Nov. 8, 2010

A Single Autumn

by W. S. Merwin

The year my parents died
one that summer one that fall
three months and three days apart
I moved into the house
where they had lived their last years
it had never been theirs
and was still theirs in that way
for a while

echoes in every room
without a sound
all the things that we
had never been able to say
I could not remember

doll collection
in a china cabinet
plates stacked on shelves
lace on drop-leaf tables
a dried branch of bittersweet
before a hall mirror
were all planning to wait

the glass doors of the house
remained closed
the days had turned cold
and out in the tall hickories
the blaze of autumn had begun
on its own

I could do anything

"A Single Autumn" by W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius. © Copper Canyon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Raja Rao, (books by this author) born in Hassan, India (1908). He's the author of several novels, including The Serpent and the Rope (1960), The Cow of the Barricades (1947), The Cat and Shakespeare (1965), The Policeman and the Rose (1978), The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), and a biography of Gandhi.

He was one of the first Indian writers to try to capture with the English language the rhythm of Indian life. He said: "We, in India, think quickly, we talk quickly, and when we move we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on. We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous 'ats' and 'ons' to bother us — we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story."

He taught Indian philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin and died in 2006 at the age of 97. He wrote his first novel, Kanthapura, when he was only 21 years old. It begins:
Our village — I don't think you have ever heard about it — Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats is it, high up the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas, up the Malabar coast is it, up Mangalore and Puttur and many a center of cardamom and coffee, rice and sugar cane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forest of teak and of jack, of sandal and of sal, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they turn now to the left and now to the right and bring you through the Alambè and Champa and Mena and Kola passes into the great granaries of trade.

It's the birthday of journalist and activist Dorothy Day, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn on this day in 1897. She's best-known as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and she wrote a number of books, including From Union Square to Rome (1938), House of Hospitality (1939), On Pilgrimage (1948), The Long Loneliness (1952), and Loaves and Fishes (1963).

She dropped out of the University of Illinois, moved to Greenwich Village, and went to work for leftist newspapers. She wrote about labor rallies and rent strikes and anti-war demonstrations, and she also participated in these events. She went to jail at the age of 20 for taking part in a women's suffrage march in front of the White House. It was 1917, and American women were still a few years away from having the vote.

She hung out with playwright Eugene O'Neill. She had a child with an English botanist, a man who opposed both marriage and religion. She herself had been an agnostic Episcopalian in the recent past, but the year her daughter was born she converted to Catholicism and began writing for Catholic newspapers.

A staunch pacifist, she became deeply involved in anti-war movements. She staked out a neutral, pacifist stance on the Spanish Civil War, which put her at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, who supported Franco. Then, in 1932, an itinerant French priest named Peter Maurin showed up on her doorstep. The two of them talked about how they felt that the Catholic Church's progressive social teaching was something that not enough people knew about. They wanted to publicize it as well as their pacifist views. So they started a newspaper, one that was radical and on the side of laborers and the poor and against wars. It said it aimed to "comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." Unlike traditionally worker-centric mouthpieces, their paper gave a prominent role to an organized religion.

They put it together in Dorothy Day's kitchen, called it The Catholic Worker, printed 2,500 copies, and set the price at one cent per copy. It hit newsstands on May Day, 1933. By the end of the year, circulation was at 100,000 copies a month.

They wrote editorials about the plight of the homeless, and pretty soon homeless people were showing up at Dorothy Day's apartment to sleep. The newspaper spawned the Catholic Worker hospitality movement, and within a few years dozens of houses were set up across the nation to take in homeless people. Later it expanded to include farming communes.

The paper took a pacifist stance during World War II, leading to huge losses in readership, accusations of treason, and jail time for many of the journalists. In the beginning years of the Cold War, Day led defiant protests against New York City's annual nuclear bomb drills, saying that they objected to being "drilled into fear." When the sirens sounded and everyone was supposed to go into the shelters, she and a group sat out in front of City Hall. She went to jail several years in a row for it, and then the nuclear air raid drills eventually stopped.

She continued to edit the Catholic Worker until her death at the age of 83. There are a handful of biographies out about her, including Jim Forest's Love is the Measure (1994) and Robert Coles' Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (1987).

She once said, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

It's the birthday of the woman who said, "In a weak moment, I have written a book." That woman is Margaret Mitchell, (books by this author) born on this day in 1900, and that book is the epic novel Gone With the Wind. (1937). It's one of the best-selling American novels of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies.

When she was 20, she fell off a horse and ended up with really bad injuries. She kept reinjuring herself, and a few years later she had to quit her reporter job and stay in bed. Her husband, a newspaper editor, brought her piles of books from the Atlanta library to keep her entertained. But then one day he came home with a Remington typewriter so she could write her own book.

She asked him what to write about, and he told her to write about what she knew, and so she wrote about Southern belles and Civil War veterans. She didn't tell anyone except him that she was writing a novel, and when friends came over she'd hide the manuscript under the bed or the couch, or prop up the wobbly kitchen table leg with it.

But one of her friends, Lois Cole, found chunks of the manuscript. Cole happened to work in the New York publishing industry, and she told her boss at Macmillan that her witty Southern friend Margaret Mitchell "might be concealing a literary treasure." Cole said, "If she writes as well as she talks, it would be a honey."

The Macmillan boss, a man named Harold Latham, took a trip to Atlanta to investigate this possible manuscript, but Mitchell said she didn't know what he was talking about. He spent the day following her around, hanging out with her friends, and asked about the novel again when a bunch of her friends were around to overhear the question. She changed the subject. After he left, one friend tried to call her out on it, saying she was sure that Mitchell was writing a novel, and why didn't she just admit to it. Mitchell said that it was lousy and that she was "ashamed of it." And her friend said, "I wouldn't take you for the type to write a successful book. You don't take your life seriously enough to be a novelist."

Margaret Mitchell, furious at the slight, hurried back to her apartment, grabbed the assorted piles of manuscript, shoved them into a suitcase, and drove it over to the hotel where the Macmillan was staying. She delivered it to him in the lobby, saying "Take it before I change my mind."

When stacked up vertically in one pile, the manuscript was 5 feet high. It was published in 1936, and immediately it was a sensation. In the midst of the Great Depression, the novel revitalized the publishing industry. The next year, Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize.

Gone with the Wind begins, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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