Poem: "Autumn," by Linda Pastan, from Heroes in Disguise (W.W. Norton).
I want to mention
without meaning the death
of somebody loved
or even the death
of the trees.
Today in the market
I heard a mother say
Look at the pumpkins,
it's finally autumn!
And the child didn't think
of the death of her mother
which is due before her own
but tasted the sound
of the words on her clumsy tongue:
Let the eye enlarge
with all it beholds.
I want to celebrate
color, how one red leaf
flickers like a match
held to a dry branch,
and the whole world goes up
in orange and gold.
It's the birthday of Dame Agatha Christie, born in Devon, England (1890). Her father died when she was young, but she always considered her childhood to have been a happy and imaginative time. Her mother encouraged her creativity and urged her to write at an early age. Once, when she was sick and bored, Christie remembered her mother saying to her, "You'd better write a short story. Don't say you can't! Of course you can!" The two of them also traveled, and during a winter visit to Cairo, Christie wrote her first novel. During World War I, Christie worked in a Red Cross Dispensary in her hometown. She was surrounded by medicines and poisons, and they inspired her to write her first mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It featured a Red Cross Hospital and a poisoning. It also introduced her famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot's pompous and eccentric character became one of the most beloved figures in mystery literature. He appeared in over thirty books, including The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The A.B.C. Murders (1935). Christie wrote scores of successful mystery novels. Her second famous sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, was introduced in Murder in the Vicarage (1930). Miss Marple was an elderly spinster who had eccentric insights into private crimes and tragedies. Christie once told an interviewer, "I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest." And she wrote, "Every murderer is probably somebody's old friend." In addition to writing novels, Christie was a successful playwright. Her plays included Alibi (1928) and The Mousetrap, written in 1952, which remains the longest-running play in history. She was an incredibly prolific author, but her strategy was simple: she said, "The secret of getting ahead is getting started."
It's the birthday of the first great American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, born in Burlington, New Jersey (1789). He was one of the six surviving children out of thirteen siblings. His childhood was spent in upstate New York, in Cooperstown, a frontier settlement founded by his father that provided the background for Cooper's frontier novels. Cooper's writing career was influenced by these frontier experiences, but it began a little closer to home. He often read out loud to his wife. One time, he became frustrated with Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818). His daughter remembered, "After a chapter or two he threw it aside, exclaiming, 'I could write you a better book than that myself!' Our mother laughed at the idea, as the height of absurdity ...." Cooper had never even enjoyed writing letters. But he was serious about his intentions, and he began writing immediately. Cooper's first novel, Precaution (1820), was set in England. But Cooper was a thoroughly American writer. He wrote about the American landscape and spirit, and the mythic frontier wilderness. His most well known hero, Natty Bumppo, was the original American frontiersman. Bumppo was featured in the series Leatherstocking Tales, which included Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841).
It's the birthday of children's author Robert McClosky, born in Hamilton, Ohio (1914). He's best known for his early work, Make Way for Ducklings (1941), about a real family of ducks in downtown Boston. The ducks became so popular that a statue was put up commemorating them. McCloskey kept four mallard ducks in his apartment while drawing the illustrations.
Poem: "The New Father," by Russell Edson, from The Tormented Mirror (University of Pittsburgh Press).
The New Father
A young woman puts on her father's clothes and says to her mother, I'm your new husband.
Just you wait till your father gets home, scolds the mother.
He's already home, says the young woman.
Please don't do this to your father, he's worked so hard all his life, says the mother.
I know, says the young woman, he needs a rest.
When the father gets home he's dressed in his daughter's clothes. And as he steps into the house he calls, hi mom and dad, I'm home ...
It's the birthday of James J. Hill, one of America's most successful railroad tycoons, born in southern Ontario (1838). By 1870, Hill had established his own railroad company and laid track to the Red River Valley in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. He eventually began construction of a line from the Twin Cities to Seattle. The land he purchased was full of valuable resources, and thousands of settlers followed his railroad across the Great Plains. By 1893, the track was finished, and his Great Northern company ran the only private transcontinental railroad.
In 1830 a twenty-one-year old law student named Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the poem "Old Ironsides." Two days before, an article had suggested that "Old Ironsides," the nickname for the navy ship called the USS Constitution, be declared unfit for service and dismantled. Holmes's poem was printed the next day by most newspapers in the country, and the ship was not taken out of the water.
