Oct. 18, 2011

From Out the Cave

by Joyce Sutphen

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.

"From Out the Cave" by Joyce Sutphen, from Straight Out of View. © Beacon Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1648, Boston shoemakers formed the first American labor union. The colonies had so far failed to successfully import the English tradition of "gilds," wherein craftsmen would band together to establish prices and standards of quality, supervise apprenticeships, and establish a common fund to provide for members who were in hardship due to age, disaster, injury, or illness. The shoemakers succeeded in forming an association of sorts, but it was limited to suppressing shoddy workmanship; the Massachusetts General Court eliminated provisions for education and charity, and also forbade "The Company of Shoomakers," as it was called, from acting contrary to public interest by fixing prices. Any disputes had to be settled by the county courts, and not the association itself. The barrel-makers, known as "coopers," were also granted a similar charter on that date.

On this date in 1767, surveyors completed the plotting of the Mason-Dixon Line. The line forms part of the borders of four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. Englishmen Charles Mason (an astronomer) and Jeremiah Dixon (a surveyor) began surveying the 233-mile line in 1763 to settle a dispute about overlapping land grants. The Penns owned the plot of land north of the line, in Pennsylvania; the Calverts owned the southern portion, in Maryland. The northern border of Maryland had been established at the 40th parallel, but Pennsylvania's charter was more ambiguous, and, as a result, its capital city of Philadelphia technically lay in Maryland territory. In 1750, an English court attempted to settle the dispute by setting the border 15 miles south of Philadelphia. The two parties eventually agreed on the compromise, and hired an English team of surveyors to complete the job. Mason and Dixon placed their starting point 15 miles south of the southernmost house in Philadelphia, and followed a constant latitude west. Mason and Dixon marked their line with stones every mile, and "crownstones" every five miles, using stones imported from England. The Maryland side of the stones is marked with an "M" and the Pennsylvania side is marked with a "P."

In 1820, the line became the focus of the Missouri Compromise, which established the border between slave states to the south and the free-soil states to the north. The Mason-Dixon Line was used as the starting point, and the division extended westward to the Ohio River, which it followed to where it joined the Mississippi River in Illinois. The term "Mason-Dixon Line" has therefore come to represent the cultural division between the North and the South.

It was on this date in 1773 that African-American poet Phillis Wheatley (books by this author) was emancipated from slavery. She had been kidnapped from West Africa and put on a Boston slave ship as a young girl. John Wheatley, a tailor, bought her as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. She was exceptionally bright, and was taught to read and write; she mastered English in two years and went on to learn Latin and Greek, and translated a story by Ovid. She began writing poetry as a teenager. Her first poem to appear in print was "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" (1767), but it was "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine ... George Whitefield" (1770) that brought her wide renown. She went to London in 1773, escorted by the Wheatleys' son Nathaniel, and that's where her first book was published (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral). English friends appealed to John and Susanna Wheatley to grant Phillis her freedom, and she was emancipated in 1773.

Today is the birthday of Ntozake Shange (books by this author), born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey (1948). She changed her name to reflect her Zulu heritage: Her name means "she who comes with her own things" and "she who walks like a lion." She's a poet, playwright, performance artist, and novelist. She's best known for her Obie Award-winning play, which she calls a choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1975). Her most recent book is the novel Some Sing, Some Cry (2010).

She said, "Women's novels are more like breathing, and men's more like running."

Today is the birthday of Cristina Henríquez (1977) (books by this author). She was born in Delaware and visited her father's family in Panama for a couple of weeks every summer. She's the author of Come Together, Fall Apart (2006), a story collection, and The World in Half (2009), a novel. She says, "I like stringing words together on a page — a surface that's flat, a tool that's ordinary — to create something that's full and alive and that tells us about ourselves."

