Poem: "Now the Day is Over," by Sabine Baring-Gould
Now the Day is Over
Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
Now the darkness gathers,
Stars begin to peep,
Birds and beasts and flowers
Soon will be asleep.
Jesu, give the weary
Calm and sweet repose;
With thy tenderest blessing
May our eyelids close.
Grant to little children
Visions bright of thee;
Guard the sailors tossing
On the deep blue sea.
Comfort every sufferer
Watching late in pain;
Those who plan some evil
From their sin restrain.
Through the long night-watches
May thine angels spread
Their white wings above me,
Watching round my bed.
When the morning wakens,
Then may I arise
Pure and fresh and sinless
In thy holy eyes.
Glory to the Father,
Glory to the Son,
And to thee, blest Spirit,
Whilst all ages run.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Woody Allen, born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn (1935). He started writing one-liners for gossip columns when he was 15 years old. During college, he wrote jokes for Bob Hope, and he later did standup in Greenwich Village cafés. The first movie he directed was What's Up, Tiger Lily (1966). His big breakthrough was Annie Hall, which won four Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Director and Best Picture. Allen said, "It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens."
It's the birthday of American detective novelist Rex Stout, born in Noblesville, Indiana (1886). He wrote over 70 novels, and 46 of them featured Nero Wolfe, an eccentric detective who weighs almost 300 pounds. Wolfe drinks liters of beer each day, grows orchids, and wears yellow silk pajamas. He solves mysteries with the help of his sidekick Archie Goodwin, who does most of the legwork for Wolfe because Wolfe doesn't like to leave his house.
Stout wrote articles and stories for magazines for almost thirty years before he wrote his first Nero Wolfe novel at the age of 48. It was called Fer-de-Lance, and it was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934. It was a huge success, and Stout went on to write another Wolfe novel almost every year.
It's the birthday of popular novelist Rex Beach, born in Atwood, Michigan (1877). He was living in Chicago and studying law when he heard about the Gold Rush in Alaska. He quit school and went off to the Klondike to search for gold. He looked for five years, but didn't find any. Back in Chicago, he found a job selling bricks and cement. One day, a friend of his from Alaska told him that he'd just sold a story about the Gold Rush for ten dollars. Beach later recalled, "There was an empty desk where we were standing. I snagged a chair and wrote." His adventure novels were bestsellers in the early 1900s, including The Spoilers (1906) and The Barrier (1908). Beach was one of the first writers to sell the rights of many of his novels to Hollywood and make big profits from the movie adaptations.
It was on this day in 1860 that the first installment of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations appeared in the magazine All the Year Round. Dickens had founded All the Year Round the previous year, and whenever he published one of his novels in the magazine it sold very well. But in the fall of 1860, he was serializing a novel called A Day's Ride, by Charles Lever, and sales of the magazine were dropping. Dickens had just gotten the idea for a long story about a young boy who meets an escaped convict and grows up to find out that the convict has been his secret benefactor. He was going to publish it in monthly installments in a different magazine, but he decided to write shorter chapters and publish it in All the Year Round to try to boost sales. Dickens was getting old, and while he wrote Great Expectations he suffered from facial neuralgia, asthma, pain in his side, and insomnia. He had recently separated from his wife and was having an affair with a twenty-year-old actress. But he wrote obsessively, every day, to meet the weekly deadlines and revive the sales of his magazine. His plan worked: a few chapters of Great Expectations were published weekly from December 1, 1860 through August 3, 1861, and about a hundred thousand copies of his magazine were sold each week. It has remained one of Dickens' most popular novels.
It was on this day in 1589 that Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene was registered for publication. The poem tells a long, complex story full of knights, princesses, castles, dragons, and enchanted bowers. Spenser had planned to divide the poem into 12 books, with each book featuring a different knight. Each knight would represent a different virtue, such as holiness or chastity, and King Arthur would appear in each book, representing the complete man. Spenser said the purpose of the poem was "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline." But he only finished the first six books. Still, it's one of the longest poems in the English language.
Spenser started writing the poem around 1580. About five years later, he took a position in the royal government that sent him to Ireland, where he supervised English colonization. His job was demanding, but he found inspiration in the Irish countryside and worked on The Faerie Queene as often as he could, in his spare time. By 1589, he had finished the first three books. Sir Walter Raleigh visited him in Ireland, read the poem, and liked it so much that he persuaded Spenser to come back to England to get it published.
