Aug. 5, 2002


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Clam," by Mary Oliver from What Do We Know (Da Capo Press).

The text of this poem is no longer available.

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Hellenga, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1941). As an English professor at Knox College in Illinois, he once directed an off-campus studies program in Italy, where his first two novels are set. His first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures (1994), takes place after the great Florence flood of 1966. The main character is a book restorer who travels to Florence to save rare books damaged in the flood. His second novel, The Fall of a Sparrow (1998), is about a Midwestern classics professor whose daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in Bologna.

It's the birthday of poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry, born in Henry County, Kentucky (1934). He's spent most of his life farming land his father owned in the hill country near the Kentucky River. A fictionalized version of his hometown, a place he calls "Port William," is the setting for many of his novels, including A Place on Earth (1967) and, most recently, Jayber Crow (2001). Over the years he's become a leading voice in the environmental movement, known for his defense of sustainable agriculture, community, and the simple life.

It's the birthday of poet Conrad Aiken, born in Savannah, Georgia (1889).

It's the birthday of the French master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, born in Normandy (1850). As a young man, he was taken under the wing of the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who was rumored to be his father, and who took a fatherly interest in his career. In 1880, his story "Boule de suif" ("Ball of Fat") propelled Maupassant into the limelight, and began a decade of remarkable productivity. Between 1880 and 1890, he published about three hundred short stories and six novels, marked by their naturalism and their pessimistic view of human society. De Maupassant was a complex character. On the one hand, he was athletic and adventurous. He once made a highly publicized balloon trip from Paris to Belgium, and was a strong enough swimmer to save the English poet Swinburne from drowning. On the other hand, he was often ill and depressed. He suffered from migraines and syphilis, and died in an asylum. He wrote: "The essence of life is the smile of round female bottoms, under the shadow of cosmic boredom."

On this day in 1850, Herman Melville organized a picnic on the slopes of Monument Mountain, near his home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Among the guests was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville admired but had never met. According to the legend, a sudden thunderstorm sent the two writers scurrying under the cover of small cave, where they waited out the storm discussing literature and philosophy. The excitement of meeting a kindred spirit inspired Melville to rewrite the novel he'd been working on. The completed novel, Moby Dick, was dedicated to Hawthorne.

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