Aug. 31, 2006


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Goldfinches" by Mary Oliver from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now) The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the teacher who taught that children shouldn't sit still while they learn: Maria Montessori, (books by this author) born in a small village near Ancona, Italy (1870).

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. More books have since been written about Jack the Ripper than all the American presidents combined.

It's the birthday of song lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, born in New York City (1918). He and his partner Frederick Loewe had their first hit in 1947 with Brigadoon. Then in 1952, they were approached about the idea of producing a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913), about a Professor Henry Higgins who teaches a poor cockney girl named Eliza Doolittle to act like an upper-class lady. It had its premiere on Broadway on March 15, 1956 and ran for 2,717 performances, about six and a half years.

In the song "Why Can't the English" Lerner wrote of Eliza Doolittle:

"Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she ever uttered.
By law she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue."

It's the birthday of the second editor of The New Yorker magazine, William Shawn, born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). He dropped out of college and started working as a reporter for a small newspaper in New Mexico and then began contributing pieces for the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker.

After Harold Ross chose him as managing editor, Shawn began working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. Up until that point, The New Yorker had been known for its humor and its fiction, but Shawn helped turn it into one of the best non-fiction magazines as well. Shawn edited and published the work of Truman Capote, John McPhee, J.D. Salinger, Pauline Kael, and many others. He was known for his attention to detail, and he read every story three times before it was published in the magazine.

He resisted putting a table of contents in the magazine, because he didn't see why there needed to be some special announcement of what was inside. He also didn't think the magazine should include any photographs. He disliked air conditioning, never rode on an airplane, and avoided automated elevators. He was rarely photographed, he didn't give interviews, and even after he became editor of The New Yorker, he never once gave a speech in public.

When a new publisher purchased The New Yorker in 1987, Shawn was asked to retire because the magazine wasn't profitable enough. One hundred and fifty writers signed a letter of protest, but Shawn resigned. On his last day at the office, he made a short speech to the staff about what had motivated him as an editor over the years. He said, "The controlling emotion was love, and love was the essential word."

Four days before he died in 1992, Shawn had lunch with Lillian Ross, and she showed him a book cover blurb she had written and asked if he would check it. She later wrote of that day, "He took out the mechanical pencil he always carried in his inside jacket pocket, and ... made his characteristically neat proofreading marks on a sentence that said 'the book remains as fresh and unique as ever.' He changed it to read, 'remains unique and as fresh as ever.' 'There are no degrees of uniqueness,' Mr. Shawn said politely."

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