It's the birthday of the English writer known for his play The Beggar's Opera, John Gay, born to a poor family in Barnstaple, England (1685). Ten years later both his parents died and Gay tried working for a silk merchant. He hated being confined to one room all day and said the job was destroying him mentally and physically. He decided to quit and began to make his name as a satirist. He wrote about rural English life under the guidance of Alexander Pope. His most famous work is the play The Beggar's Opera, which was first performed in 1728. It's a social and political satire that he wrote for England's middle and lower classes. The play's heroes are a beggar, a highwayman, a jailer's daughter, and a few whores, and they act out the human corruption Gay saw in all levels of English society and government. The Beggar's Opera was the most widely performed play in the eighteenth century.
It's the birthday of poet and scholar Alfred Noyes, born in Wolverhampton, England (1880). He's best known for his poem "The Highwayman," which contains the lines, "And the highwayman came riding / Riding-riding- / The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."
Poem: "Waiting," by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (New Directions).
When I am alone I am happy.
The air is cool. The sky is
flecked and splashed and wound
with color. The crimson phalloi
of the sassafras leaves
hang crowded before me
in shoals on the heavy branches.
When I reach my doorstep
I am greeted by
the happy shrieks of my children
and my heart sinks.
I am crushed.
Are not my children as dear to me
as falling leaves or
must one become stupid
to grow older?
It seems much as if Sorrow
had tripped up my heels.
Let us see, let us see!
What did I plan to say to her
when it should happen to me
as it has happened now?
On this day in 1787, Benjamin Franklin presented the newly written Constitution of the United States of America to a group of politicians in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The hall was filled with representatives from every existing state, except Rhode Island. George Washington presided over the convention. Franklin was growing old and was too weak to read the document himself, so it was read for him. It began with the Preamble, drafted by Gouverneur Morris: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Two hundred and ten years later, in 1997, Constitution Day was created, and the annual recitation of this Preamble has become a way to celebrate the work of the men at the convention.
It's the birthday of Ken Kesey, born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He's best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). He went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing. He volunteered in a local hospital to observe patients of drug addiction, particularly LSD. He eventually decided to use the drug himself, and went off on a bus tour around the country with a group of misfits who called themselves "The Merry Pranksters."
It's the birthday of doctor and poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his M.D. and became friends with the poet Ezra Pound. Williams eventually broke with literary celebrities like Pound and T.S. Eliot. He didn't like their obscure and complicated European style. Williams committed himself to writing poetry in the rhythms and patterns of common American speech. He wrote clear, precise poetry that was often inspired by his work as a doctor. He said, "When they ask me . . . how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing." He wrote many essays, and a large five-volume work called Paterson (1946-1958), about his experience in the New Jersey city where he practiced medicine. But he is best known for his shorter poems like "Red Wheelbarrow." One night, Williams came home hungry and exhausted from treating a patient all day. He found some plums in his freezer, ate them, and left this poem for his wife:
This is Just to Say:William Carlos Williams said, "The goal of writing is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest."
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
Poem: "Achtung, My Princess, Good Night," by Barbara Hamby, from The Alphabet of Desire (New York University Press).
Achtung, My Princess, Good Night
Arrivederci, Cinderella, your goose is cooked, grilled,
burned to be precise, blistered, while you, nestled in your
crumbling necropolis of love, think, who am I?
Delores del Rio? No, nothing so déclassé, yet
even your mice have deserted you, little pipsqueaks,
fled to serve your stepsisters, dedicated now to
good works, a soup kitchen, if you can imagine. What is this
heresy of ugliness that has overtaken the world?
I am Beauty, you scream. Wrong fairy tale, and
just so you don't forget, size sixes are not enough in this
karaoke culture, and even here you have to do more than
lip sync "Begin the Beguine," "My Funny Valentine,"
"Mona Lisa," "Satisfaction," because you can't get no,
no, no, no, consummation, so to speak. Sex is kaput,
over, married a decade, three litters of neurasthenic
princes, your figure shot, not to mention your vagina. Don't
quote me on that you cry, my public can't bear very much
reality. Who can? Yet there it is staring you in the face.
Scram, vamoose, la cucaracha, cha cha cha. Admit it, you're
tired of this creepy pedestal, the pressed pleats,
undercooked chicken, Prince Embonpoint and his cheesy
Virna Lisi look-alike mistress with her torpedo chest. Auf
Wiedersehen to this stinking fairy-tale life, this pack-rat
Xanadu built on the decomposing carcasses of girlish hope.
Yes, all your best friends, all your gorgeous diamonds are cubic
zirconias, but flashing like the real thing, as if you'd know.
