Someone I cared for
put it to me: Who
do you think you are?

I went down the list
of all the many

carefully — did it
twice — but couldn't find
a plausible one.

That was when I knew
for the first time who
in fact I wasn't.

"Someone I cared for" by Cid Corman, from And The Word. © Coffee House Press, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) (books by this author). Born in 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts, to an abolitionist family, she published her first book at the age of 22. Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times was a historical novel. In it, Child wrote about Hobomok, a young Indian man in colonial New England, who steps in to marry and care for Mary Conant, a white woman, when she is devastated by the deaths of her mother and her white lover. Hobomok and Mary have a son and, as the book says, she grows to love him. But when her white lover, not having died after all, returns after several years, Mary leaves Hobomok and, taking the child, marries the white man. He adopts the child, and he and Mary educate the boy at Cambridge. Hobomok, his heart broken by the loss of his wife and child, "murmured his farewell and blessing, and forever passed away from New England," symbolically leaving the land to its new white inhabitants. Writing of Mary and Hobomok, Child said [beginning of Chapter 19]:

Desolate as Mary's lot might seem, it was not without its alleviations. All the kind attentions which could suggest themselves to the mind of a savage, were paid by her Indian mother. Hobomok continued the same tender reverence he had always evinced, and he soon understood the changing expression of her countenance, till her very looks were a law. So much love could not but awaken gratitude; and Mary by degrees gave way to its influence, until she welcomed his return with something like affection. True, in her solitary hours there were reflections enough to make her wretched. Kind as Hobomok was, and rich as she found his uncultivated mind in native imagination, still the contrast between him and her departed lover would often be remembered with sufficient bitterness. Besides this, she knew that her own nation looked upon her as lost and degraded; and, what was far worse, her own heart echoed back the charge. Hobomok's connection with her was considered the effect of witchcraft on his part, and even he was generally avoided by his former friends. However, this evil brought its own cure. Every wound of this kind, every insult which her husband courageously endured for her sake, added romantic fervor to her increasing affection, and thus made life something more than endurable.

Her book of poems, Flowers for Children (1844-1846), included "A New England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," which begins with the well-known lines: "Over the river and through the wood / To grandfather's house we go; / The horse knows the way / To carry the sleigh / Through the white and drifted snow." In her eulogy, abolitionist Wendell Phillips said of Child that she was "ready to die for a principle and starve for an ideal." Commenting on her work, the leading literary periodical of the time — the North American Review — said, "Few female writers, if any, have done more or better things for our literature."

On this day in 1944, writer Joy Williams (1944 - ) (books by this author) was born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. The author of four novels, her first book, State of Grace (1973), was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction, and her most recent book, The Quick and the Dead (2000), was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Her second book was not as well received as State of Grace, prompting her to say the reviews "were such that you felt they wanted you to die — or if you refused to die, then you could at least stop writing." And she did stop writing novels for a time, focusing on short stories, which she calls her favorite literary form.

Screenwriter Philip Dunne (1908-1992) was born in New York City on this day in 1908. Politically active, he helped organize the Writers Guild of America and fought against entertainment industry blacklists of writers suspected of leftist leanings in the 1940s and 1950s. Although not blacklisted himself, along with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and others, he protested these actions before the House [of Representatives] Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. Among Dunne's many screenwriting credits are How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Robe (1953). In How Green Was My Valley, the main character, Huw, remembering his childhood in Wales, said, "For if my father was the head of our house, my mother was its heart." In addition to his screenplays, Dunne contributed articles to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

And it is the birthday of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993), film director, producer, and screenwriter, who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1909. He won many awards, including double Oscars as Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). In All About Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing enthralled audiences with the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

It is the birthday today of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. With 1,093 patents to his credit, he changed how we live through his inventions of the incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph. Known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," he commented toward the end of his life, "There is no substitute for hard work."

