Apr. 15, 2004


by Joyce Sutphen

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Poem: "Soundings," by Joyce Sutphen, from Naming the Stars (Holy Cow Press).


In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1755 that the first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published. Johnson was forced to abandon his studies at Oxford when his father's business went bankrupt. He applied for the masters program at the University of Dublin, but he didn't get in, and so, to make some money, he was forced to take on the painstaking job of writing a dictionary. It took him almost ten years to finish, but when it came out everyone agreed that it was the best English dictionary that had ever been published.

It's the birthday of one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time, Leonhard Euler, born in Basel, Switzerland (1707). He published more than eight hundred papers and books, and his collected works take up nearly seventy volumes. He's best known for developing the methods of calculus on a wide scale, but he also made important contributions in geometry, algebra and physics. He had amazing powers of memory and concentration. He could recite Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid word for word; he had thirteen children and often did his work while they played in the same room; and he could perform calculations of incredible complexity in his head. When he lost the use of his right eye, he said, "Now I will have less distraction."

It's the birthday of the man who painted the "Mona Lisa," Leonardo da Vinci, born in Vinci, Italy (1452). He was born to a twenty-five-year-old notary and a peasant girl, and his mother married another man and moved to another town soon after his birth. Leonardo had so many ideas that he found himself unable to complete most of the projects he started. Michelangelo is supposed to have said about him, "He cannot create, only imagine." From the time Leonardo was thirty until the time he was fifty-five he only completed about ten paintings, but those paintings included "The Last Supper" and the "Mona Lisa."

It's the birthday of "Heloise" from the "Hints from Heloise" column, Ponce Kiah Marchelle Heloise Cruse Evans, born in Waco, Texas (1951). Her daily column of household advice is printed in more than five hundred newspapers in twenty countries. She's the woman who tells us that hair conditioner can be used for shaving cream, dirty dishes should be stored in the freezer so as not to attract fruit flies, boric acid powder and sugar makes a good roach repellent, and an iron can be used to remove candle wax from a carpet. She's come up with more uses for vinegar, baking soda, shampo, and nylon net than most people would have thought possible.

It's the birthday of novelist Henry James, born in New York City (1843). He's the author of over twenty novels, including Washington Square (1880), The Turn of the Screw (1898) and The Wings of the Dove (1902). As a child, he traveled back and forth between America and Europe. He spent time in Geneva, London, Paris and Bologna, and his parents let him wander around the streets of the great European cities and soak up their language and culture. After he graduated from Harvard, he went to Europe and wrote for magazines like the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly, which is where his first novel, Watch and Ward was published in 1871.

Around this time he started running out of money, and he had to decide whether he wanted to go back to America, where he had a better chance of getting more books published, or stay in Europe. His brother William wrote to him, "It is a fork in the path of your life, and upon your decision hangs your whole future." Finally, in October 1875, Henry James wrote to his family, "Dear People All. I take possession of the old world—I inhale it—I appropriate it!" He would live in Europe for the rest of his life.

He started writing his most famous book, The Portrait of a Lady, in an apartment in Florence overlooking a waterway. It's about a woman named Isabel Archer who goes to England to live with her aunt and uncle and their son Ralph. Isabel inherits some money and goes to Italy, where she decides to marry a rich widower named Gilbert Osmond and spends the rest of the novel dealing with the horrible consequences of her decision. The novel begins, "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

James became a British citizen near the end of his life, as a show of support for Great Britain in World War I. He once said, "I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favour of doing it." One time, he said to a group of his English friends, "However British you may be, I am more British still."

But he started feeling nostalgic for America at the beginning of the twentieth century. He hadn't seen his home country in twenty-five years, and he wanted to know how it had changed since he left. He dreamt about kicking through the leaves on Fifth Avenue and wanted to see if the trees he remembered were still there. He wrote to a friend that he wanted to "lie on the ground, on an American hillside, on the edge of the woods, in the manner of my youth." He had trouble raising the money, but he finally left for America in August 1904. He loved the big open spaces of the American West and the sunny weather in California, but he said the country was "too huge . . . for any human convenience."

James is known for writing big, challenging novels made up of long, complex sentences. He once said, "We want it clear, goodness knows, but we also want it thick." And he once called his books "invincibly unsalable." For a long time, he wasn't very widely read in America, mostly because he seemed so European and old-fashioned. But his popularity has gone up recently, thanks in large part to all of the movies based on his novels that have come out. The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and The Wings of the Dove were all made into Hollywood movies in the late '90s.

James said, "It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature."

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