It's the birthday of Dr. Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). He wrote the Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Lives of the Poets (1781). The dictionary took him more than nine years to complete. He did it mostly by himself, and with hardly any financial support. It became the standard English dictionary for the next 150 years. It was the first dictionary to use quotations to illustrate word usage. There were 114,000 quotations from other writers. And there were 40,000 words, including: cynosure, equator, category, habeas corpus, hypostasis, marasmus, meridian, atrophy, pestilence, honeysuckle, scorpion, and zenith. Johnson said, "their accents should be settled, their sounds ascertained, and their etymologies deduced." He is also famous as the subject of James Boswell's biography The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."
It's the anniversary of the opening of Jane Addams's Hull House on the west side of Chicago in 1889. Hull House became an important center for human rights and civil liberties during the first part of the twentieth century. The neighborhood was full of Italian, Irish, Greek, Bohemian, German, Russian, African, and Mexican immigrants. Addams set up kindergarten classes, club meetings, and night schools for underprivileged people in Chicago. She soon added an art gallery, a kitchen, a coffee house, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a book bindery, an art studio, a music school, a library, and a labor museum. She helped hundreds of Chicago immigrants in their transition to American society.
It's the birthday of actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden (1905). She was in twenty-seven movies, including Anna Christie (1930), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), and Camille (1937). She usually played a mysterious, sophisticated, tragic character, a woman hopelessly in love who ends up dying or is forced to give up her lover. After a score of silent films, she made her talkie debut in an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Her first talking scene takes place in a waterfront saloon. She turns to the bartender and says, "Gimme a visky with chincher ale on the side and don't be stingy, baby."
Poem: "XLIII," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Love Poems (Random House).
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!-and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
It's the anniversary of the day in 1846 that poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning eloped. Robert Browning was a struggling poet at the time: his latest book, Sordello, had gotten horrible reviews, and people accused him of being too obscure. Elizabeth Barrett was thirty-eight years old, constantly sick, and living under the care of her overprotective father. In 1844, Robert Browning read a newly published collection of poems by Elizabeth Barrett. He wrote her a telegram that said, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett .... I do ... love these books with all my heart—and I love you too." Elizabeth was alarmed by how direct he was, and she wrote to a friend that his letter "threw (her) into ecstasies." Over the next twenty months, Elizabeth and Robert exchanged 574 letters. They met for the first time in 1845. Elizabeth's father didn't want her to marry, so they courted in secret and eloped to Florence the following year, where they spent the rest of their married life. Elizabeth's father never spoke to her again.
On this day in 1819 the young poet John Keats took a trip to Winchester, England and wrote a poem called "To Autumn." The idea for it came while he was out walking in the countryside. He wrote to a friend, "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it." He was 23 years old and near the end of his very short career. "To Autumn" begins, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run."
It's the birthday of the man who wrote Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding, born in Cornwall, England (1911). He became a schoolteacher in 1939. But his career was interrupted by World War II, and he joined the Navy. He was a lieutenant in charge of a torpedo ship that sank the German battleship the Bismark, and he fought at the Invasion of Normandy. Golding was shocked by the violence and cruelty of war. Shortly after he came home, he wrote Lord of the Flies, about a group of boys who become stranded on a desert island and struggle for survival. One of the boys tries to establish a democracy, but a bunch of boys break off from the main group and it turns into violent anarchy. Golding compared the boys' actions to the savagery that he saw in the war. He said Lord of the Flies was "an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature." The book was rejected by 21 publishers before it was finally printed in 1954. It became an international bestseller.
Poem: "The Coffee Cup," by Donald Hall, from Old and New Poems (Ticknor and Fields).
The Coffee Cup
The newspaper, the coffee cup, the dog's
impatience for his morning walk:
These fibers braid the ordinary mystery.
After the marriage of lovers
the children came, and the schoolbus
that stopped to pick up the children,
and the expected death of the retired
mailman Anthony "Cat" Middleton
who drove the schoolbus for a whole
schoolyear, a persistence enduring
forever in the soul of Marilyn
who was six years old that year.
We dug a hole for him. When his widow
Florence sold the Cape and moved to town
to live near her daughter, the Mayflower
van was substantial and unearthly.
Neither lymphoma nor a brown-and-white
cardigan twenty years old
made an exception, not elbows nor
Chevrolets nor hills cutting blue
shapes on blue sky, not Maple Street
nor Main, not a pink-striped canopy
on an ice cream store, not grass.
It was ordinary that on the day
of Cat's funeral the schoolbus arrived
driven by a woman called Mrs. Ek,
freckled and thin, wearing a white
bandana and overalls, with one
eye blue and the other gray. Everything
is strange; nothing is strange:
yarn, the moon, gray hair in a bun,
New Hampshire, putting on socks.