The Faerie Queene was a big hit in England, partly because it was full of praise for Queen Elizabeth and Protestantism. John Milton liked the poem because of its moral lessons. Two hundred years later, English Romantic poets like John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge admired The Faerie Queene for its beautiful, intricate rhyming patterns and its rich story. Today, it's considered one of the greatest poems ever written in English.
The first Canto of The Faerie Queene begins:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many' a bloudy fielde . . .
Poem: "Little Things," by Julia A. Carney.
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the might ocean
And the beauteous land.
And the little moments,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
So our little errors
Lead the soul away,
From the paths of virtue
Into sin to stray.
Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of love,
Make our earth an Eden,
Like the heaven above.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Elizabeth Berg , born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1948). She's the author of best-selling novels such as The Pull of the Moon (1996), What We Keep (1998), and Open House (2000). In 1985, Berg was working as a nurse when she decided she wanted to spend more time with her children. She wrote an essay about quitting her job to be with her daughters, and it won a $500 prize in Parents magazine. Soon after she was diagnosed with skin cancer. Her doctor told her she had only five years to live. Berg began writing articles at a frantic pace, selling dozens of them to magazines in the next five years. Her first novel was Durable Goods (1993), about a Texas adolescent who has to travel around the country with her father, who is in the Army. Her most recent novel, Say When (2003), was published last June. Berg said, "I'm a rank sentimentalist, and I make no apologies at all for it."
It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, born in Los Angeles (1963). She's best known for her novel Bel Canto (2001), which came out two years ago. She didn't do well in school, but she had decided she wanted to be a writer by the time she was in her teens. She later said, "While my girlfriends danced and dated, I sat and wrote. Every ounce of gangly energy I had went onto paper. I sprawled. I mass-produced." She started sending in poems and short stories to national publications. Her first story was published in the Paris Review when she was only 21 years old.
In the next few years, Patchett went to graduate school, got married, got divorced, quit a teaching job two days before classes began, and moved back to live with her mother in Nashville. She worked as a waitress for a year, thinking about what her first novel was going to be about as she took orders and set tables. She once said, "The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head. . . . [Sitting down to write it is like] grabbing my little friend (crushing its wings slightly in my thick hand), holding it down on a cork board and running it through with a pin." Finally, in 1992, she came out with The Patron Saint of Liars, about a pregnant woman who leaves her husband in California and ends up at a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Kentucky. The novel was a big success.
Ann Patchett said, "I believe that my gift in this world is not that I'm smarter or more talented than anyone else: it's that I had a singular goal. I don't want other stuff: friends, kids, travel. What makes me happy is writing."
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer T(homas) C(oraghessan) Boyle, born in Peekskill, New York (1948). He's known for his big, sprawling, funny novels like World's End (1987) and his latest, Drop City, published earlier this year, about a California hippie commune in the 1970s. Both of Boyle's parents were alcoholics, and as a child he was, in his own words, a "punk," a "cynic," and a "proto-hippie." He wasn't interested in writing until he enrolled in a creative writing class in college on a whim. Everyone else in the class was writing obscure poems, but Boyle decided to write a one-act play about a couple whose son is eaten by an alligator and who keeps the son's foot on a coffee table. Boyle read it aloud in class, his classmates all loved it, and he knew that he wanted to be a writer.
But he fell into drugs for a couple of years before applying to graduate school in creative writing at the University of Iowa. He said, "Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm." His teachers at Iowa included John Cheever and John Irving. Boyle was also studying for a Ph.D., and he wrote thick, scholarly papers on 19th century literature at the same time he was writing stories for magazines like The Paris Review and Atlantic Monthly. In 1981, he came out with his first novel, Water Music, about a Scottish explorer named Mungo Park who travels down the Niger River with a drunken con man from London. He's since published more than ten novels and story collections.
Boyle said about writing, "First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something."
And he said, "My goal is to make literature interesting, sexy, to bring literature back to the jaded, dull American masses, especially the young people who don't have an experience of literature and to make them realize that this is important, as important as . . . rock 'n roll."
Poem: "Snow in the Suburbs," by Thomas Hardy.
Snow in the Suburbs
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1947 that Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York City. Williams spent months writing and revising the play, and he had three different working titles for it: The Moth, Blanche's Chair on the Moon, and The Poker Night. Then he moved to an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he could hear two streetcars rattling by, one named Desire and one named Cemeteries. He changed the setting of his play to New Orleans, and he changed the title to A Streetcar Named Desire. The play is about a southern belle named Blanche DuBois who comes to live with her sister Stella and Stella's working class husband Stanley. Stanley thinks Blanche is trying to swindle the couple, and his anger and physical aggression eventually drive her to insanity. At one point, Blanche says, "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!"
