Aug. 31, 2004

Personal Effects

by Frannie Lindsay

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Poem: "Personal Effects" by Frannie Lindsay, from Where She Always Was © Utah State University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Personal Effects

For once not arguing,
we divide among ourselves
the things she left; her mother's mother's
swan brooch, her pilled and odorless
brown coat, sturdy Timex,
the night shirt she mended
with clashing thread.

The morning before, I sat
by my mother's bed
to ask her what she would like
the paper to say about her
life. It was like being read a story
backwards, the reader becoming
the child afraid to fall asleep.

With the shift nurse helping
and some baby oil, and trembling
the way he did the day he slipped it on,
my father bends over
the quieted body I thought I saw breathe,
and slides off her wedding ring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of song lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, born in New York City (1918). He's best known for writing the lyrics for the musical My Fair Lady (1956), based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913).

It's the birthday of educator Maria Montessori, born in a small village near Ancona, Italy (1870). She developed the theory that children should not be forced to sit still while they are learning. She said, "[In most classrooms] children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to his place." She believed that if children were allowed to move around and interact with things, they would discover new ideas on their own. She spent many years traveling and spreading her ideas, and there are now Montessori schools all over the world.

She said, "If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men."

It's the birthday of William Saroyan, born in Fresno, California (1908), son of Armenian immigrants. In 1934, Saroyan published his first story, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," about a struggling writer who dies of starvation. He was so happy that he'd finally published something that he sent out dozens of stories to other magazines, and they were all published. His collection, also titled The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) came out that same year.

The book made him famous. It was about people who are happy even though they are living through the Great Depression. Readers loved his spontaneous, artless style of writing. Some critics said he wasn't writing stories but "poeticized shouts." He said, "What ... difference does it make what you call it just so it breathes?"

Saroyan wrote his most famous play, The Time of Your Life (1939), in six days while staying at Great Northern Hotel in New York City. It's about a group of drifters hanging out at a San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk. The play won the Pulitzer Prize, but he refused the award because he thought awards were demeaning to art.

William Saroyan said, "The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell."

It's the birthday of the second editor of The New Yorker magazine, William Shawn, born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). Very little is known about his childhood, because he almost never talked about himself to anyone, including his family. He started working as a newspaper reporter for the Las Vegas Optic and eventually got a job writing for the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker magazine. He liked the fact that The New Yorker did not print his name next to the short pieces he wrote. He always enjoyed being anonymous. He hated to be photographed, he didn't give interviews, and even after he became editor of The New Yorker, he never once gave a speech in public.

For its first twenty-five years, The New Yorker was best known for its lighthearted humor. When Shawn took over as editor from Harold Ross in 1952, he made the magazine much more serious and intellectual. He encouraged journalists to use literary techniques in their reporting, and he was extraordinarily generous toward writers with the amount of time they had to write and the amount of space he would give them in the magazine. He was shy and polite and even people who had known him for years still called him "Mr. Shawn."

It was about 4:00 in the morning on this day in 1888 when a constable on patrol in London's Whitechapel slum found the body of a woman named Mary Ann Nichols near a slaughterhouse. She was the first victim of the most famous murderer in the history of true crime literature, a man who became known as "Jack the Ripper."

The police generally didn't pay attention to crimes committed in the East End, but the murder of Mary Ann Nichols was excessively brutal. Even at a time of Victorian repression, the London newspapers covered the story in all its lurid detail, and the story was picked up and embellished upon in newspapers around the world.

Four more prostitutes were murdered that autumn: Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. The London police arrested dozens of beggars and immigrants, but none was found guilty. A man who claimed to be the murderer wrote a series of letters to a newspaper in red ink, and he signed them Jack the Ripper. The name stuck, but experts don't believe that the letters were written by the actual murderer.

After the last murder on November 9, 1888, the murders simply stopped. No one ever came forward who had witnessed the killings or who knew anything about the killer. The fact that the crime went unsolved made Jack the Ripper into a kind of mythic super-villain, but the problem was that forensic science hadn't been invented yet. There was no fingerprinting or blood analysis to help the police find the killer.

It is estimated that there have been more books written about Jack the Ripper than all the American Presidents combined. A quarterly magazine, Ripperana, was launched in 1992 as an open forum for debate among Ripperologists. Suspects have included everyone from slaughterhouse workers to doctors to Queen Victoria's eldest grandson, Prince Albert. Jack the Ripper's identity remains a mystery.

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