It's the birthday of one of the great American journalists of the 20th century, A.J. [Abbott Joseph] Liebling (books by this author), born in New York City (1904), a staff writer for The New Yorker who first made his name covering World War II. He ignored politics and combat strategy and just wrote about day-to-day life among the soldiers and the civilians. He later wrote of the war years: "The times were full of certainties: we could be certain we were right — and we were — and that certainty made us certain that anything we did was right, too. I have seldom been sure I was right since. ... I know that it is socially acceptable to write about war as an unmitigated horror, but subjectively at least, it was not true, and you can feel its pull on men's memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war."

Liebling's three favorite subjects were food, journalism, and boxing. His co-workers said that they heard him laughing every day as he read over drafts of his own articles. He was known to stay up all night at the office, pounding away at the typewriter, and in the morning he'd give himself a half-shower in the office bathroom sink. He became a hero to the journalists who followed him; Tom Wolfe credited him for kicking off the "New Journalism" movement of the 1960s and '70s, as it came to be called. New Journalists valued Liebling for his ability to write factual reporting that read like fiction.

He said, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one."

Today is the birthday of playwright Wendy Wasserstein (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1950. She fell in love with theater at a young age, and used to go to Broadway plays every Saturday when she was growing up. She also got out of gym class by volunteering to write the musical revue for the high school mother-daughter luncheon, but she didn't consider theater a serious career option. She went on to write a lot of successful off-Broadway plays while most of her friends and siblings got married and had children. She began to think a lot about what she'd sacrificed by devoting herself to theater instead of to family life, so she wrote a play about it: The Heidi Chronicles (1988), about a woman who has clung to her all her feminist ideals while all of her friends have given them up. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. She became a single mother in 1999; her daughter, Lucy, who was named after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," was born three months premature, and Wasserstein chronicled her struggle in her collection of essays, Shiksa Goddess (2001). She died of lymphoma in 2006, and the lights on Broadway were dimmed in her honor.

She said, "The marriages come and go but your friendships stay, which is the opposite of what it used to be, so that there will be people in our lives for 30 years and often it is not your husband, it's your women friends, male friends with whom you come of age."

It's the birthday of novelist Rick Moody (books by this author), born in New York City (1961). He had a typical privileged childhood in the Connecticut suburbs. He traces his passion for writing to his first experience with Hemingway: reading The Old Man and the Sea in sixth grade. "I probably liked the Hemingway novel because I was very interested in sharks. That was enough back then, the mere appearance in the story of sharks. Maybe I started writing just because I liked sharks. The really grisly ones. The kind that could bite a man in half."

He went to an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where he became enamored with short stories by John Cheever. But then his parents got divorced, and he started doing drugs, pretty much anything he could get his hands on. He rebelled against everything that he associated with his middle-class suburban upbringing, including John Cheever. He said, "The mention of Cheever and any of his ilk was enough to provoke in me tirades about conformism and hypocrisy and oppression." Eventually, he changed his mind again about the famous short-story writer and decided that he admired him after all.

He had a total breakdown when he was 25 years old, working on his first novel. He had too much cocaine and alcohol in his system and was experiencing frightening hallucinations, so he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. After he left, it took him six months before he could write again because he was so used to drinking while he wrote. He eventually finished his novel, which he published in 1992 as Garden State, a story of lost 20-somethings in suburban New Jersey. He said that his breakdown is visible in the novel: "You can see that like a big fault line running through the book — the before and the after. I think it's a truly dreadful book but it's emotionally accessible and vulnerable and I admire that."

Some critics complained that Moody didn't know enough about New Jersey or about working-class 20-somethings to write Garden State. So he wrote The Ice Storm (1994), about one Thanksgiving weekend in the life of two dysfunctional, privileged, suburban Connecticut families in 1973. His most recent book is The Four Fingers of Death (2010), which is more than 700 pages long and deals with — among other things — a failed mission to Mars, a talking chimpanzee, and a severed hand that spreads deadly bacteria. The whole book is supposedly a novelization of a fictional 2025 remake of an actual 1963 B-movie, The Crawling Hand.

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