Physicist and molecular biologist Leo Szilard (1898-1966) (books by this author) was born on this date in 1898. He was a native of Budapest and student of Albert Einstein, and his accomplishments included developing the electron microscope and the nuclear chain reaction concept. In 1929, he wrote a paper identifying the unit or "bit" of information, now a staple in computer languages and the Internet. Fleeing Europe in 1933, Szilard settled in the United States where, as part of the Manhattan Project, he witnessed the first successful nuclear chain reaction. But he came to oppose the atom and hydrogen bombs on moral grounds, eventually becoming a leader in worldwide peace efforts. In 1961, he published The Voice of the Dolphins: and Other Stories, a statement against proliferation of nuclear weapons and misuse of scientific information.

It is the feast day today of Caedmon (died 680 A.D.), a cowherd and monk at Whitby Abbey in England. He is the author of Caedmon's Hymn, one of the earliest examples of a poem written in English. According to accounts from the time, his ability to compose poetry came to him in a dream. Popularly remembered as a saint, Caedmon wrote religious poems in Old English (450-1100 A.D.), the language of Beowulf, which was a precursor of Middle English (1100-1500 A.D.), the language of Chaucer. Caedmon's Hymn, his only surviving work, begins, "Praise we the Lord / of the Heavenly Kingdom / God's Power and Wisdom / the Works of His Hand." (C.W. Kennedy translation from Old English)

And on this day in 1990, Nelson Mandela (1918- ) was freed from prison after serving almost 27 years of a life sentence for fighting apartheid, the policy of racial segregation in his native South Africa. Although isolated from the centers of power during his years in prison, his popular support remained strong. After his release and his decision to publicly support reconciliation with South Africa's white leaders, Mandela became an international symbol of equality. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and from 1994 to 1999, he served as president of South Africa. In 1994, he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (buy now). At his sentencing in 1964, Mandela spoke about the beliefs that have guided his life and work: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day I look out the window,
green summer, the next, the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail, a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

"In The Middle" by Barbara Crooker from Radiance. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, born in Hardin County, Kentucky (now part of LaRue County) in 1809. Here are some things that you may not have known about Lincoln: He was the first president to have a beard while in office. And he was the tallest president at six feet, four inches.

He was the first president to be photographed at his inauguration. And in the picture of his second inauguration you can see John Wilkes Booth standing near him.

Lincoln liked animals and he owned a cat, "Bob," a turkey, "Jack," and a dog, "Jib." On the night of his assassination, they found in Lincoln's pockets two pairs of glasses, an ivory and silver pocketknife, a linen handkerchief, a Confederate five-dollar bill, a gold watch fob, and a new leather wallet with a pencil inside of it.

Lincoln was the only president ever to receive a patent. It was for a device that lifted ships over shoals in the water.

He was known for keeping an untidy office and also for his loud and resonant laugh. He admired the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but when Lincoln saw that a campaign document had claimed that he spent his free time reading Plutarch, he began reading Lives.

Many thought that Lincoln was overindulgent as a father and he would let his youngest two boys run and play freely in the Presidential Office.

It's south of here because, mostly,
everything is; what is north is smaller,

thicker, more compact to keep out
the cold. Down there, where it's

warmer, it spreads out luxuriously
across a flattened mountain top.

There's a lake below, more mountains
beyond. The scenery is guaranteed.

Down there, our lives would be
something to marvel at: breakfast

on the terrace every day, a swim
in the afternoon, dinner by candlelight

every night. Down there, life would be
just like it is in the movies, the old movies,

at least: elegant yet simple, in an age
that must remain unquestioned.

Up here, it's much more complicated.
Or, it's just not so clear. Or classy.

Dinner is served in front of the television,
and most of the year, you can't

eat outside. Enter every day for your
chance to win!
cries the television promotion.

And we do, oh Lord. Yes we do.

"Dream Home" by William Reichard, from This Brightness: Poems. © Mid-List Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1974 that author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (books by this author) was exiled from the Soviet Union. He was convicted of treason on the 12th, sent out of the country the very next day, and it would be 20 years before he ever set foot in Russia again.