The play got a 30-minute standing ovation on opening night, and it ran for over 800 performances. Stella was originally played by Kim Hunter, Blanche by Jessica Tandy, and Stanley by a twenty-three-year-old Marlon Brando. The play was made into a movie in 1951 with most of the original cast, and it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards.
It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), in a region that had once been part of Poland. His father was a poet and translator of English and French literature. Joseph and his father read books written in both Polish and French. By the time he was 12 years old, both of his parents had died of tuberculosis. He went to Switzerland to live with his uncle, but after a few years he decided he wanted to go off and see the world. He joined the French merchant marine, and began a long career as a sailor. He sailed to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, the South Pacific, and Africa. He joined the British merchant navy, and in 1886 became a citizen of Great Britain.
In the fall of 1889, Conrad settled in London for a few months. One morning, after he finished his breakfast, he told his maid to clear away all the dishes immediately. Normally, he would sit by the window and read from a book by Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare. But on this morning he felt unusually calm and perceptive. He later wrote, "It was an autumn day . . . with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their leaves gone were like tracings of an Indian ink on a sheet of tissue paper." He began to write his first novel, Almayer's Folly, which would be published six years later. It's about a man from the Netherlands who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. Conrad said, "The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write." He said he felt "a hidden obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon."
Conrad went on to write many more novels, including Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907), and Nostromo (1904). But he's most famous for Heart of Darkness (1902), about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa. Conrad wrote, in Heart of Darkness, "It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence,--that which makes its truth, its meaning-its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone."
Conrad said the task of the writer is "to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything."
Poem: "The Late News," by David Kirby, from I think I am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay (Orchises).
The Late News
The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon.
The weatherman smiles a lot,
but he is making the best of a bad thing,
for the weather is necessary, yes,
but boring. As for the actors
in the commercials, they are jovial
yet insincere, for they do not love the lotions,
sprays, and gargles they urge us to buy,
products that are bad for us anyway and overpriced.
Only the sportscaster is happy, for sports news
is good news: money always changes hands,
and if someone has lost that day, someone else has won.
Should anyone die, that's death, not sports,
and death is the anchorwoman's department.
Even if the Soviets should fire all their missiles at us
and vice versa, the sportscaster will still be happy:
you can't cover everything in a half hour,
for crissakes, and sports will be all that is left.
There will be no jobs to go to,
and our cars won't work,
and there will be no electricity,
but you can make a ball out of anything,
and then all you need is a line to get it across
or a hoop to put it through.
The sportscaster knows how the world will end:
not with a whimper, not with a bang,
but with a cheer.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of English writer Herbert Read, born in Yorkshire, England (1893). He wrote over sixty books of poetry, art criticism, and essays. He was especially well known for arguing that art should play a greater role in the public's education, in such books as Education Through Art (1974). Read said, "The only sin is ugliness, and if we believed this with all our being, all other activities of the human spirit could be left to take care of themselves. That is why I believe that art is so much more significant than either economics or philosophy. It is the direct measure of man's spiritual vision."
It's the birthday of British writer Samuel Butler, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1835). He came from a family of clerics, and his father assumed Samuel would also become a minister. He went to a parish in London, and it was there that he realized that people who had been baptized were not necessarily morally superior to people who hadn't been baptized. He started questioning Christianity in letters to his father, and eventually lost all faith in religion. He left the parish and sailed off to New Zealand to become a sheep farmer. He made a decent living, and began to read widely. He was fascinated with Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), which had recently been published, and he corresponded with Darwin for a time. In 1872, he published a satire called Erewhon, which both supported and challenged Darwin's ideas about evolution. Readers loved it, but it was the only book Butler wrote that had any success until his death in 1902.
After he died, an incomplete novel that Butler had begun thirty years earlier, The Way of All Flesh, was found in his desk drawer. When it was published in 1903, it sold more copies than any of his works did when he was alive. Critics called it a masterpiece. His notebooks and memoirs were published, and he suddenly became known as a great Victorian writer. The writer V.S. Pritchett said, "The Way of All Flesh is one of the time-bombs of literature. One thinks of it lying in Samuel Butler's desk for thirty years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel."
It's the birthday of nineteenth century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, born in the village of Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). He studied German literature at school, and after graduating he found work teaching and writing articles for magazines. But he was depressed-he suffered from dyspepsia, and worried about finding a wife and about pleasing his parents. He wanted to write something but abandoned all of his projects almost as soon as he started them. He wrote to a friend, "I must do something-or die, whichever I like better." Finally, he came up with the idea for a book that combined autobiography and philosophy, and he began working on what would become his big breakthrough, Sartor Resartus (1833-1834).
