Aug. 30, 2006

My Daughter Snorkeling

by Harry Humes

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Poem: "My Daughter Snorkeling" by Harry Humes from August Evening With Trumpet. © The University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

My Daughter Snorkeling

One more world
you entered on your own,
adjusting the mask, slipping off
face down through the water,
circling the dock,
breath tube sticking straight up,
a slow progression
over the sunken slime-coated tree,
a bottle, a fishing weight,
shimmer and play of light.
Waves broke softly over you.
A damselfly landed on your hair.
If you went out too far,
this was to be the signal:
two stoneS clicked together underwater
and you would turn back to us,
still easy enough, still dependable.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1943).

It's the birthday of political humorist Molly Ivins, (books by this author) born in Monterey, California (1944).

It's the birthday of journalist John Gunther, born in Chicago, Illinois (1901). He said, "[The United States] is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea."

And, "All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."

It's the birthday of physicist Ernest Rutherford, (books by this author) born in Spring Grove, New Zealand (1871). He was one of the first scientists to study nuclear energy, before scientists actually knew what it was. He discovered that radioactivity is caused by particles breaking apart and releasing pieces of themselves.

He once said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting."

It was on this day in 1904 that Henry James visited the United States after living for most of his adult life in Europe. James (books by this author) had been born in New York City, but he decided as a young man that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in Europe. He often looked down on American culture. He wrote, "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 favor of doing it."

But after twenty-five years of living abroad, and writing novels about Americans abroad, James began to feel nostalgic for his home country. He sailed into New York Harbor on this day in 1904, and he was amazed at how modern the city had become in his absence. When he'd last seen New York, the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge had been the highest points of the city. Since then, the invention of the elevator had made it feasible to construct extraordinarily tall buildings. James wrote, "The multitudinous sky-scrapers [were] like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted."

He didn't spend much time in his hometown of Manhattan, but instead took a train up to Boston to see his brother and spent the whole autumn in New England. The autumn color of the trees was one of the things he missed most about America. It was that autumn that Henry James finally became friends with Edith Wharton, who had been trying to meet him for years. She introduced him to the pleasures of the motorcar, and the two took a series of trips around the countryside, wearing goggles and helmets. James was shocked to find that he loved this new invention. From Boston, James traveled all over the United States, going all the way to California, where he fell in love with the Pacific Coast.

James chose to spend his last few weeks in the United States in New York City, and he planned to use that time to gather memories for a possible memoir. But he found that the city was so different from the one he remembered that he almost didn't recognize it. When he went to find the house where he'd grown up, it was gone, having been demolished by the expanding New York University. He remembered a church being built near his house when he was a kid, but that church was gone too. New buildings were being constructed all over the city, and it seemed to James that all the new buildings were uglier than the old buildings.

Those last few weeks soured his whole experience. He began to think of America as a place where all the glorious traditions of the past were being destroyed in favor of the new. And so, even though he'd enjoyed much of his time in the United States, he wrote a book about his trip called The American Scene (1907) that was largely critical of American culture. A few years later, he wrote to his sister-in-law, "Dearest Alice, I could come back to America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die—but never, never to live."

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