Starting in the early 1960s, Solzhenitsyn had made himself an enemy of the state by clandestinely publishing novels based on his experiences in Stalin's forced labor camps. He would write a novel in secret and then his friends would smuggle the manuscript out of the country to be published abroad. He built a huge following in the West and won a Nobel Prize in literature in 1970, but he was always on the verge of being caught.

In December of 1973, the KGB discovered a draft of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's seminal work; the first book to document the camps' existence and to capture the full scope and horror of what happened there. Writing this book was the crime that got him exiled. He moved with his family to a little farm in Vermont and continued to write, working seven days a week, almost the entire day. He felt a responsibility to tell stories, not just for his craft, but for the people whose lives and deaths had inspired him. In his 1980 book The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union, he writes, "They are dead. You are alive. Do your duty. The world must know all about it!"

It's the birthday of William Roughead, (books by this author) considered one of the greatest true-crime writers. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1870, Roughead was a lawyer who developed a fascination with murder trials early in his career. In 1889, while still a teenager, he played hooky from his apprenticeship to attend the trial of murderess Jessie King, the last woman ever hanged in Edinburgh. From that year until 1949, Roughead could be seen in the audience of every major murder trial held in the Edinburgh High Court.

He began writing about these trials for legal journals, but his frank, pulpy prose lent itself to popular reading and in 1913 he published his first anthology of crime stories, Twelve Scots Trials. He hated the title. In the preface to his 1922 book, Glengarry's Way and Other Studies, he wrote, "Of those three fateful words two at least were unhappily chosen. 'Scots' tended to arouse hereditary prejudice. ... 'Trials' suggested to the lay mind either the bloomless technicalities of law reports or the raw and ribald obscenities of the baser press. Had they been a 'baker's dozen' the game would have been up indeed."

Roughead published more than 13 anthologies of crime, his writing influencing the likes of Henry James and Joyce Carol Oates. In an article for The New York Review of Books, Oates wrote, "Roughead's influence was enormous. ... He wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales."

It's also the birthday of cartoonist Sidney Smith, born Robert Sidney Smith in 1877 in Bloomington, Illinois. He began drawing for the Bloomington paper at the age of 18, and by 1917 he was on the staff of the Chicago Tribune. That year, he took up an editor's challenge to create a comic strip about utterly average Americans. The result was "The Gumps," the first newspaper comic to use a continuing, soap opera-style storyline, influencing successors from "Gasoline Alley" to "For Better or For Worse."

It was fantastically successful. "The Gumps" became the first comic strip to kill off a main character in 1929 and the first to make the move to radio in 1934.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers was founded today in New York City in 1914. The founding membership included some of the most popular musicians of the day, including Irving Berlin, John Philip Sousa, and the composer Victor Herbert. The group was formed to protect intellectual property and help musically inclined writers make a living off their art. Technically, there were already laws on the books that should have done this, but many of them weren't being enforced.

According to ASCAP lore, it was Victor Herbert who realized what a problem enforcement had become when he walked into a hotel one evening and heard one of his own songs being played. Knowing he hadn't given permission or been paid for his music, Herbert set out to create a union that would stand up for the rights of musicians and composers.

The first office of the ASCAP was little more than a closet in New York's Fulton Theater Building. The office furniture consisted of a table and a single, broken chair. Today, the organization has more than 300,000 members, and it collects and distributes millions in royalties.

She goes out to hang the windchime
in her nightie and her work boots.
It's six-thirty in the morning
and she's standing on the plastic ice chest
tiptoe to reach the crossbeam of the porch,

windchime in her left hand,
hammer in her right, the nail
gripped tight between her teeth
but nothing happens next because
she's trying to figure out
how to switch #1 with #3.

She must have been standing in the kitchen,
coffee in her hand, asleep,
when she heard it—the wind blowing
through the sound the windchime
wasn't making
because it wasn't there.

