Jul. 1, 2010

In Praise of the Potato

by David Williams

Potato, sojourner north, first sprung
from the flanks of volcanoes, plainspoken kin

to bright chili and deadly nightshade,
sleek eggplant and hairy tobacco,

we could live on you alone if we had to,
and scorched-earth marauders never bothered you much.

I love you because your body's a stem,
your eyes sprout, and you're not in the Bible,

and if we did not eat your strength,
you'd drive it up, into a flower.

"In Praise of the Potato" by David Williams, from Traveling Mercies. © Alice James Books, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Jean Stafford, (books by this author) born in Covina, California (1915). When she was six years old, her father lost most of the family's money on the stock market. They moved to Boulder, Colorado, where they lived in poverty. They survived by taking in sorority girls as boarders.

After college, Stafford began dating a young poet named Robert Lowell. He asked her to marry him, even though his aristocratic family disapproved of her.

Stafford was still trying to make up her mind when she and Lowell got into a serious car accident. He had been driving drunk and was unhurt, but she was disfigured in the accident and had to have reconstructive facial surgery. She sued him for damages, but also accepted his proposal. They got married in 1940.

In 1944, she published her first novel, Boston Adventure, about a poor girl who escapes her working-class town to work for a wealthy lady from Boston. It was a best-seller, but soon after its publication, her marriage with Lowell fell apart. She wrote several more novels, but they didn't make her any money. She struggled with alcoholism and supported herself by selling short stories to The New Yorker magazine.

When she published Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1969, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stafford died 10 years later, and she left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.

It's the birthday of editor and writer William Strunk Jr., (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). Strunk, who taught English at Cornell University for 46 years, is famous for a "little book" he wrote for his students there. One of his students was the yet-to-be-famous writer E.B. White, (books by this author) who revised the book in 1935.

In it, Strunk wrote, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."The book of course was The Elements of Style, which Strunk self-published first in 1918. It has since become the one book that every aspiring — and established — writer has in his or her library.

It was on this day in 1858 that joint papers about the theory of evolution, written by Charles Darwin (books by this author) and Alfred Russell Wallace, (books by this author) were presented to the Linnaean Society of London.

Wallace was only 25 at the time that the papers were read, and Darwin was 49. Darwin had begun formulating his theories about natural selection about 20 years earlier, but he was a slow, methodical worker, and he thought that since no one else had the same ideas, he might as well take his time. Also, he knew that his theories would be very controversial, so he wanted to have a lot of evidence.

Young Alfred Russell Wallace, on the other hand, had no such hesitations. He'd done his fieldwork in Malaysia and Indonesia, studying animals there, based in good part on geology. He came up separately with the idea of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. When Darwin found out about it, and he was shocked to read an almost identical theory to his own, and so he rushed to get his ideas into print.

The truth is that neither man dreamed up his theory of evolution out of nowhere. For many years, scientists had known that evolution existed — that species were created and became extinct over time. The problem was, they didn't know why.

Neither Darwin nor Wallace was present to read his own paper on this day in 1858. Wallace was still in Malaysia, and Darwin was mourning the death of his young son Charles. The meeting itself was long and boring, with an announcement of donations and gifts to the society, then a new member of the council was elected, and a long tribute was delivered in memory of a member who had recently died. Then the presentation of papers began, first an excerpt from Darwin's On the Origin of Species, then a letter from Darwin, then Wallace's paper, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." After that, there were five more papers presented — other topics included "The Vegetation of Angola" and "Hanburia, a new genus of Cucurbitacea." The meeting took several hours, and most of the gentlemen who heard the papers were so lethargic from all the information thrown their way that they didn't realize that anything out of the ordinary had happened. So even though this is the day that one of the most revolutionary ideas in science was delivered to the public, it barely made a wave.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published a year later.

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