Aug. 31, 2014


by John Updike

The sprinkler twirls.
The summer wanes.
The pavement wears
Popsicle stains.

The playground grass
Is worn to dust.
The weary swings
Creak, creak with rust.

The trees are bored
With being green.
Some people leave
The local scene

And go to seaside
And take off nearly
All their clothes.

"August" by John Updike, from A Child's Calendar. © Holiday House, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Maria Montessori, born on this day in Chiaravalle, Italy (1870). She was a bright student, studied engineering when she was 13, and — against her father's wishes — she entered a technical school, where all her classmates were boys. After a few years, she decided to pursue medicine, and she became the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree. It was so unheard of for a woman to go to medical school that she had to get the approval of the pope in order to study there.

As a doctor, she worked with children with special needs, and through her work with them she became increasingly interested in education. She believed that children were not blank slates, but that they each had inherent, individual gifts. It was a teacher's job to help children find these gifts, rather than dictating what a child should know. She emphasized independence, self-directed learning, and learning from peers. Children were encouraged to make decisions. She was the first educator to use child-sized tables and chairs in the classroom.

During World War II, Montessori was exiled from Italy because she was opposed to Mussolini's fascism and his desire to make her a figurehead for the Italian government. She lived and worked in India for many years, and then in Holland. She died in 1952 at the age of 81.

She wrote many books about her philosophy of education, including The Montessori Method (1912), and is considered a major innovator in education theory and practice.

It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered a speech titled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University.

The speech was the first time he explained his transcendentalist philosophy in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas.

He said: "Life is our dictionary ... This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it ... Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds."

The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes later praised Emerson's "The American Scholar" as the "intellectual Declaration of Independence."

It was on this day in 1422 that Henry VI became king of England at the age of nine months.

He was King Henry V's only child. In 1423, the year after he ascended to the throne, English nobles from around the land swore loyalty to their toddler king. They also set up a regency council to make government decisions until he was old enough to do so.

It was about a century and a half later that William Shakespeare wrote a historical trilogy of plays about Henry VI. To get information about King Henry's life and times, Shakespeare used a reference book called The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, written by Edward Hall and published in 1548. The three Henry VI plays were among Shakespeare's earliest plays, and they were huge box office successes, helping to establish him as a major living playwright. These days they're hardly ever performed anywhere.

Today is the birthday of William Shawn, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, born William Chon in Chicago (1907). He started working for The New Yorker as a reporter for the "Talk of the Town" section in 1933, and was paid $2 per column inch. He took on some editorial duties after a few years as a writer, and became managing editor in 1939. He convinced the magazine's founder, Harold Ross, to devote an entire issue to John Hersey's in-depth coverage of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was radically different than the magazine's usual fare, but it was a huge success. When Ross's health began to go downhill in the early 1950s, he bequeathed the magazine to Shawn. Some people were skeptical that Shawn could pull it off; after all, he was a Midwestern boy, raised in Chicago and educated in Michigan, and his first real journalism job had been reporting for a small paper in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He didn't like a fast-paced lifestyle, crowds, elevators, or power lunches. He was a small, shy, extremely courteous man whose feet didn't reach the floor under his desk. Ross died of cancer late in 1951, and Shawn succeeded him a couple of months later; he held the position until 1987, when the sale of the magazine forced him into retirement.

Under Ross's leadership, The New Yorker had been a forum for sparkling wit and snarky gossip; its stable of writers included E.B. White, James Thurber, and many members of the Algonquin Round Table. When Shawn took over the helm, the magazine took a more serious turn. It featured more stories of national interest and toned down its New York focus. Tom Wolfe said, in 1965, that Shawn had turned The New Yorker into "the most successful suburban women's magazine in the country." Former New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker complained that most of the writing was "about somebody's childhood in Pakistan," and even Shawn himself sometimes regretted the decline in the amount of humor in the magazine's pages under his watch.

But he had the support of the magazine's owners, and throughout his career, he earned the admiration and affection of the writers he worked with: among them J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Jamaica Kincaid, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Roth. He published Truman Capote's In Cold Blood as a series of articles. His magazine began to shape public opinion rather than just remark upon it. It was in the pages of Shawn's magazine that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring first educated Americans about the environment, and James Baldwin published essays on race relations that would eventually become his book The Fire Next Time (1963).

When the magazine was sold and Shawn was forced to retire in 1987, he wrote a last letter to his colleagues, saying, "We have built something quite wonderful together." After his death in 1992, former colleague Gardner Botsford wrote in The New Yorker: "He sharpened our thinking, brought us sternly back from our vacant musings, oiled our transitions, and turned us into professionals of a greater competence than we would ever have achieved on our own." Another New Yorker staffer said, anonymously, "No editor ever ruled a large and complex magazine as absolutely as he ruled this one; yet no editor, perhaps, ever imparted to so many writers and artists as powerful a sense of freedom and possibility."

Shawn himself once said, "Falling short of perfection is a process that just never stops."

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




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