No one, including me, especially anymore believes
till death do us part,
but I can see what I would miss in leaving—
the way her ankles go into the work boots
as she stands on the ice chest;
the problem scrunched into her forehead;
the little kissable mouth
with the nail in it.

"Windchime" by Tony Hoagland from What Narcissism Means to Me. © Greywolf Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate love and especially romantic love. This day is linked to Greco-Roman February holidays devoted to fertility, in particular, the festival of Lupercalia. The romantic overtone of the holiday is in commemoration of St. Valentine, a Roman priest who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. It's worth noting that there are many different Christian martyrs named "Valentine," and until 1969, the Catholic Church recognized 11 different Valentine's days.

Thousands of couples will exchange gifts signifying their affection for one another, including chocolate, flowers, and of course, greeting cards. One hundred eighty-eight million Valentine's Day cards will be given today, making February 14 the second most popular card-giving day of the calendar year, finishing right behind Christmas.

The tradition of exchanging love notes on Valentine's Day originates from the martyr Valentine himself. The legend maintains that due to a shortage of enlistments, Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in an effort to bolster his struggling army. Seeing this act as a grave injustice, Valentine performed clandestine wedding rituals in defiance of the emperor. Valentine was discovered, imprisoned, and sentenced to death by beheading. While awaiting his fate in his cell, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with the daughter of a prison guard, who would come and visit him. On the day of his death, Valentine left a note for the young woman professing his undying devotion signed "Love from your Valentine."

On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was declared a heretic by the Church of England, and shortly thereafter, sentenced to death. Cranmer is credited as a co-founder of modern Anglican thought, along with Richard Hooker and Matthew Parker. Cranmer is also notable for authoring (and plagiarizing) the first two Books of Common Prayer, which provided structure for Anglican liturgy and are still used in churches in more 50 different countries and in 150 different languages. Cranmer also wrote and published the 1550 Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, which declared that sacramental objects like bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Christ, deserve sacred respect.

Cranmer's end came at the hands of Queen Mary I, who leveled a charge of heresy on him after she reunited the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He was imprisoned, and though he signed declarations recognizing Papal supremacy and transubstantiation, was sentenced to death at the stake, due to his involvement in the controversial divorce between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Queen Mary's mother. He is still remembered as a martyr in the Anglican tradition.

It's the birthday of English demographer and economist Thomas Robert Malthus, born in Surrey, Great Britain, in 1766. In his 1798 essay, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus made the prediction that the world's population would outlast the globe's food supply, which would spell certain trouble for humankind. The economist leveled the greatest amount of blame on the lower social classes, who he felt were multiplying in unacceptable and dangerously high numbers. For that reason, Malthus called for an abolition of the Poor Laws, which served as a sort of social security system for 18th-century England. He felt that without the safety net of public assistance, the living conditions for the poor would become inhospitable, and the indigent would die off completely. He claimed that only "natural causes," "misery," "moral restraint," and "vice" could cull bloated populations, and as such, advocated for sexual abstinence and late marriage as acceptable population size checks.

Ironically, Malthus's works have served as major influences for two eternally warring camps. Malthus proudly extolled the fact that one of the earliest converts to his theory of population was theologian Archdeacon William Paley, who authored the influential book Natural Theology. Paley felt that the ebbs and flows in population size described by Malthus was further proof of a holy deity. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin — whose findings in the 1859 Origin of Species became the launching text for the theory of Evolution — based his thoughts on natural selection heavily on Malthus's idea of man's "struggle for survival."

No time for a sestina for the working mother.
Who has so much to do, from first thing in the morning
When she has to get herself dressed and the children
Too, when they tumble in the pillow pile rather than listening
To her exhortations about brushing teeth, making ready for the day;
They clamor with "up" hugs when she struggles out the door.