Carlyle started writing a history of the French Revolution at the beginning of the 1830s, and finished it in 1835. He lent the manuscript to his friend, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, but Mill's housekeeper mistook the pile of paper for waste and threw it in the fire. Mill was furious with his housekeeper and offered Carlyle two hundred pounds in compensation. Carlyle said that he felt like a man who "has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero." But he went right back to work and rewrote the entire book in less than two years. The French Revolution was published in 1837, and it was a great success. George Eliot said, "No novelist has made his creations live for us more thoroughly than Carlyle has made Mirabeau and the men of the French Revolution. . . . What depth of appreciation, what reverence for the great and godlike under every sort of earthy mummery!"
Carlyle was interested in the great, towering figures of history, like Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, and Shakespeare. He wrote a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), in which he says, "No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men." Some people in the first half of the twentieth century saw the book as a rejection of democracy, and Carlyle has become less popular than he once was.
Thomas Carlyle said, "He who would write heroic poems should make his whole life a heroic poem."
Poem: "Remember," by Christina Rossetti, from The Complete Poems (Penguin).
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of writer John Berendt, born in Syracuse, New York (1939). He was an editor at Esquire magazine when he took a trip to Savannah, Georgia on a whim. He fell in love with the place, and decided he wanted to write a book about it. He didn't begin working on it for three years, and then he started doing intense research and interviewing as many people in Savannah as he could. It took him seven years to finish the book. In 1994, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published, and it became a huge bestseller. It follows the murder case of an antiques dealer, but it's also full of portraits of miscellaneous Savannah residents. It's a nonfiction book that reads like a novel. In 1998 it broke the record for consecutive weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Tourism in Savannah increased by almost 50 percent.
It's the birthday of novelist James Lee Burke, born in Houston, Texas (1936). He's best known for his series of detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux, an ex-New Orleans policeman, Vietnam veteran, and recovering alcoholic. Burke's novels have been compared to those by master crime novelists like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Burke started writing stories when he was in fourth grade, published his first story when he was 19, and wrote his first novel when he was 23. Half of Paradise (1965) was published just after he finished graduate school, and it got great reviews. Burke wrote a few more novels, but none of them sold well. He fell into depression and alcoholism. He had finished a book called The Lost Get-Back Boogie, but he couldn't find anyone to publish it. He collected ninety-three rejection slips for the book over a period of ten years. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a land surveyor, a social worker, a forest ranger, a teacher, and a truck driver. He later said, "I reached a point . . . where I didn't care whether I lived or died." Finally, in 1985, The Lost Get-Back Boogie was published by Louisiana State University Press. The novel is about a released prisoner who goes to live on a Montana ranch with the family of one of his friends from prison. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Burke's novels have been doing well ever since.
Burke said, "I believe that whatever degree of talent I possess is a gift and must be treated as such. To misuse one's talent, to be cavalier about it, to set it aside because of fear or sloth is unpardonable."
It's the birthday of American writer Joan Didion, born in Sacramento, California (1934). In 1968, Didion's first collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, was published, and it was a big success. It includes essays about Joan Baez, Vegas brides, John Wayne, and the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. She's gone on to write five novels, including A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and Democracy (1984), as well as several more nonfiction books. Her latest book, Where I Was From (2003), was published in September. It's a history of California that's full of family portraits and personal anecdotes. Didion wrote, "The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past."
Didion said, "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. . . . Writers are always selling somebody out."
It's the birthday of English poet Christina Rossetti, born in London (1830) to Italian parents. She grew up in a family that loved literature. She and her sister and two brothers wrote sonnets together as children, and all four of them grew up to be writers. One brother, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, helped Christina get her first poems published in a London magazine.
Christina was home-schooled and lived with her mother her entire life. She was a deeply devout Protestant. She gave up chess because she was worried that she enjoyed winning too much. She broke off an engagement to the artist James Collison in 1848, after he joined the Catholic Church. Later, she fell in love with a man named Charles Cayley but wouldn't marry him because he wasn't religious enough. She stayed at home and read religious texts, and occasionally, in bursts of inspiration, wrote the poetry for which she is known. She's best known for her poem "Goblin Market" (1862), a dark fairy tale in which a girl is attacked by a pack of goblins after refusing to buy their fruit.
