Sep. 21, 2011


by Mary Ruefle

O Lord, I did walk upon the earth
and my footprints did keep pace with the rain
and I did note, I did note where orange birds
flew up from the puddles thou hast made
and where the toads leapt from your trenches,
but nowhere was there that I could go
for I could not rise from the firmament
upon which I was placed, and nowhere could I
so I kept until I could no more straight
then bent said I am down to make room for the more
and you half hearing did send me down
into the soul of another by mistakes
and I would like to thank you for it
from where I lie, risen in the eye of the other.

"Magnificat" by Mary Ruefle, from Selected Poems. © Wave Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1897, the world's most famous, most reprinted newspaper editorial was published. Commonly known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" column, the 416-word article replied to a letter from an eight-year-old New York City girl whose father deferred her question — "Is there a Santa Claus?" — by suggesting she ask the New York Sun. She did so, and on September 20 an editor at the paper handed it to reporter Francis Pharcellus Church with the request that he respond in the following day's paper.

Church was a veteran newspaperman, having served as a war correspondent for The New York Times during the Civil War, and the son of the founder of the New York Chronicle. He dashed off his answer to little Virginia O'Hanlon anonymously, saying, "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS."

Today, a small private school is housed in the former home of the O'Hanlon family — with all our modern fears of technology and privacy, Virginia's address, 115 W. 95th Street, was printed in the paper with her letter. Virginia herself grew up to be a New York City schoolteacher, principal, and activist for children's rights. As for Francis Church, the author of the editorial that has been translated into 20 languages in hundreds of other papers, books, movies, even postage stamps, because traditions holds that editorials are the "official" voice of the newspaper as a whole and not one singular opinion, he never received any recognition, let along royalties, for his inspirational editorial. It was only after his death seven years later that Church was credited with its authorship.

On this day in 1784, The Pennsylvania packet and general advertiser became America's first daily newspaper. It was not the country's first newspaper, nor was it even new, having already existed under other names as a weekly, tri-weekly, and semi-weekly. But on September 21, it became a daily source of information for the citizens of Philadelphia and its environs — that is, of course, except for Sunday. The exception of that day from its publication schedule did not prevent the paper from touting itself as a "daily," nor did it prohibit its legacy to remain as such.

On this day in 1970, The New York Times premiered a new section called the "Op. Ed. Page," a section opposite the traditional editorial page that was to be devoted to the columns of outside writers and to illustrations and political cartoons. As the Times wrote on that day, "The purpose of the Op. Ed. Page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times's own editorial position, which will continue to be presented as usual in these columns. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from out own."

The invention of the "op-ed," or, to put it another way, the willingness of a newspaper to include the perspective of non-newspaper writers, as well as its endorsement of visual art, shifted the way newspapers did business — and the way readers interacted with them. No longer a faceless arbiter of fact and opinion, truth and lies, worthy and unworthy, newspapers acknowledged, in this small way, the existence of their own subjectivity and the possibility that their coverage might be enhanced by allowing for more complexity. Including an op-ed page was the first step, perhaps, in the modern dynamism of journalism; for last year's 40th anniversary celebrating the op-ed, The Times commissioned a documentary video about op-ed artwork, premiered a new Web page design for the section, published selections from online commentary in the newsprint edition, and, yes, printed some op-eds.

It's the birthday of the creator of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams Lane in Bristol, England (1902). Apprenticed to his publisher uncle when he was 17, Allen became the managing editor the London publishing house The Bodley Head just six years later.

In 1935, waiting for a train after a visit to one of his writers, Agatha Christie, Lane was irritated to realize that the only reading available for sale on the platform was magazines or Victorian novel reprints. How would he occupy himself on the trip back to the city, he wondered ... and then, the question broadened: Might not the average train rider wish to read something else too? Might the public buy quality literature if it were only available to them in a form and price more palatable than a hardbound in a bookstore?

Lane was determined that paperbacks, then mostly low-quality products of low-quality writing, could be the vehicles of great, contemporary fiction. At the suggestion of his secretary, he said, he took the penguin as his new company's "dignified but flippant" name and symbol. Of course, the German publisher Albatross, which had already begun producing similar paperbacks a few years earlier, might have been an additional inspiration. Whatever the origin of Lane's idea or company name, he was right: Within a year the house had sold 3 million paperbacks, each at the price of a pack of cigarettes.