Every time, as if shot from a cannon when she shuts the door.
She stomps down the street in her city boots, slipping from mother
Mode into commuter trance, trees swaying at the corner of a new day
Nearly turned, her familiar bus stop cool and welcoming in the morning.
She hears her own heart here, though no one else is listening,
And if the bus is late she hears down the block the voices of her children

Bobbing under their oversized backpacks to greet other children
At their own bus stop. They too have come flying from the door,
Brave for the journey, and everyone is talking and no one is listening
As they head off to school. The noisy children of the working mother,
Waiting with their sitter for the bus, are healthy and happy this morning.
And that's the best way, the mother knows, for a day

To begin. The apprehension of what kind of day
It will be in the world of work, blissful without children,
Trembles in the anxious and pleasurable pulse of the morning;
It has tamped her down tight and lit her out the door
And away from what she might have been as a mother
At home, perhaps drinking coffee and listening

To NPR, what rapt and intelligent listening
She'd do at home. And volunteering, she thinks, for part of the day
At their school-she'd be a playground monitor, a PTA mother!
She'd see them straggle into the sunshine, her children
Bright in the slipstream, and she a gracious shadow at the school door;
She would not be separated from them for long by the morning.

But she has chosen her flight from them, on this and every morning.
She's now so far away she trusts someone else is listening
To their raised voices, applying a Band-Aid, opening the door
For them when the sunshine calls them out into the day.
At certain moments, head bent at her desk, she can see her children,
And feels a quick stab. She hasn't forgotten that she is their mother.

Every weekday morning, every working day,
She listens to her heart and the voices of her children.
Goodbye! they shout, and the door closes behind the working mother.

"Sestina for the Working Mother" by Deborah Garrison, from The Second Child: Poems. © Random House, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony, born in Adams, Massachusetts (1820). Anthony and her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the women's suffrage movement in the U.S. in the late 1800s. From 1892 to 1900, Anthony acted as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

It is the birthday of comic book artist and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, (books by this author) born in 1948 in Stockholm, Sweden. Spiegelman is best known for his graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History and its follow-up, Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: and Here My Troubles Began. These books tell the story of Spiegelman's parents, who were Holocaust survivors. The books are considered to be the crowning achievement of the graphic novel genre — Maus II even won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Critics praise the books for both their unique approach to the Holocaust and their radical treatment of the comic book form. Other artists have followed in Spiegelman's footsteps, and the graphic novel genre is now accepted as a valid literary form. In an interview with, Spiegelman was asked what it is about comics that satisfies him. He replied, "Comics are a narrative art form, a form that combines two other forms of expression: words and pictures ... in the hands of someone who knows their medium, great things can happen. Good comics make an impression that lasts forever."

It is the birthday of the popular Internet Web site YouTube (the domain name was registered on February 15, 2005). In its few short years in existence, YouTube has become a cultural phenomenon. It is the Internet's fourth most popular Web site, and it receives millions of visitors a day. One of the results of YouTube is that ordinary people now have a chance at fame (or infamy). Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year was You, partly due to the rise of YouTube.

On this date in 399 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death. He was accused of religious heresies and corrupting youth, and he was sentenced to die by consuming poison (most likely hemlock).

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd a way!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chaunting with wild lorelie;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E'en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!

"Beautiful Dreamer Serenade" by Stephen C. Foster. Public domain.

Henry Brooks Adams was born this day in 1838 in Boston. Although he came from a long line of successful politicians — most notably his great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams — Henry Adams preferred to be an observer of political events. In his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, the writer spoke about himself as a man who, "never got to the point of playing the game ... he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players."

Henry Adams attended Harvard, became a journalist, and returned to his alma mater to teach medieval history in 1870. He wrote an epic nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1891), and distinguished himself as one of America's first memoirists with The Education of Henry Adams (1918).

Henry Adams is best known for his memoir, which was originally meant only for family and friends. Although Adams once remarked, "The proper study of mankind is woman," The Education of Henry Adams is completely void of any mention of his wife.

