Dec. 26, 2006


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Thirst" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver. © Beacon Press. (buy now)

(Text not published due to copyright restrictions)

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and scholar Thomas Gray, (books by this author) born in London (1716). He wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), which begins,

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
   The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
   And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;"

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Jean Toomer, (books by this author) born Nathan Pinchback Toomer, in Washington, D.C. (1894). He never finished college and worked a series of jobs. Then in 1921, when he was 25 years old, he went south to Sparta, Georgia, where he worked at an agricultural institute for two months. While there, he heard spirituals sung by poor black women, witnessed the social oppression of Southern blacks, and saw the beauty of the land and sky of the rural South. He began work on his novel Cane on the train back to Washington, and it was published two years later in 1923 and marked the beginning of the literary renaissance in Harlem.

It is the birthday of humorist David Sedaris, (books by this author) born near Binghamton, New York (1956). Sedaris worked many odd jobs, including dishwasher, apple picker, and writing instructor. While living in Chicago, he made a living by painting apartments and squirrel-proofing houses. For most of his life, Sedaris had kept a diary in which he documented at least one incident from every day of his life. When he moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute, he began reading from his diary in front of audiences. His readings became so popular that he caught the attention of National Public Radio, and in 1991 he gave his first reading on the air, "The Santaland Diaries," a true story about his job as an elf at a Macy's department store one Christmas season.

Sedaris soon signed a contract with a major publisher, and his collections of essays, Barrel Fever (1994) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), became best-sellers. His most recent book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004).

It's the birthday of author Henry Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1891). He married a taxi dancer named June Mansfield Smith, who read Dostoyevsky and Proust, and who encouraged Miller to quit his job and devote himself to writing. They moved to Paris in the 1930s, where Miller began writing Tropic of Cancer, which was basically a fictional memoir of his own life at the time. It was banned in the United States, along with Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. in 1961, but the book was charged with obscenity, and it went through more than 60 court cases. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book's publication. The case effectively ended censorship on the basis of obscenity in the U.S.

It was on this day in 1776 that George Washington led a surprise attack on a group of Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey. The plan was to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness on Christmas night. It took about 14 hours for all of Washington's 2,400 soldiers to cross the river, and they finally reached the east bank of the Delaware at around 3:00 a.m. on this day. It was snowing that morning and bitterly cold, and they still had a 10-mile march to Trenton. Two men who stopped to rest along the way froze to death. Washington had wanted to arrive while it was still dark, but they reached the camp just after sunrise. It didn't matter, though. Most of the Hessians were still asleep, and they were taken completely by surprise. Within an hour, all the Hessian regiments had surrendered.

It was the first major victory Washington's army had managed, and it helped inspire more men to enlist in the Continental Army. Only two American soldiers were wounded in the fighting, one of which was a young lieutenant named James Monroe, who would go on to become the fifth president of the United States.

It's the birthday of Mao Zedong, (books by this author) born in Hunan province, China (1893). He helped lead the Communists to victory over the Nationalists in 1949, and became one of the most powerful, brutal, and influential world leaders in history. His program to improve China's economy, called "The Great Leap Forward," disrupted the country's agricultural production, resulting in widespread famine. It's estimated that 20 million people died of starvation between 1958 and 1962. But Mao never apologized for the error. Instead, he arranged to have huge posters of himself put up all around the country. And in 1966, he published his book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, which became known as "Little Red Book." It became required reading for every citizen of China, making Mao Zedong one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century.

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