Nov. 29, 2008

Purgatory Is Nearer in November

by Josephine Jacobsen

November is beautiful as the word sounds, is gray, is bare,
Is compact of wind, of leaves blown and the thin, tall rain;
Brought back to our care are the dead in November,
and the air of these days is charged with their pain.

For these are not the free dead, not the remote, bright crowd
Of our picture-book, or our image of nebulous heaven:
These are caught, tangled in a web comfortless as a shroud—
These have not familiar place, nor flight, nor oblivion, even.

They have not escaped yet-they are close in the clouds massing
At the cold first drop you will stare on the dark ground and remember.
They are the accent of autumn, they are the source of the tone of this
The heart is reached by the waiting dead, in their month, in November.

"Purgatory Is Nearer in November" by Josephine Jacobsen, from Contents of a Minute. © Sarabande Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott, (books by this author) born in Wolcott, Connecticut, in 1799. He was an author, a social reformer, a preacher, and an abolitionist. He started teaching and decided that he wanted to radically reform the education system. So he started a school that used radical approaches to learning and discipline, such as conversation instead of memorization. His ideas were unpopular, and the school shut down.

Alcott was broke, so he moved his wife and daughters to Concord, and there he became one of the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement. He was good friends with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He tried to establish a communal farm named "Fruitlands," but it was a total failure, and he was still in debt. Eventually, it was one of his daughters who supported the whole family.

His daughter was Louisa May Alcott, (books by this author) and today is also her birthday. She was born in 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was a nurse during the Civil War, and she published a collection of her letters home, called Hospital Sketches (1863), and that book got some attention. So she started writing what she loved: novels and stories filled with blood, intrigue, and evil villains. Her publisher told her that she should write a story for girls. She didn't want to, but she needed the money to support her family, so in May of 1868, she holed up at her family's house and started writing. She based the novel on herself and her sisters, changing her own name to Jo, and her sisters' names to Meg, Beth and Amy.

Two months later, in July, she had finished Little Women. It was published later that year, and it was such a huge success that she had to write sequels, so she wrote Good Wives (1869), which is now usually published as part of Little Women, and then Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). All the sequels are about Jo as a wife and a mother, but in fact Louisa never married or had children. Her father died on March 4, 1888, and two days later, Louisa died. She said, "People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don't sell nowadays." And, "November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year."

It's the birthday of C.S. Lewis, (books by this author) born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898. His family's house was filled with books, and he said that finding a new book to read was as easy as finding a blade of grass. Lewis moved to England, and at first he hated everything about England — the landscape, the accents, the people. But he taught at Oxford for almost 30 years, and while he was there he became part of a literary group, a gathering of friends who called themselves "The Inklings." They met twice a week, drank beer, and discussed their writing. One of these Inklings was J.R.R. Tolkien, and he and C.S. Lewis became close friends, and Tolkien inspired Lewis — who had been an atheist — to convert to Christianity. Lewis became one of the most important Christian thinkers of the day. He published Mere Christianity (1952), but his most famous books are The Chronicles of Narnia, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). C.S. Lewis said, "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."

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