Jun. 8, 2008

Religious Consolation

by John Updike

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple. A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

"Religious Consolation" by John Updike from Americana and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, born in Richland Center, Wisconsin (1867). He believed in designing houses that were in harmony with their environmental surroundings and said, "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other."

The houses he designed were usually low to the ground, hugging the earth, with a large fireplace and a small kitchen. Often, instead of interior walls, he would use furniture to separate living spaces. He loved to use glass and incorporate lots of natural light. In his early homes, his glass windows featured geometrical designs and colored lines; in later models, when technology allowed working with large sheets of glass, he would sometimes replace whole exterior walls with glass. He also took special care in designing carpets, choosing geometric patterns that were played a significant role in the floor plan.

Late in his career, he turned to commercial projects - including designing furniture and creating wallpapers, carpets, and paint colors for major American companies. He also designed model homes that were featured in Life magazine and Ladies Home Journal.

He once said, "Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities."

It was on this day in 1867 that Mark Twain set off on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, (books by this author) a trip that gave him the material for his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). He traveled with a large group of American tourists, on a steam-driven side-wheeler called the Quaker City. It was the first transatlantic cruise on a steamship.

Twain was just beginning as to be a writer at the time. He was living in New York and working as the travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper the Alta California. He convinced the editors to pay for his cruise — and in exchange, he would write 50 letters from the cruise ship to be published in the paper. He had just started using the name Mark Twain a few years before and was still trying to build his reputation. His first collection of short stories, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), hadn't sold very well, and he thought a travel book would be a good way to make a name for himself.

Travel narratives were growing very popular at the time, but Twain didn't want to write a conventional travel book. He hated how travel books made it seem like every church and every museum was worth visiting. He wanted to write a book about what it was actually like to travel — with all of the inconveniences and disappointments and fatigue. He said the purpose of the book was "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him."

In Florence, he wrote, "It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade."

When Twain got back from the cruise, his publisher gave him six months to write a 600-page book, even though he still had to make a living by writing newspaper articles. He wrote most of it in Washington, D.C., in a tiny room full of dirty clothes, cigar ashes, and manuscript pages. He used a lot of the material from the letters he wrote during the trip, but he made several changes to make it more appealing to an eastern audience. He took out some of the cruder jokes and the racier passages, such as a description of nude bathers at Odessa. He thought easterners were more likely to be offended than westerners and he wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. And he didn't use as much slang, because most easterners would have no idea what it meant. He wrote about 200,000 words in two months, or about 3,500 words per day, and finished just before his publisher's deadline.

The book was published by the American Publishing Company in 1869. It was sold by subscription, which meant that door-to-door salesman traveled around the country promoting it before it was published. People could "subscribe" to as many books as they wanted from a publishers catalog, and they'd get copies sent to them before they were available to the rest of the public. At the time, subscription books were usually the ones that became best sellers, but they were looked down upon by literary critics. Mark Twain didn't care. He just wanted as many people as possible to read his book. The Innocents Abroad sold more than 125,000 copies in 10 years, and it established Twain's reputation.

Twain wrote, "The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad."

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