Poem: "The Unsaid," by Stephen Dunn, from Local Visitations (Norton).
One night they both needed different things
of a similar kind; she, solace; he, to be consoled.
So after a wine-deepened dinner
when they arrived at their house separately
in the same car, each already had been failing
the other with what seemed
an unbearable delay of what felt due.
What solace meant to her was being understood
so well you'd give it to her before she asked.
To him, consolation was a network
of agreements: say what you will
as long as you acknowledge what I mean.
In the bedroom they undressed and dressed
and got into bed. The silence was what fills
a tunnel after a locomotive passes through.
Days later the one most needy finally spoke.
"What's on TV tonight?" he said this time,
and she answered, and they were okay again.
Each, forever, would remember the failure
to give solace, the failure to be consoled.
And many, many future nights
would find them turning to their respective sides
of the bed, terribly awake and twisting up
the covers, or, just as likely, moving closer
and sleeping forgetfully the night long.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Susannah Moodie, born Susannah Strickland in Suffolk, England (1803). As a young woman, she married an adventurous man who had traveled around Africa, and the two of them sailed off to live in the backwoods of Canada, which at the time was still wild country. She's best known for her novels about pioneer life, including Roughing it in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings (1853). She's a very important literary figure in Canada, and the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once wrote a book of poems about her called The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1972).
It's the birthday of English essayist Sir Osbert Sitwell, born in London (1892). He wrote many books of poetry and fiction, but he's best known as the author of autobiographical essays about the years before the collapse of the British Empire. He wrote, "I belonged, by birth, education, nature, outlook and period to the pre-war era, a proud citizen of the great free world of 1914. . . . [Now] the sabre-toothed tiger and the ant are our paragons, and the butterfly is condemned for its wings, which are uneconomic." His essays are collected in books such as Left Hand, Right Hand! (1945), Laughter in the Next Room (1948), and Noble Essences (1950). Sitwell said, "Poetry is like fish: if it's fresh, it's good; if it's stale, it's bad; and if you're not certain, try it on the cat."
It's the birthday of Austrian avant-garde playwright and novelist, Peter Handke, born in Griffen, Austria (1942). He's one of the most influential and controversial writers in the German language. When he first started writing plays, he said, "[I] couldn't stand the pretense of reality [in theater] . . . as if the actors were under a glass bell." He wanted to destroy the illusion. In his first play, Offending the Audience (1966), four actors come on stage to say that there is not going to be a play, and then yell insults at the audience. The play was a surprising success in Germany, but when it traveled abroad, many audiences yelled insults back at the actors.
He went on to write other experimental plays like My Foot My Tutor (1969) in which two characters interact for ten scenes without ever speaking. He has also written many novels, including The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) and Nonsense and Happiness (1976). He's best known in this country for writing the screenplay for the movie Wings of Desire (1987), about an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. His most recent novel to be translated into English is On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000).
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, born in Middlesex, England (1893). As a child, Warner loved listening to her mother's stories about growing up in India. She said, "[My mother's memory was] this astonishing storehouse, full of scents and terrors, flowers, tempests, monkeys, beggars winding worms out of their feet." When she became a writer, Warner tried to write fiction that would reproduce the feeling she got from her mother's stories, of something fantastic emerging from something ordinary.
Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was about a woman who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes a witch in order to get away from her restrictive family. She wrote, "When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . They are like trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notice them until they fall off." The novel became the first ever Book of the Month Club Selection, and it was a bestseller in the United States. She went on to write many more books that combined realism and fantasy before it was a popular thing to do. She wrote The Cat's Cradle Book (1940), about a woman who believes that cats crawl into the beds of children at night to tell them fairytales, and The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), about a magical world where women are the rulers.
It's the birthday of poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1886). He was a struggling poet, working as a writer of definitions for the Standard Dictionary, when he got a chance to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. When he got home, he wrote a poem, trying to express the beauty of what he saw in the forest. He called the poem "Trees." It begins, "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" and ends with the lines, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree."
It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937). But he always felt overshadowed by the talent of his younger brother, the composer George Gershwin. The two brothers worked together on many songs, and Ira once heard a radio announcer say, "Here is a new song by George Gershwin and his lovely wife Ira."
Though Ira Gershwin won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics in 1932, he was always modest about his work. When he published a collection of his lyrics in 1959, he wrote in the introduction, "Any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable." His secretary said that he almost always criticized his own work, but occasionally he would pat himself on the shoulder and say, "Good job, Gershwin. Good job."
