Feb. 11, 2008

Someone I cared for

by Cid Corman

Someone I cared for
put it to me: Who
do you think you are?

I went down the list
of all the many

carefully — did it
twice — but couldn't find
a plausible one.

That was when I knew
for the first time who
in fact I wasn't.

"Someone I cared for" by Cid Corman, from And The Word. © Coffee House Press, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) (books by this author). Born in 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts, to an abolitionist family, she published her first book at the age of 22. Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times was a historical novel. In it, Child wrote about Hobomok, a young Indian man in colonial New England, who steps in to marry and care for Mary Conant, a white woman, when she is devastated by the deaths of her mother and her white lover. Hobomok and Mary have a son and, as the book says, she grows to love him. But when her white lover, not having died after all, returns after several years, Mary leaves Hobomok and, taking the child, marries the white man. He adopts the child, and he and Mary educate the boy at Cambridge. Hobomok, his heart broken by the loss of his wife and child, "murmured his farewell and blessing, and forever passed away from New England," symbolically leaving the land to its new white inhabitants. Writing of Mary and Hobomok, Child said [beginning of Chapter 19]:

Desolate as Mary's lot might seem, it was not without its alleviations. All the kind attentions which could suggest themselves to the mind of a savage, were paid by her Indian mother. Hobomok continued the same tender reverence he had always evinced, and he soon understood the changing expression of her countenance, till her very looks were a law. So much love could not but awaken gratitude; and Mary by degrees gave way to its influence, until she welcomed his return with something like affection. True, in her solitary hours there were reflections enough to make her wretched. Kind as Hobomok was, and rich as she found his uncultivated mind in native imagination, still the contrast between him and her departed lover would often be remembered with sufficient bitterness. Besides this, she knew that her own nation looked upon her as lost and degraded; and, what was far worse, her own heart echoed back the charge. Hobomok's connection with her was considered the effect of witchcraft on his part, and even he was generally avoided by his former friends. However, this evil brought its own cure. Every wound of this kind, every insult which her husband courageously endured for her sake, added romantic fervor to her increasing affection, and thus made life something more than endurable.

Her book of poems, Flowers for Children (1844-1846), included "A New England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," which begins with the well-known lines: "Over the river and through the wood / To grandfather's house we go; / The horse knows the way / To carry the sleigh / Through the white and drifted snow." In her eulogy, abolitionist Wendell Phillips said of Child that she was "ready to die for a principle and starve for an ideal." Commenting on her work, the leading literary periodical of the time — the North American Review — said, "Few female writers, if any, have done more or better things for our literature."

On this day in 1944, writer Joy Williams (1944 - ) (books by this author) was born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. The author of four novels, her first book, State of Grace (1973), was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction, and her most recent book, The Quick and the Dead (2000), was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Her second book was not as well received as State of Grace, prompting her to say the reviews "were such that you felt they wanted you to die — or if you refused to die, then you could at least stop writing." And she did stop writing novels for a time, focusing on short stories, which she calls her favorite literary form.

Screenwriter Philip Dunne (1908-1992) was born in New York City on this day in 1908. Politically active, he helped organize the Writers Guild of America and fought against entertainment industry blacklists of writers suspected of leftist leanings in the 1940s and 1950s. Although not blacklisted himself, along with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and others, he protested these actions before the House [of Representatives] Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. Among Dunne's many screenwriting credits are How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Robe (1953). In How Green Was My Valley, the main character, Huw, remembering his childhood in Wales, said, "For if my father was the head of our house, my mother was its heart." In addition to his screenplays, Dunne contributed articles to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

And it is the birthday of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993), film director, producer, and screenwriter, who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1909. He won many awards, including double Oscars as Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). In All About Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing enthralled audiences with the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

It is the birthday today of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. With 1,093 patents to his credit, he changed how we live through his inventions of the incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph. Known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," he commented toward the end of his life, "There is no substitute for hard work."

Physicist and molecular biologist Leo Szilard (1898-1966) (books by this author) was born on this date in 1898. He was a native of Budapest and student of Albert Einstein, and his accomplishments included developing the electron microscope and the nuclear chain reaction concept. In 1929, he wrote a paper identifying the unit or "bit" of information, now a staple in computer languages and the Internet. Fleeing Europe in 1933, Szilard settled in the United States where, as part of the Manhattan Project, he witnessed the first successful nuclear chain reaction. But he came to oppose the atom and hydrogen bombs on moral grounds, eventually becoming a leader in worldwide peace efforts. In 1961, he published The Voice of the Dolphins: and Other Stories, a statement against proliferation of nuclear weapons and misuse of scientific information.

It is the feast day today of Caedmon (died 680 A.D.), a cowherd and monk at Whitby Abbey in England. He is the author of Caedmon's Hymn, one of the earliest examples of a poem written in English. According to accounts from the time, his ability to compose poetry came to him in a dream. Popularly remembered as a saint, Caedmon wrote religious poems in Old English (450-1100 A.D.), the language of Beowulf, which was a precursor of Middle English (1100-1500 A.D.), the language of Chaucer. Caedmon's Hymn, his only surviving work, begins, "Praise we the Lord / of the Heavenly Kingdom / God's Power and Wisdom / the Works of His Hand." (C.W. Kennedy translation from Old English)

And on this day in 1990, Nelson Mandela (1918- ) was freed from prison after serving almost 27 years of a life sentence for fighting apartheid, the policy of racial segregation in his native South Africa. Although isolated from the centers of power during his years in prison, his popular support remained strong. After his release and his decision to publicly support reconciliation with South Africa's white leaders, Mandela became an international symbol of equality. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and from 1994 to 1999, he served as president of South Africa. In 1994, he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (buy now). At his sentencing in 1964, Mandela spoke about the beliefs that have guided his life and work: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

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