Sunday

Mar. 16, 2014

An Embarrassment

by Wendell Berry

"Do you want to ask
the blessing?"

"No. If you do,
go ahead."

He went ahead:
his prayer dressed up

in Sunday clothes
rose a few feet

and dropped with a soft
thump.

If a lonely soul
did ever cry out

in company its true
outcry to God,

it would be as though
at a sedate party
a man suddenly
removed his clothes

and took his wife
passionately into his arms.

"An Embarrassment" by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published (books by this author). He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first novel that could reach a large audience.

Hawthorne began the novel shortly after he was fired from his position at the Salem Custom House, and he spent almost all of his time working on it from June 1849 through February 1850. His wife, Sophia, said she was "almost frightened about it. ... He has written vehemently morning & afternoon & has not walked as much as he used to do. He has become tender from confinement & brain work."

Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America's Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.

He finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, "It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success."

Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and he planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote: "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot. ... It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits."

On March 16, 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published, and they sold out within 10 days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country."

The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison as a crowd of people look on. Hawthorne wrote: "When the young woman — the mother of this child — stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."

It's the birthday of poet César Vallejo (books by this author), born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he later became a socialist.

In 1920, he found himself caught up in a festival in his hometown that deteriorated into lootings and arsons. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail, and he spent his next four months writing the poetry that would appear in his first major collection, Trilce (1922).

After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He was constantly sick and depressed, and he couldn't find a steady job. He wrote to his brother: "I ... have the desire to work and to live my life with dignity. I am not a bohemian: poverty is very painful, and it's no part for me, unlike for others. ... My will veers between the point at which one is reduced to the sole desire for death and the intention of conquering the world by sword and fire."

He eventually founded a literary magazine in Paris, and he published several more collections of poetry. He spent the last years of his life promoting Russia's communist policies and trying to gain support for Spanish rebels in the Spanish Civil War. He died of malaria when he was only 49 years old. He is buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

It's is the birthday of Sid Fleischman (books by this author), born Avron Zalmon Fleischman in Brooklyn, New York (1920). Fleischman grew up in San Diego, and as a teenager toured the country with vaudeville acts as a magician. After college he became a journalist, then he started writing suspense novels and screenplays.

One day his daughter Jane came home from school with the autograph of a children's author. Fleischman's wife, Betty, pointed out to the children that their father was also a writer. Jane said, "Yes, but no one reads his books." So he started in at once, and his first of many children's books, Mr. Mysterious & Company, was published in 1962. He won the Newbery Award in 1987 for his novel The Whipping Boy (1986), which tells the story of a spoiled European prince and his servant who receives the prince's punishments, because it's a crime to strike the prince. He also wrote a memoir: The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer's Life (1996).

He said: "The books we enjoy as children stay with us forever — they have a special impact. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, the author must deliver his or her best work."

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

 









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