Poem: "Books," by Billy Collins, from Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House).
From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.
I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.
I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.
I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;
when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boy and his sister receding into the woods.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1941 that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack came after the United States had frozen Japanese assets and declared an embargo on shipments of petroleum and other war materials to Japan. On the morning of December 7, soldiers at Pearl Harbor were learning how to use a new device called radar, and they detected a large number of planes heading toward them. They telephoned an officer to ask him what to do. The officer said they must be American B-17s on their way to the base, and he told the soldiers not to worry about it. A sailor named James Jones, who would go on to write the novel From Here to Eternity (1951), was in the mess hall that morning. Because it was Sunday, there was a bonus ration of milk to go along with breakfast. Jones said, "It was not till the first low-flying fighter came . . . whammering overhead with his [machine guns] going that we ran outside, still clutching our half-pints of milk to keep them from being stolen."
The Japanese planes dropped bombs and torpedoes, and ships started capsizing and sinking. Men jumped and fell from the boats into the water, which was covered with burning oil. Most of the damage occurred in the first thirty minutes. The U.S.S. Oklahoma capsized, and the California, Nevada, and West Virginia sank in shallow water. The U.S.S. Arizona was completely destroyed, killing more than 1,500 soldiers aboard. When Nurses arrived for morning duty they found hundreds of injured men all over the base. The nurses ran around, administering morphine, and to prevent overdoses they wrote the letter M on each treated man's forehead.
There were ultimately 2,390 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor and 1,178 wounded. Two days after the attack, the Navy passed out postcards to the survivors and told them to write to their families, but not to describe what had happened. A man named George Smith said, "My mother didn't get that postcard until February. . . . When the mailman got [my] card at the post office, he closed down and ran all the way to my house . . . woke up my [parents] and told them, 'Your son's OK.' I would not see my mother for two and a half years."
Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, "a date which will live in infamy," and he used the event as the grounds for leading the United States into World War II.
It's the birthday of the novelist Willa Cather, born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1873). Her family moved west when she was a little girl, to get away from a tuberculosis epidemic. The disease had killed all of her father's brothers. Congress had recently passed the Homestead Act, and thousands of people were moving west to take advantage of the free government land. She always remembered the journey out to the plains, sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side to steady herself. She said, "As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything - it was a kind of erasure of personality. I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron." Her family settled in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and most of her fictional Nebraska towns are based on it. She fell in love with the Nebraska landscape. She wrote, "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth is the floor of the sky."
Cather idolized the immigrant women of Nebraska, who worked alongside men in the fields. As a teenager, she cut her hair short and wore boys' clothes, calling herself William Cather. She traveled around the town with the local doctors, telling everyone she was going to be a surgeon, and she did experiments on frogs in her spare time. But when she went off to college, she got involved in journalism and eventually moved to New York City to edit McClure's magazine. She became an extremely successful magazine editor at a time when men ran almost all magazines and newspapers in New York, but the job kept her from writing anything but short fiction. After living in New York for fifteen years, she quit her job and took a trip back home to Nebraska. Standing on the edge of a wheat field, she watched the first harvest that she had seen since her childhood. When she got back to the East, she began her first great novel, O Pioneers! (1913). She said, "This [is] the first time I walked off on my own feet--everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture."
Cather went on to write many more novels about the westward expansion of the United States, including My Ántonia (1918), The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). They're novels about longing for an America that had been settled, divided up, fenced off, and lost.
Cather said, "We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it-for a little while."
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Joyce Cary, born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1888). He started out wanting to be a painter, and went to art school, but nobody liked his paintings. He moved to Paris and tried to write a novel about the bohemian scene there, but he never finished it. Hoping to find better novel material, he volunteered for the British Red Cross in the Balkan War against Turkey. He nearly died twice and never wrote any fiction about the experience. After that he went to Africa, and almost died a half a dozen more times. In 1918, he was shot in the head, but survived. He said, "A special luck follows me everywhere. . . . I shall not die a violent death. My insurance money will be wasted."
In Africa, he started writing several novels, all of which he burned in frustration. Finally, he published a few stories about African colonial life in the Saturday Evening Post, and made enough money to write for a living. He's best known for his novel The Horse's Mouth (1944), which is narrated by a cranky, frustrated old painter named Gulley Jimson. He wrote, "Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in both hands who sets out to paint the chicken-house, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God, look what I've done. A miracle. . . . Must be one of the keenest pleasures open to mankind. It's certainly the greatest an artist can have. It's also the only one. And it doesn't last long, usually about five minutes."