Like most innovations, Lane's idea — and his success — was initially regarded as a cause for concern by many other publishers and writers. It lowered the aesthetic value of great works of literature — a book like The Grapes of Wrath, for example, needn't be a beautifully bound hardcover to last a lifetime, but could instead exist as a nearly disposable pocket-sized tome in bright orange, adorned with a funny little bird in mid-waddle. But Lane claimed paperbacks would effectively democratize literature, converting frequent library users to book buyers and readers of crummy pap into readers of classic prose.

It's the birthday of writer H.G. Wells (books by this author), born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England (1866). Although popularly known as one of the fathers of modern science fiction, having published classics such as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds within the first few years of his writing career, Wells went on to publish dozens of novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, most of which were not explicitly sci-fi. Most, however, dealt in some way with Wells' interest in biology, his strong belief in socialism, or his vision for the future of mankind. Indeed, much of what was fantastic and fictional when he conceived it came to pass, like his predictions that airplanes would someday be used to wage war and advanced transportation would lead to an explosion of suburbs. Some of his ideas might have even helped inspire real-life innovation: In the '30s, he argued that there needed to be an encyclopedia that was constantly reviewed and updated and would be accessible to all people — something he might have recognized in the ethos of Wikipedia. And in 1914, his novel The World Set Free described bombs that would explode repeatedly, based on their radioactivity, an idea that inspired the conception and pursuit of the nuclear chain reaction.

Wells died just before his 80th birthday, having lived long enough to see much of the future he'd imagined. In the preface to the 1921 edition of The War in the Air, the book in which he'd predicted, in 1908, a world war and the use of modern warfare, he warned the reader to note how right he'd been. Twenty years later, in the 1941 edition, he followed up, writing, "Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: 'I told you so. You damned fools.'"

It's the birthday of horror writer Stephen King (books by this author), born in Portland, Maine (1947). King learned to write, he's said, after a satirical newspaper he wrote lampooning his high school teachers got him into trouble. The guidance counselor arranged for him to work at a local paper as a way to put his creativity to more productive use; it was there that he wrote a sports feature and realized, watching the editor mark up his copy with a big black pen, that he could really write ... and that he could learn to make his writing better. When he assured the editor that he wouldn't make the same mistakes again, the editor laughed, saying, "If that's true, you'll never have to work again. You can do this for a living."

King nearly proved the editor right. After graduating from college, he worked in an industrial laundry for a year, then got a job teaching high school English. It was only two years later that he learned that the sale of the paperback rights for his first novel, Carrie, was so big he could afford to write full-time.

Today, King is the author of more than 50 worldwide best sellers, including a nonfiction book about writing called On Writing. His most recent, Full Dark, No Stars, is a collection of four stories. This fall he will publish 11/22/63: A Novel, about Kennedy's assassination.

King said, "Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym."

And he said, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

It was on this day in 1937 that the classic children's fantasy novel The Hobbit was published in London. The first printing was illustrated by Tolkien (books by this author) himself, an Oxford professor, titled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, and comprised only 1,500 copies. It sold out within three months.

It's the birthday of Southern novelist Fannie Flagg (books by this author) born Patricia Neal in Birmingham, Alabama (1941). Flagg took her pseudonym not as a pen name but as a stage name; there was already a famous actress with her name when Flagg began a career as a morning show host. Flagg remained an actress in the '60s and '70s until she screwed up the courage to try what she'd really always wanted to do: write.

She'd been afraid, she said, because her dyslexia embarrassed her, and she feared her poor spelling would be exposed. When she was in her late 30s, she wrote a short story from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old girl and submitted it to a writer's conference, hoping they would think her misspellings were intentional. The story won first prize, and Flagg decided to quit acting and pursue her dream. Her first novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, was a best-seller, and Flagg went on to write the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the film adaptation.

"I can remember when I was writing Fried Green Tomatoes," Flagg told CNN, "I stopped acting and I went through a bad financial period and I almost lost a house and I was living very close to the bone. And yet I found out I was happier than I'd ever been because my priorities were straight and I was doing something I loved."

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




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