Wednesday

Aug. 27, 2014

Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer

by Jane Kenyon

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done—the unpacking, the mail
and papers ... the grass needed mowing ....
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

"Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who wrote under the name C.S. Forester (books by this author), born Cecil Smith in Cairo, Egypt (1899). He created the character Horatio Hornblower, an English naval officer who is heroic but also introverted, suffers from seasickness, is a fanatic about efficiency and discipline, and hates the poetry of Wordsworth. He also wrote The African Queen (1935), which John Huston made into a movie in 1951, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. In the book, Forester wrote, "When a man who is drinking neat gin starts talking about his mother, he is past all argument."

He also wrote: "A man who writes for a living does not have to go anywhere in particular, and he could rarely afford to if he wanted."

It's the birthday of novelist Theodore Dreiser (books by this author), born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He grew up poor, one of 10 children, in a family that was regularly involved in scandals — his siblings seemed to be in constant trouble with adultery, unwanted pregnancies, jail time, or alcoholism. Dreiser was quiet and studious. In high school, he had a teacher named Mildred Fielding. She was 35 years old and unmarried, tall and thin with big teeth. She had also grown up poor in a dysfunctional family, and she sympathized with Dreiser at the same time that she recognized his potential. She encouraged his studies and told him to ignore the gossip of his schoolmates; but when he was 16, he was so frustrated by his family's poverty and scandals that he dropped out of school, determined to make it on his own. He set off for Chicago with a change of underwear and socks, and a few dollars.

Two years later, he was working a menial job at a warehouse when his old teacher, Mildred Fielding, found him once again. She was now the principal of a Chicago school, and she insisted on paying for his tuition at Indiana State College in Bloomington. He only stayed for one year, but he said, "If ever [...] a year proved an oasis in a life, this one did." He returned to Chicago, where he found work as a reporter and became a prolific writer. He could crank out stories for hours on end, and had a talent for plagiarizing himself. He had never tried to write fiction before the fall of 1899, when he was staying with a friend who convinced him to try writing a novel. Dreiser wrote the novel Sister Carrie (1900) based on the widely-publicized scandal of one of his sisters. His other novels include The Financier (1912) and An American Tragedy (1925).

It was on this day in 1955 that the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records was printed. The idea for the book came four years earlier, when Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Brewery, was hunting birds in Ireland. He missed a shot at a golden plover, and he wondered whether the golden plover was the fastest game bird. He and his friends debated the question that evening back at Sir Hugh's hunting lodge, but they had no way to find the answer. As the chairman of Guinness Breweries, Sir Hugh thought to himself that with more than 80,000 pubs in Britain and Ireland, there were probably quite a few arguments of this type every night over a round of beers.

Beaver considered creating a book that could be consulted during such debates. He mentioned the idea at work, and one of his employees was an athlete who recommended a pair of twin brothers: Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had started out as sports journalists and now provided sports facts and figures to British newspapers. The McWhirters had photographic memories and knew an amazing number of unusual facts. Beaver approached them and was astonished at how much they already had in their heads. He asked if they could compile a booklet with interesting records, and they set to work, researching late into the night. It was tough to find the type of records Beaver was looking for: not just interesting facts, but also the fastest, longest, tallest, biggest, etc. in each category. The McWhirters' strategy was to give each record their best guess and then send it out to experts to see how they would react. As one twin said: "We found that people who have a total resistance to giving information often have an irresistible desire to correct other people's impressions."

Beaver intended the book as marketing merchandise, a way to get the Guinness name out there in pubs; he didn't expect to make any money on it. The first edition cost just five shillings, and they printed 50,000 copies. By the end of the first week 10,000 copies had been ordered. It has remained an enormous best-seller, with more than 130 million copies sold.

It's the birthday of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (books by this author), born in Stuttgart, Germany (1770). He started out studying Christianity, and he was particularly interested in how Christianity is a religion based on opposites: sin and salvation, earth and heaven, church and state, finite and infinite.

He eventually came up with the concept of dialectic, which is the idea that all human progress is driven by the conflict between opposites. He argued that each political movement is imperfect and therefore gives rise to a counter-movement, which, if it takes control, is also imperfect and therefore gives rise to yet another counter-movement, and so on to infinity.

It's the birthday of Ira Levin (books by this author), author, dramatist, and songwriter. He was born in New York City in 1929. For the first 13 years of his life, his family lived in the Bronx, but as their toy business prospered, they moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His first produced play was No Time for Sergeants (1956), which was about a Southern country boy in the U.S. Marines. Many of his novels were made into movies, sometimes multiple times, including A Kiss Before Dying (1953); The Stepford Wives (1972); The Boys from Brazil (1976); and his best known, Rosemary's Baby (1967). His play Deathtrap (1978) ran for nearly 1,800 performances on Broadway. His works were never held up as masterpieces of literary fiction, but they provided a good thrill, and sometimes a chill, and inspired the likes of Stephen King, who once called him "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels," and added, "He makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores."

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

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