It's the birthday of poet Ray Gonzalez, born in El Paso, Texas (1952). He's the author of poetry collections such as The Heat of Arrivals (1996) and short story collections such as The Ghost of John Wayne (2001). He is also one of the most important anthologizers of Latino literature. He has edited collections such as Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood (1996), and Touching the Fire: Fifteen Poets of the Latino Renaissance (1998).
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Stevie Smith, born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902). She lived in the same house from the time she was three years old until her death in 1971. She approached a publisher with her first book of poems when she was in her thirties. He told her to go away and write a novel instead. So that's what she did. Her first novel was Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), and she went on to write other novels and short stories, but her greatest love was always poetry. She wrote one of her short stories in meter, and later published it as a poem. She was known for writing light verse about dark subjects. Her most famous collection of poems is Not Waving but Drowning (1957). In the title poem she wrote, "Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning." She also wrote, "This Englishwoman is so refined / She has no bosom and no behind."
It's the birthday of poet Donald Hall, born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Dark Houses (1958), Kicking the Leaves: Poems (1978) and most recently Willow Temple: New and Selected Poems (2003). His first literary hero was Edgar Allen Poe. Hall said, "I wanted to be mad, addicted, obsessed, haunted and cursed; I wanted to have eyes that burned like coals, profoundly melancholy, profoundly attractive." He got a job teaching literature at the University of Michigan, but after seventeen years he decided to quit and live by his wits. He moved to the farm in New Hampshire that had belonged to his family for generations. He said, "I try every day to write great poetry—as I tried when I was 14 ... What else is there to do?"
It's the birthday of the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). He's best known as the author of The Jungle (1906), a novel about the meat packing industry.
It's the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the twentieth century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). He joined the editorial staff of Charles Scribner's Sons when it was still the most conservative of all the major publishing houses. As a new employee, Perkins read a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald and helped Fitzgerald rewrite it. When This Side of Paradise came out in 1920, the other editors at Scribner's thought it was filthy trash. One editor said he wouldn't even let his wife read it. It sold more than 50,000 copies, which was almost unheard of for a first novel at the time. It was the beginning of Scribner's becoming one of the most important publishers of fiction written by members of the so-called "Lost Generation."
Poem: "Cellar Stairs," by Thomas Lux, from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).
It's rickety down to the dark.
Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
on your left and want to slash your throat,
but they can't, they can't, being only skates.
On a shelf above, tools: shears,
three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
you don't want to fall face first into,
no, you don't. To your right,
a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
on a bad. Against the wall,
on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
together, no pair, as if the dead
went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
which is down these steps,
at the bottom of which is a swollen,
humming, huge white freezer
big enough for many bodies—
of children, at least. And this
is where you're sent each night
for the frozen bag of beans
or peas or broccoli
that lies beside the slab
of meat you'll eat for dinner,
each countless childhood meal your last.
It's the birthday of novelist H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells, born in Bromley, England (1866). After college, he got married, got a job writing biology textbooks, and settled down for a few years. But when he developed a respiratory illness in his late twenties, he thought he didn't have many years to live, so he left his wife, ran away with another woman, and began writing furiously. Between 1895 and 1898, he published all of the novels for which he is best remembered: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). At the time, scientists were debating the processes of evolution, the danger of scientific knowledge, and the possibility of life on other planets. He was one of the first writers to explore these ideas in fiction. He lived much longer than he thought he would, and went on to publish two or three books almost every year for the rest of his life. His book Outline of History (1919-1920) was his attempt to write a complete history of the world, and it outsold all his other books combined. H.G. Wells said, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."
It's the birthday of horror novelist Stephen King, born in Portland, Maine (1947). He's the author of many novels, including The Shining (1977), Pet Sematary (1983), and most recently From a Buick 8 (2002). After college, King worked jobs at a gas station and a laundromat. His wife worked at Dunkin' Donuts. His writing office was the furnace room of his trailer home, and all of his rough drafts were typed single-spaced, with no margins, to save paper. He had studied creative writing in college and tried to write some realistic stories, but he found that writing about things like giant man-eating rats was a lot more fun. He sold a series of horror stories to men's magazines, and he said that the paychecks from these stories always seemed to arrive when one of his kids had an ear infection or the car had broken down. He was inspired to write his first novel when a friend challenged him to try writing from a female point of view. He had gotten a job as a teacher, and had witnessed the extraordinary cruelty of teenagers, so he wrote about a weird, miserable, high school girl with psychic powers named Carrie White. He gave up on the book at one point and threw it in the trash, but his wife fished it out and told him to keep going. Carrie was published in 1973. The hard cover didn't sell very well. When his agent called to say that the paperback rights had sold for $400,000, King couldn't believe it. He went on to become one of the most popular novelists of all time.