Dec. 5, 2011


by Mark Irwin

December, and it would be a Saturday, some milk
out for the cat, as the long grey evening expires with snow.
He would read, and she would color,
her face pressed right up
against the window of the paper. What does she
see?—Her little heart one joy as the crayon-thick sun
pours yellow out onto the green trees
and large white box, beneath whose triangular hat
they will argue, love, dream, fight, and grow
up in. House. The very word's
a breathing out of so much
breathing in, —a book, a brain,
a wild brilliance of light trying to comprehend the dark air.

"Domestic" by Mark Irwin, from Quick, Now, Always. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti (books by this author), born in London in 1830. She grew up in a large, boisterous household. She had three brothers and sisters, and her parents were Italian, so all the children grew up speaking Italian and English. Her father was a political refugee and a Dante scholar and poet.

Rossetti was a successful and much-admired poet in her own right. She published her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), when she was 31 years old. And most people today would probably recognize one of her poems as a well-known Christmas carol.

It begins:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

It's the birthday of travel writer Kate Simon (books by this author), born Kaila Grobsmith in Warsaw in 1912. Her father moved to America and a few years later she and her brother and her mother met him at Ellis Island. She said: "I must have started being a travel writer when we first came to America. The places I had to get to know very quickly, the languages I couldn't understand. And all that peeping in places and climbing up on the roof is part of the very primitive beginnings of that kind of curiosity. It was as if, 'How can anything happen without my being there to witness and report it?'"

Simon grew up in the Bronx, and she loved New York. She wanted to write a city guidebook that would be different from all the other books on the market, so she wrote New York Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook (1959), which is still in print and has gone through four revisions since then. It was so successful that she started getting commissions to write travel books, and wrote about cities and countries all around the world.

And she also wrote memoirs, Bronx Primitive: Portraits of a Childhood (1982), A Wider World: Portraits of an Adolescence (1986) and Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), which she completed just before she died from cancer in 1990.

It's the birthday of humorist and writer Calvin Trillin (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935). His father was a Ukrainian immigrant who ran a grocery store, a job that he hated. Trillin said, "It was a given in our family that my father was a grocer so that I wouldn't have to be." His father read a novel called Stover at Yale (1912)about a young man's years at Yale and his struggle with the social pressures there, and immediately decided that his son Calvin would go to Yale some day. And so he did. Trillin described the typical Yale student as "the bright student council president from white middle-class high schools who had been selected by Yale to be buffed up a bit and sent out into the world prepared to prove their high-school classmates right in voting them most likely to succeed."

Eventually, he was hired by The New Yorker. For 15 years, from 1967 to 1982, he traveled around the country writing a column for The New Yorker called U.S. Journal. He also writes about food, and has a humorous poetry column in The Nation.

He said, "The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found."

It's the birthday of essayist and novelist Joan Didion (books by this author), born in Sacramento, California (1934). She was a shy girl, without too many friends. She loved to read and she was a good student, nothing special; she chose UC Berkeley because it was so big, and she wanted to be anonymous. She remembered herself at the age of 23: "Skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again." As a senior at Berkeley, she won first place in an essay contest for Vogue, and her prize was a job at the magazine, where she started her writing career.

Didion wrote essays about 1960s counterculture in her books Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). She wrote about hippies, California politicians, Joan Baez and Jim Morrison, second-wave feminism, and the Sharon Tate murders; but she was an outsider to the counterculture she wrote about — a well-dressed, reserved Goldwater Republican.

She wrote: "I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor. Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment's high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple's ranch, the freeway sniper who feels 'real bad' about picking off the family of five, the insane, the cunning Okie faces that turn up in military investigations, the sullen lurkers in doorways, the lost children, all the ignorant armies jostling in the night. Acquaintances read The New York Times, and try to tell me the news of the world. I listen to call-in shows."

Her other books include Run, River (1963), A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Where I Was From (2003), and The Year of Magical Thinking (2006), about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. A couple of months ago, she published a new memoir, Blue Nights (2011), about her relationship with her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who died just before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking.

It's the birthday of Rose Wilder Lane (books by this author), born in De Smet in what is now South Dakota (1886). She grew up in poverty with her father Almanzo Wilder and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. During Rose's childhood the family struggled with crop failure, terrible debt, diphtheria (which caused Almanzo to have a stroke), and a fire that burned down their house. They finally settled in the Ozarks, where Rose was mortified by having ugly clothes and bare feet, and by riding to school on a donkey.

As soon as she could, Rose left her pioneer childhood behind. She sold real estate, she taught herself languages, she got married and then divorced a few years later. She lived in San Francisco, Paris, New York City, Berlin, and Albania. She made her living as a freelance journalist and a ghostwriter. She wrote sensational stories and profiles, often enraging her famous subjects because she saw no harm in changing the facts if it made for a better story. Lane was one of the highest paid female writers in the country, although she never held on to her money for long — she spent it on travel or luxury items, or gave it away to friends. She despaired of her parents' self-sacrificing pioneer lifestyle — she insisted on building them a new, fancy house on their land, and made them move into it, which depressed both Laura and Almanzo. She gave them a car, but her father quickly crashed it.

Lane and Wilder were stubborn women with very different lifestyles, but together, they created the beloved Little House books. No one knows for sure how much Lane influenced the books — she was at the least her mother's editor, at the most her ghostwriter, but probably something in between. For years, Wilder wrote a biweekly column in The Missouri Ruralist, and in 1930 she decided to write an autobiography. Her story was originally called Pioneer Girl and was intended for adult readers, but it was rejected by several publishers. One of them suggested that she rewrite it as a children's book, and Lane decided to help her with the rewriting. She wrote to her mother about her changes: "A good bit of the detail that I add to your copy is for pure sensory effect," and Wilder wrote to her daughter "Do anything you please with the damn stuff if you will fix it up." The two argued over how to structure the books, whether there were too many characters or too few, whether they would be interesting to children. Sometimes both women would dig in their heels and insist on getting their own way, but more often, Wilder deferred to her daughter — when they were working on By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), Wilder wrote: "Without your fine touch, it would be a flop."

In the end, it's hard to know exactly how much Rose Wilder Lane was responsible for the finished books. Some books appear to follow her mother's original text more closely, others to have been rewritten start to finish. Although Lane worked so hard to leave behind the subsistence life of her parents, without her, the Little House books would probably not exist.

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