Nov. 14, 2004

April Day in November, Edinburgh

by Norman MacCaig

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Poem: "April Day in November, Edinburgh," by Norman MacCaig, from Collected Poems (Chatto and Windus).

April Day in November, Edinburgh

The sun punches through the cloud gaps
with strong fists and the wind
buffets the buildings
with boisterous good will.

Bad memories are blown away
over the capering sea. Life
pulls up without straining
the jungle tangle between us
and the future.

Easy to forget
the last leaves thicken the ground
and the last roses are dying
in their sad, cramped hospitals.

For gaiety's funfair whirls
in the gray squares. Energy
sends volts from suburb to suburb.

And April, gay trespasser,
dances the dark streets of November,
Pied Piper leading a procession
of the coloured dreams of summer.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick , by Herman Melville, about a ship captain named Ahab who is obsessed with hunting the great white sperm whale that took his leg. The book had been published in Britain in October with the title The Whale; Melville's decision to change the title didn't get there in time. The American version of the book had crowded pages and ugly binding, but the English version was done in three beautiful volumes with bright blue and white covers. It also had gold stamps of whales, but they were the wrong kind: they were shaped like Greenland whales—humpbacks or gray whales—instead of sperm whales. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how the narrator lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. Melville never fully recovered from the disappointment.

In America, Moby-Dick sold for $1.50. One reviewer said the book wasn't worth more than 25 cents. It took only two weeks for the publisher to see that Moby-Dick would sell even fewer copies than Melville's previous books. In his lifetime, Melville's royalties added up to a total of about $10,000. These days, college students buy 20,000 copies of Moby-Dick every year.

Melville said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote about the adventures of a girl named Pippi Långstrump, or, as we know her in English, Pippi Longstocking: Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, was born Astrid Ericsson on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907). One day in 1944, Lindgren sprained her ankle, and while she was stuck in bed she wrote down the Pippi Longstocking stories she'd been telling her children for years. She wanted to give a copy to her daughter Karin for her tenth birthday. Astrid Lindgren was so happy with her work that she sent it to a publisher, and in 1945, Pippi Longstocking was published. Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with no parents who lives in a red house at the edge of a Swedish village with her horse and her pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson. She has red pigtails, and she wears one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. She eats whole chocolate cakes and sleeps with her feet on the pillow, and she's the strongest girl in the world. The sequels to Pippi Longstocking include Pippi Goes on Board (1946) and Pippi in the South Seas (1948). Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books are her most popular, but she wrote more than 115 others, including detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy novels, and realistic fiction. Her books have sold 80 million copies and have been translated into Arabic, Armenian, Vietnamese, and Zulu. Lindgren died last year in Stockholm. She was 94. When she was asked what she wanted for her 94th birthday, she said, "Peace on earth and nice clothes."

It's the birthday of cartoonist and author William Steig, born in New York City (1907). When he was 23, The New Yorker bought one of his cartoons for $40. It was 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, and his father had lost his job. William said he wanted "to be a professional athlete, or to go to sea like Melville," but he earned $4,500 his first year as a cartoonist, which he used to support the family. His cartoons are collected in books such as Small Fry (1944), Spinky Sulks (1988), and Our Miserable Life (1990). In 1990 he wrote Shrek! , about a green ogre whose name means "fear" in Yiddish and who has nightmares about fields of flowers and happy children who won't stop hugging and kissing him. In March, Steig published his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat, a picture-book memoir about what it was like to be eight years old in 1916.

It's the birthday of poet Norman Alexander MacCaig, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1910). He worked as a primary school teacher for more than 30 years, and he became one of Scotland's most esteemed poets. His books include Riding Lights (1955) and Tree of Strings (1977).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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