Jul. 1, 2006

The History of My Life

by John Ashbery

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Poem: "The History of My Life" by John Ashbery from Your Name Here. © John Ashbery. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The History of My Life

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.

I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
even, there was I: a stinking adult

I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.

I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged

increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

thinking them at least as good as the next man's.
Then a great devouring cloud

came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up for what seemed like months or years.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1858 that a paper by Charles Darwin about his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience. Darwin, (books by this author) had actually come up with the theory twenty years before that, in 1837. Back then, he drafted a thirty-five-page sketch of his ideas and arranged with his wife to publish the sketch after his death. For the next twenty years, he told almost no one about the theory.

Part of his reluctance to share his theory of evolution was that he was not known as a biologist, and he assumed that no one would take such a radical theory seriously from such an amateur. He was also reluctant to publish his ideas because he didn't want to create a controversy by offending anyone's religious beliefs.

But then, in 1851, his oldest and favorite daughter Annie died of typhoid, and suddenly Darwin began to worry about the future of all his children. So, to help assure his children's well-being, Darwin began writing a book about evolution, which he hoped would become a scientific classic. He had struggled to complete a quarter of a million words when, on June 18, 1858, he learned that a man named Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish a paper about a similar theory. In order to get credit, Darwin had to present an extract of his work to a scientific society in two weeks.

On Almost the same day, he received news that his household was struck by an epidemic of scarlet fever. His children and several nursery maids came down with the disease. Most everyone recovered, but Darwin's youngest son, Charles, died. And so Charles Darwin wasn't even in attendance when his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience on this day in 1858. He was at home, grieving the death of his son.

It's the birthday of crime writer James M. Cain, (books by this author) born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). He's the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Most crime novelists at the time wrote about the detectives who investigated crimes. Cain wrote his novel from the point of view of a drifter who helps a woman murder her husband. The book got great reviews and became a best-seller. He went on to write other novels such as Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943).

It's the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford, (books by this author) born in Covina, California (1915). In 1944, she published her first novel, Boston Adventure, about a poor girl who escapes her working-class town to work for a wealthy lady from Boston. She wrote several more novels, including The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952), but they didn't make her any money. She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to The New Yorker magazine.

When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died ten years later.

It's the birthday of editor and writer William Strunk Jr., (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). His book The Elements of Style has become the standard style manual for writers all across America. Strunk wrote, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

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