Dec. 8, 2005

258 There's a certain Slant of light,

by Emily Dickinson

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Poem: "258" by Emily Dickinson from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson © Little, Brown. Reprinted with permission.


There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it—Any —
'Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows—hold their breath —
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the conservative columnist Ann Coulter, born in New Canaan, Connecticut (1961). She founded the conservative Cornell Review in college at Cornell and then went on to law school at the University of Michigan, where she started a new chapter of the Federalist Society. She practiced law for more than a decade before she began her syndicated column for the Universal Press Syndicate in 1999. She was fired from a spot as a commentator on MSNBC when she told a disabled Vietnam veteran, "People like you caused us to lose that war." She later said that she hadn't realized he was disabled. After September 11, 2001, she lost her column on the National Review website when she wrote a column that said of muslims, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

She's gone on to write several controversial and bestselling books of political commentary, including Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (2003).

It's the birthday of the humorist James Thurber, born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He was one of the most important early staff writers for the New Yorker magazine, but he had a lot of trouble getting started there. He started submitting humor pieces to the New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe the New Yorker must have a rejection machine."

He took a job at the New York Evening Post, but he knew he wanted to write humor, so he kept at it. He was living in a basement apartment with his first wife. She thought that after twenty of his humor pieces had failed to find a publisher he should probably give up. But one night, he set his alarm clock to go off forty five minutes after he'd fallen asleep, and he woke up in sleepy daze and wrote the first thing that came to mind: a story about a man going round and round in a revolving door, setting the world record for revolving door laps. It was the first piece of his published in the New Yorker.

James Thurber said, "The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself."

It's the birthday of Delmore Schwartz, born in Brooklyn, New York (1913). He's remembered mainly for a story he published when he was twenty-three years old: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," (1938) about a Jewish man who goes to a movie theater and sees the lives of his own immigrant parents projected on the screen.

That story made him famous, but Schwartz never fulfilled his own early potential. He published the poetry collections Shenandoah (1941) and Genesis: Book I (1943), and the short story collection The World is a Wedding (1948). But when he quit his job teaching at Harvard in 1948, he was almost penniless. He suffered from alcoholism and mental illness. His life was a long slow decline and he eventually died in a Times Square hotel.

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary Gordon, born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). Her father read her Peter Pan as a child, invented new characters and stories for her, and he taught her to write poems and stories. He took her to the New York City Public Library every Saturday.

He had a heart attack in the main reading room of that same library when Mary Gordon was seven years old. She said, "When my father died, it was like all lights went out."

After college Gordon published several novels, including Final Payments (1978) and Men and Angels (1985), and in each one there was usually a character based on her father. After years of writing about him in her fiction, she decided to write a nonfiction book about his life. But once she began to do some research, she realized that she hadn't known anything about him at all.

She had grown up thinking he was a Harvard graduate, but in fact he'd never passed 10th grade. She'd always thought he was a writer, but in fact he was a publisher of pornography. And though he'd grown up Jewish, he'd converted to Catholicism and become an anti-Semite. She remembered him going to work in the city every day, but in fact her mother had supported the family.

Gordon wrote about the experience of investigating her father in the memoir The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1996).

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