Aug. 14, 2014


by Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

"Postscript" by Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of columnist, essayist, and memoirist Russell Baker (books by this author), born in Morrisonville, Virginia, in 1927. He's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; the first he won in 1979 for distinguished commentary for his syndicated humor column "The Observer", which ran in the New York Times from the early 1960s to the late 1990s. The second Pulitzer he received for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982). In 1993, PBS asked him if he would like to take over hosting duties on Masterpiece Theatre following the retirement of its long-standing and much-beloved host Alistair Cooke. Baker quipped, "I'd like to be the man who succeeds the man who succeeds Alistair Cooke." But he took up the job, and hosted the series for 11 years.

Today is the birthday of romance novelist Danielle Steel (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). She's sold almost 600 million books, and produces a book a year, every year. In order to keep up her prolific rate, Steel works on three to five books at once. She writes a long outline, about 50 pages, and goes through it several times herself and with her editor. And then she writes an entire draft in one long push, only pausing to sleep for three or four hours at night before getting up and doing it all over again. She won't stop until the book is finished.

Today is the birthday of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, born in Griffin, Georgia (1851). He studied dentistry in Philadelphia, and that's how he got his nickname, but he was only in private practice for a few months when he contracted tuberculosis. He moved west from Georgia, hoping the desert air would prolong his life, and it was in Dallas, Texas, that he decided gambling was a more lucrative career than dentistry, especially since his chronic tubercular cough drove his patients away. He drifted throughout the West, developing a reputation as a gunfighter and heavy drinker, and wound up in Tombstone, in the Arizona Territory, in 1880. There he took up with his friends Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, whom he'd met in Dodge City, Kansas. The Earp brothers were involved in a feud with a gang called the Cowboys, made up of the Clantons and the McLaurys. The feud led to one of the most famous shoot-outs in the history of the American West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which happened in October 1881. Thirty shots were fired in as many seconds, leaving three dead and many wounded. Holliday survived the shoot-out, but died of tuberculosis six years later, at a sanatorium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

After his death, The Denver Republican wrote: "He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities."

Today is the birthday of the English poet and novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon (books by this author), better known by her initials L.E.L., born in London (1802). She was "discovered" by her neighbor, William Jerdan, who was the editor of The Literary Gazette. He remembered seeing her as a young girl, running around the garden, rolling a hoop with one hand and holding an open book in the other. By the time she was 20, she was widely popular for her romantic poems, which she published under the initials "L.E.L." Her 1824 collection, The Improvisatrice, made her an international literary star. The poet and novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said that he and his college classmates would look eagerly through each new copy of The Literary Gazette for poems by L.E.L.: "And all of us praised the verse," he wrote, "and all of us guessed at the author. We soon learned it was a female, and our admiration was doubled, and our conjectures tripled."

Besides publishing several books of poetry, Landon also wrote book reviews, and her first novel, Romance and Reality, came out in 1831.

She married George Maclean, the governor of a British settlement in West Africa, and moved with him to the Gold Coast. Maclean was hot-tempered, and Landon's married life was unhappy. Two months later, she was found dead, clutching an empty bottle of hydrogen cyanide in her hand. There was a hasty inquest and she was buried the same day. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti both wrote elegies to Landon, but her work became unfashionable after her death, and it wasn't until Germaine Greer published an essay about her in 1982 that scholars began to look at her work again.

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