes of some. But Dickens' vision of Christmas caught the imagination of readers in England and America, and it helped create the Christmas ideal that is all around us today.

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