Sep. 20, 2011

The Love Nest

by Leo Dangel

Well, I don't care, Denise,
if you didn't win
the Dairy Princess Pageant.
By the time we're married
next spring, the new house
on the farm will be finished,
with a double garage
for your car and my pickup.
We'll panel the basement
with walnut veneer or maple
and tear down the old house
when my old man moves to town.
There'll be a new steel barn
and another Harvestore silo.
You know as well as I do,
Denise, you could hardly ask
for a better deal.
You're beautiful, Denise,
and I think if I bit
into your shoulder right now,
you'd taste like a watermelon.

"The Love Nest" by Leo Dangel, from Home from the Field. © Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin (books by this author), born in Bayonne, New Jersey (1948). Named as one of Time magazine's "100 most influential people in the world" in 2011 and dubbed the "American Tolkien," Martin is most famous for his best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire. The epic fantasy series of seven planned novels — only five of which have been published so far — was recently adapted for HBO's drama Game of Thrones, which was also the title of the first volume in Martin's series. The television show, which debuted this spring, was such an instant critical and commercial success that it was renewed for a second season immediately following its premiere.

Martin, a former writer on The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, got his start selling monster stories to kids in his neighborhood.

It's the birthday of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (books by this author), born in New York City (1884). A Harvard grad, Perkins started his publishing career in the advertising department at Scribners, the venerable — and distinctly Princeton — publishing house. In 1914, Perkins joined the editorial staff, where he quickly shook things up at the staid, highly traditional company by seeking out new, young writers. His first major — and controversial — acquisition came five years later with the manuscript of an unknown St. Paul man. Originally titled The Romantic Egoist, an earlier draft had been roundly dismissed and rejected by the other editors in the house, but Perkins saw promise. When F. Scott Fitzgerald revised and resubmitted the book as encouraged, Perkins accepted it against the judgment of his colleagues. The book, now titled This Side of Paradise, was a smash success, as was the follow-up, The Beautiful and the Damned.

Perkins' editorial eye, however, wasn't yet fully trusted by his co-workers. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a commercial disappointment, and still Perkins had the temerity to pay attention when the novelist recommended the work of an American writer he'd met in Paris: Ernest Hemingway. Again, Perkins had to fight his firm to publish Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, considered profane for the time. Eventually, Scribners conceded that Perkins seemed to have a knack for his job. He became the editorial director.

The third author with whom Perkins is most associated, and the one for whom he did the most editing, rather than just advising and encouraging, is Thomas Wolfe. Although the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel was discovered by another reader at Scribners, Perkins took on the sprawling novel and its sensitive author. He ultimately convinced Wolfe to cut 66,000 words, which they did together with painstaking care. Wolfe later described their first meeting about his 1,100-page draft: "I saw now that Perkins had a great batch of notes in his hand and that on the desk was a great stack of handwritten paper — a complete summary of my whole enormous book. I was so moved and touched to think that someone at length had thought enough of my work to sweat over it in this way that I almost wept."

Wolfe's own praise of his editor helped contribute to an impression that the book was practically co-written. Both of them denied this charge; Wolfe, perhaps, grew to resent it. He eventually left Scribners, a move that friends claimed broke Perkins' heart. But they remained close friends, as did Perkins with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, via frequent correspondence.

When Perkins fell fatally ill with pneumonia in 1947, his wife called an ambulance to their home. As an attendant carried the stretcher up to his bedroom, Perkins instructed his daughter to take the two manuscripts from his nightstand — Cry, The Beloved Country and From Here to Eternity — and deliver them to his secretary for safekeeping.

Perkins said, "An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as handmaiden to an author. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself."

On this day in 1932, at the strike of noon in a prison yard near Bombay, India, Mahatma Gandhi began a hunger strike to protest the British government's support of a new, and grossly unjust, Indian constitution. The plan would institutionalize the traditional mistreatment of India's lowest caste, the people known as "untouchables," giving them separate political representation.

Already followed by millions of people, Gandhi was famous for his campaigns of civil disobedience against discriminatory British laws. He'd been in jail for eight months when he announced he would "fast unto death" to resist the proposed constitution, writing to Britain's prime minister that he would "offer [his] life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden."

The British government did not withdraw its support for the constitution, but it took just six days and five hours for Indian leaders to buckle under public pressure, signing a pact that agreed to a joint electorate.

Gandhi resorted to hunger strikes many times over the course of his life in protest of British colonialism and in opposition to violence between Hindus and Muslims. In 2006, the declassification of government records revealed that Winston Churchill recommended allowing Gandhi to starve himself to death while held in British custody in 1942. Other government officials prevailed that such an outcome would be "an embarrassment."

Gandhi said, "There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

He said, "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."

It's the birthday of reading pioneer Rebecca Smith Pollard (books by this author), born Rebecca Harrington Smith in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (1831). The daughter of a Shakespeare professor, Pollard began her teaching career in Kentucky, eventually developing a uniquely hands-on approach for the time, encouraging her students to re-enact Revolutionary War battles with brooms and blackboard erasers and demonstrating the concept of fractions with apples. It was in Kentucky that she began her writing career, too, publishing "Letters from a Prairie Cottage" in the Louisville Journal, in which she included stories for children about a cat who adopted orphan chicks. She continued to publish articles, poems, and hymns, often under the pseudonym Kate Harrington, as well as an anonymous novel that was often paired and sold with Uncle Tom's Cabin. With her husband, she also edited a number of Iowan newspapers.

Pollard's vast teaching and writing experience led her to publish, in 1889, a children's primer. Over the next eight years, she expanded her textbook to an entire reading program with spelling and reading books, as well as teacher's manuals. Novel in its incorporation of music and children's interests, "The Pollard Series" was adopted in every state in the Union by the end of the 19th century, and is considered to be a forerunner of modern phonics systems.

"Do not assist pupils in pronouncing words," Pollard advised teachers. "Let them depend wholly upon their own efforts and thus lead them into independence of thought and action."

It's the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself, since his father's alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair's extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the "blood and guts," which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher's lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers' food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Although they denounced his Socialist preaching, both Winston Churchill and President Teddy Roosevelt praised the book.

Sinclair went on to publish more than 90 books in his lifetime. He also very nearly won the governorship of California after his publication of a booklet titled "I, Governor of California And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future." His radical plan to end poverty met with enough support to land him on the Democratic Party's ticket, which caused an absolute uproar. His candidacy proved to do very well, but when he ultimately lost to the Republican candidate in 1934, he published a follow-up booklet: "I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked."

It's the birthday of the poet Donald Hall (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928. The 14th poet laureate of the United States, Hall achieved early success with the publication of his first book, in 1955. He has since written essays, short stories, plays, and children's books, but he is best known and appreciated for the poetry he's written in recent years. Married for 23 years to poet Jane Kenyon, whom he'd met when she was a student and he a professor at the University of Michigan, Hall has published two volumes about her 1995 death from cancer, as well as a memoir of their life together. His most recent books are the collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006) and Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (2008). Hall lives on the family farm in New Hampshire where he spent summers as a boy; the place and the generations who've lived there feature prominently in his writing.

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