Adams married Marian Hooper in 1872 — the two traveled together, and Marian often helped her husband with his research. She was the model for the heroine in his satire Democracy (1880).

Marian was deeply affected by the death of her father in 1885. She took her own life shortly afterward, and Adams was shattered. In a letter to his friend E.L. Godkin that year, Adams wrote, "I admit that fate at last has smashed the life out of me; but for twelve years I had everything I most wanted on earth."

Today is the birthday of historian G.M. Trevelyan, born George Macaulay Trevelyan in 1876 near Stratford, England. Unlike Henry Adams, Trevelyan belonged to a school of historians who believed that history should be a literary as opposed to scientific art. He wrote, "The art of history remains always the art of narrative. That is the bedrock." Trevelyan is most famous for his books England Under the Stuarts (1907), British History in the Nineteenth Century (1922), and History of England (1926).

It's the birthday of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, born Edgar Berggren in Chicago in 1903. When he was in high school, Bergen paid $36 to have a wooden dummy's head constructed for him. He developed some comedic material from a mail-order magician's manual, and Charlie McCarthy was born. Charlie, Bergen's cheeky, monocled counterpart, was to live a very exciting life for the next 59 years as the ventriloquist's signature character.

Bergen toured professionally with Charlie while studying theatre at Northwestern The pair spent the next 20 years in radio and enjoyed tremendous popularity until the arrival of television in the mid-50s.

In 1978, Bergen announced his retirement. Charlie would be donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to which he replied, "Well, at least I won't be the only dummy in Washington." Only nine days after his announcement, Bergen died in his sleep after a performance at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, (books by this author) born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944. His trilogy of novels starring Frank Bascombe has won him popular and critical acclaim. The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) have all won various awards; Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996.

Although many of his stories are set in the South, Ford has resisted critics' efforts to label him as a "Southern" writer. In an interview with Harper's he said, "Categorization (women's writing, gay writing, Illinois writing) inflicts upon art exactly what art strives at its best never to inflict on itself: arbitrary and irrelevant limits, shelter from the widest consideration and judgment, [and] exclusion from general excellence."

Ford has overcome a number of labels and difficulties in his life. His father died of a heart attack when he was 16. He was dyslexic as a child but majored in English at Michigan State University. He attempted to pursue a number of alternate career paths, even spending some time in law school, but Ford always came back to writing. Beginning in 1981, he wrote articles for Inside Sports magazine. When the publication went under, Ford accepted his wife Kristina's challenge to "write a book about a happy man." The Sportswriter was named one of the five best books of 1986 by Time magazine and went on to earn the PEN/Faulkner citation for fiction in 1987.

On this day in 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba. Castro was born in 1926 in Birán, Cuba, and studied law at the University of Havana. He participated in revolutionary movements in the Dominican Republic and Colombia before overthrowing Cuba's dictator, General Fulgencio Batista. His first attempt to oust the dictator from power came in 1953, but the attack failed to stimulate a local uprising and Castro was captured. After he was released from prison in 1955, Castro went to Mexico to regroup. He and his brother Raúl organized a small band of exiles who landed in Cuba in 1956. They gained members and momentum, and on New Year's Day, 1959, Batista fled the country.

  She pressed her lips to mind.
                                —a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone's lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she's missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear,
speaking sense. It's the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. we married as soon as we could.

"The Kiss" by Stephen Dunn from Everything Else in the World. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1929, who is best known for his seminal work The Chosen (1967). Other well-known novels include The Promise (1969), My Name is Asher Lev (1972), and The Book of Lights (1981); like Potok himself, the protagonists of these works are all Orthodox Jews raised in New York City. As a teenager, Potok read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, followed by James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The power of these two novels combined convinced Potok to become a writer himself — as he explained in an interview, he was amazed by "the realization that you could really create the world out of language." Potok graduated with honors from Yeshiva University, a private Jewish college, in 1950; in 1954 he was ordained as a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The following year he left New York for South Korea, where he served for two years as an Army chaplain. When he returned to the United States, he wrote a novel about Korea, but it was rejected. A few years later, Potok moved to Jerusalem to work on his doctorate. It was there that he wrote The Chosen, which would become his first published novel.

