Aug. 27, 2012

Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School

by Jane Kenyon

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family's
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. ...

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons ...
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.

"Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser (books by this author), born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871), the 12th of 13 children in a pious Catholic family. He's the author of the novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).

He wrote Sister Carrie while he was in his 20s. It's about an 18-year-old country girl from Wisconsin who moves to Chicago to live out her version of the American Dream. She uses her youth and beauty to become the mistress of wealthy men, which enables her to go from poverty to material comfort and a sophisticated lifestyle — almost overnight.

Dreiser wrote in Sister Carrie: "When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money."

Sister Carrie didn't sell very well when it first came out in 1900, but it's now considered an American classic. So too is An American Tragedy — Dreiser's first book to sell well, published in 1925. It was recently included on a Time magazine list of 100 best English-language novels.

It's the birthday of the novelist who wrote under the name C.S. Forester (books by this author), born Cecil Smith in Cairo, Egypt (1899). His first successful novel was The African Queen (1935), about an evangelical English spinster and a grizzled boat captain who fall in love while navigating a river through central Africa.

Forester went on to create the character Horatio Hornblower, one of the most popular characters in English literature, a Royal Navy man who suffers from seasickness, is full of self-doubt, is class-conscious, is a fanatic about discipline and efficiency, and is a hater of the poetry of Wordsworth.

It's the birthday of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (books by this author), born in Stuttgart, Germany (1770). He started out studying Christianity, and he was particularly interested in how Christianity is a religion based on opposites: sin and salvation, earth and heaven, church and state, finite and infinite.

He eventually came up with the concept of dialectic, which is the idea that all human progress is driven by the conflict between opposites. He argued that each political movement is imperfect and therefore gives rise to a counter-movement, which, if it takes control, is also imperfect and therefore gives rise to yet another counter-movement, and so on to infinity.

On this day in 1930, one of America's most eligible bachelors got married. Journalist H.L. Mencken (books by this author), age 49 going on 50, had never before been married. He was a man who made fun of romance and who called marriage "the end of hope." So he shocked America when he tied the knot on this day. The marriage made newspaper headlines around the country.

The bride, his girlfriend of seven years: Sara Haardt, of Montgomery, Alabama, an English professor, suffragist, and fellow writer. She died of meningitis just five years after marrying Mencken. Mencken was grief-stricken and never remarried. He edited a collection of his wife's short stories and published it as Southern Album.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show