Dec. 9, 2011

Andy Shaw

by Alden Nowlan

Three generations (and he loathed them all)
              bought meat from Andy Shaw who clerked for Etter,
working six days a week for thirty years,
              hating his job and looking for a better.

He never married and blamed his wage,
              never went more than twenty miles from town;
and every year came earlier to work,
              cursing the butcher shop that tied him down.

When Charley Etter died his son came home
              to run the store, so Andy got his pay.
Some claim the old man cried, offered to work
              for less—or nothing—if they'd let him stay.

"Andy Shaw" by Alden Nowlan, from What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread. © The Thousands Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Léonie Adams (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1899). She went to Barnard College, and fell in with a group of smart, high-spirited girls who called themselves the "Ash Can Cats" after a beloved teacher told Léonie that when she and her friends came into class in the mornings after staying up all night reading poetry, they looked like ash can cats. They were also dubbed, at different times, "the mental and moral mess" and "the Communist Morons." They called themselves a family, with "children" and "parents." The parents were Léonie and Margaret Mead, the ringleaders of the group. But Mead was definitely the one in charge, outspoken and ambitious. Adams, on the other hand, was very shy, and often blushed when she was spoken to in public. Mead and Adams shared an apartment, and organized group dinners, poetry readings, and campus antics. The group of girls encouraged each other to bob their hair, a radical look for the time. They loved Edna St. Vincent Millay, and often when they went out to eat they would bring a candle, put it on its side, and light it at both ends while they recited "First Fig," which begins: "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!"

One of the Ash Can Cats' favorite holidays was May Day. They made elaborate May baskets and delivered them to their favorite people. For their final year of May Day baskets — the year that the last of their group was graduating from Barnard — they went into Greenwich Village and took one to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Years later, Margaret Mead wrote a letter to friends, and she said: "This May day which has been a day that my college group have always celebrated; one year we gave a maybasket to Edna St. Vincent Millay — and got caught in a narrow garden underneath a midnight moon and Léonie took her glove off to shake hands and flung it over the wall into the next garden. This year Cathy made a maybasket for Léonie, and put three of her own poems in it, and got herself caught and the poems read and came back with Léonie's new book — the first in 25 years — for me."

Mead was referring to Poems: A Selection, published in 1954. Adams published just four books of poems during her career — Those Not Elect (1925), followed soon after by High Falcon and Other Poems (1929) and This Measure (1933). And then she did take a long break, 21 years, before publishing Poems: A Selection.

It's the birthday of poet John Milton (books by this author), born in London (1608). Even as a young man, he struggled with bad eyesight, made worse by his tendency to stay up late studying in bad light. He was such an enthusiastic young scholar that by the age of 12, he rarely stopped studying before midnight. By his early 30s he lost most of the sight in his left eye, and from his 40s on, Milton had to dictate his writing to a secretary, often one of his daughters.

It's the birthday of children's writer and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff (books by this author), born in Paris (1899). He was living in Paris with his wife, Cécile, a pianist, when their two young sons got sick. To cheer them up, Cécile told them a story about a baby elephant from the jungle who sets out for the city after his mother is shot by a hunter. The children loved the story, and told their father all about it, so he decided to illustrate it for them. Jean's brother was a publisher, and he thought the story was so good that he managed to get it published. The Story of Babar (1931) was a big hit, and Brunhoff wrote six more Babar books. He was working on the last one when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 37. One of his sons, Laurent, was also a talented illustrator, so he eventually took over his father's work.

It's the birthday of writer and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris (books by this author), born in Eatonton, Georgia (1845). He was a shy, stammering boy, the son of an unwed single mother. Harris was a good student but his mother couldn't afford to keep him in school, so he dropped out to help make money. Harris was hired by a rich plantation owner who also published a local newspaper, and Harris spent his days helping with the newspaper and his evenings with the slaves, listening to their stories.

After he moved on from the plantation, Harris worked as a reporter for a handful of newspapers across Georgia. Eventually, he was hired by The Atlanta Constitution, where he first wrote down the stories he had heard from the slaves as a young man — they were narrated by a fictional character named Uncle Remus. Much to Harris's surprise, his stories were popular, and he was approached about publishing a book. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880) was a best-seller. But Harris was uncomfortable with the limelight. He remained shy, and frequently referred to himself as "an accidental author" or "a cornfield journalist." In a letter to Mark Twain, he wrote: "I am perfectly well aware that my book has no basis of literary art to stand upon. I understand that my relations toward Uncle Remus are similar to those that exist between an almanac-maker and the calendar."

It was on this day in 1854 that Alfred, Lord Tennyson's (books by this author) poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was published in the London Examiner. The poem described a disastrous charge by the British military six weeks earlier, on October 25th, in the Crimean War. There was a series of misunderstandings between top officials who disliked each other and so did a poor job passing on orders, with the eventual result that one of the generals, confused about who he was supposed to be attacking, led the Light Brigade — lightly armed cavalry soldiers — into battle against a well-defended fort filled with heavily armed Russian soldiers. Out of 600 British soldiers, at least 110 died and many more were wounded, and all because of a military error.

But it wasn't the first military blunder ever, and it wasn't even a particularly devastating loss of life compared to many other battles in other wars. What was so different was that for the first time, there were reporters and photographers right at the scene. They were able to watch the drama unfold, take notes and photos, and in about three weeks it was all in the newspaper for everyone in Britain to see. The reporter William Howard Russell wrote: "They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position?"

That was probably the article that Tennyson read, and he was so moved by the story that he sat right down and in just a few minutes he wrote six stanzas about the battle. Those six stanzas became his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which made the battle even more mythic in the eyes of the public. The poem was extremely popular, and Tennyson had a thousand copies printed for the soldiers still fighting in the Crimean War.

It begins:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

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




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