Feb. 7, 2003


by David Ignatow

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"Wait," by David Ignatow from Against the Evidence (Wesleyan University Press).


I am a man and do not know why I was born. I can tell you the facts:
my mother conceived me when my father lay with her, but that is not
what I'm asking about. Why did they think it was necessary for me
to be born? I can understand love and the desire to have something
to show for it, but should I live on that promise, my parents buried?
For whom now should I live when I am dying, as did my parents who
left nothing of themselves but me who am about to die? If there is
anyone with an answer, let him or her step forward. I am patient and
can wait.

It's the birthday of Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He wrote novels which parodied middle-class American life at the turn of the century: Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Elmer Gantry (1927). He was married for a while to journalist Dorothy Thompson. After he died, his former wife Dorothy Thompson said, "Even in life he was fully alive only in his writing. He lives in public libraries, in worn copies of his books.

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, born seven miles north of Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was sixty-five, she set about to write her memoirs; Little House in the Big Woods came out in 1932, and it was a resounding success. She wrote Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and seven more volumes about growing up in pioneer America.

It's the birthday of Sir James A. H. Murray, born in Denholm, Scotland (1837). He's responsible for the original Oxford English Dictionary. He wasn't really sure he would tackle the whole project at first, and he began chipping away at it in his spare time, but after five years, he had only made it as far as the word "ant." His wife told him it would be better to succeed at one big thing in his life rather than to do a lot of things piecemeal, and he decided she was right, and gave himself up to the Dictionary. He did not smoke or drink, and did not as a matter of religious practice attend the theatre, but he included in his dictionary even words that nice people never uttered in polite society.

It's the birthday of Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsea, England (1812), but whose life, as Chesterton said, "moves like a Canterbury pilgrimage along the great roads of Kent." He's the author of The Pickwick Papers (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), and Great Expectations (1861). His idyllic childhood came to a sudden end when his father was thrown into prison for debt, and he was sent to work putting labels on bottles in Warren's Blacking Factory. He never told his wife or his children about his experiences; the public did not know until his biography came out in 1872, but the passages about Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse in David Copperfield provide a record of it. While he was still a young boy, before his family's circumstances deteriorated, he often passed a grand manor house on walks with his father; his father told him that if he worked hard and persevered, he might one day live in a place like that. The house was called Gad's Hill, and Dickens never forgot it. When Dickens made some money, he bought it. There, one autumn afternoon, he burned thousands of letters and papers in the field behind the house; no one ever knew exactly why, though his daughter begged him to save just a few of them. Like most of Dickens' works, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was first published in serial form. The novel won a vast readership in both Britain and the U.S., and everybody was interested in the fate of the heroine, Little Nell. In New York, six thousand people crowded the wharf where the ship carrying the magazine with the final installment was to dock. As it approached, the crowd grew restless and impatient, and cried out to the sailors, "Does Little Nell die?"

It's the birthday of poet David Ignatow, born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and he spent most of his life where they had settled, in New York City. He published his first book, Poems, in 1948.


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