It's the birthday
of the lyricist poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer,(books by this author) born Gustavo Adolfo Domínguez Bastida in Seville, Spain, in 1836. Bécquer's aptly named Rhymes (1871) and Legends (1857-64) — his most famous works of poetry and prose, respectively — are frequently published together as Rimas y leyendas. Rhymes and Legends is considered required reading in Spanish-speaking countries around the world. Like the Romantics, Bécquer's poetry invokes melancholy, introspective themes of love and loss; but his departure from the confined rhetorical structure of Spanish literature and his use of colloquial language have earned him the status of Spain's first Modern poet. After a failed position in the civil service, Bécquer made ends meet as a journalist and translator in Madrid, where he joined an active group of Bohemian artists and intellectuals. His now-canonical poetry, along with most of his writing, was published by his friends after he died a pauper at the age of 34. Bécquer's unrequited love for Julia, the daughter of one of his mentors, is believed to have fueled many of the Rimas, as in "Rhyme 85":

So that you read them with your grey eyes,
so that you sing them with your clear voice,
so that they fill your chest with emotion
I made my verses.
(Translation by H. Landman)

It's the birthday of Andrew Barton Paterson (Narrambla, New South Wales, 1864), (books by this author) the Australian poet, journalist, and songwriter known as "Barty" to his family and friends and "Banjo" to his readers. "The Banjo" was Paterson's pseudonym of choice for his early poems (he named himself after a racehorse rather than an affinity with the musical instrument). While The Banjo published poetry, Andrew Paterson became a partner in a law firm by age 22. Paterson is best known for writing the lyrics to "Waltzing Matlida," a wildly popular ballad heralded as Australia's national song and covered or adapted by countless musicians, from Tom Waits to Harry Belafonte to a Jamaican ska group called The Silvertones. In 1895 — the same year he wrote "Waltzing Matilda" — Paterson published his first book of poems, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, which sold out its first edition in one week and went through four editions in its first six months. For a time, Banjo Patterson was the second-most popular poet writing in English in the world, after Rudyard Kipling. His other books of poetry are Rio Grande's Last Race and Other Verses (1904) and The Animals Noah Forgot (1933). In The Man from Snowy River's final poem, "Daylight Is Dying," Patterson leaves his readers with the hope that

These tales, roughly wrought of
  The bush and its ways,
May call back a thought of
  The wandering days,

And, blending with each
  In the memories that throng,
There haply shall reach
  You some echo of song.

In 1933, the Blaine Act was passed in Congress, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition, although it took almost 10 months for the repeal to be officially adopted as the 21st Amendment.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Ruth Rendell,(books by this author) born in 1930 in London, England, who also writes under the name Barbara Vine. She is a best-selling writer — dubbed the Queen of Crime — and author of more than 50 books. Her first novel, From Doon with Death (1964), began her popular Wexford series, named for its celebrated main character, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. She has since written 20 more Wexford novels, including the recent Not in the Flesh (2007).

Joining the Queen of Crime in birthdays today is the Grand Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Andre Norton (born Alice Mary Norton in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio) (books by this author). Norton adopted the pseudonym Andre in 1934 in an attempt to market her work in a male-dominated genre; 40 years later, Norton was the first woman to receive the Grand Master Award from the World Science Fiction Society. Norton wrote more than 130 novels in her 70 years as a writer, as well as nearly a hundred short stories. A month before her death in March 2005 at age 93, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America created the Andre Norton Award for an outstanding work of science fiction or fantasy for young adults. Witch World (1963) is the first in more than 30 titles in Norton's popular series by the same name. "As for courage and will," wrote Norton, "we cannot measure how much of each lies within us, we can only trust there will be sufficient to carry through trials which may lie ahead."



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning