Sep. 16, 2012

The Task

by Jane Hirshfield

It is a simple garment, this slipped-on world.
We wake into it daily—open eyes, braid hair—
a robe unfurled
in rose-silk flowering, then laid bare.

And yes, it is a simple enough task
we've taken on,
though also vast:
from dusk to dawn,

from dawn to dusk, to praise, and not
be blinded by the praising.
To lie like a cat in hot
sun, fur fully blazing,

and dream the mouse;
and to keep too the mouse's patient, waking watch
within the deep rooms of the house,
where the leaf-flocked

sunlight never reaches, but the earth still blooms.

"The Task" by Jane Hirshfield, from The October Palace. © Harper Perennial, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the creator of Curious George, H.A. Rey (books by this author), born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany (1898). As a kid, he spent a lot of time at the zoo, drawing the animals. In 1939, he and his wife, Margret, both German Jews, were living in Paris when World War II began. They were at work on a new book featuring one of Hans' animal drawings: a mischievous monkey named Fifi. "It seems ridiculous to be thinking about children's books," Rey wrote to a friend. "[But] life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime." By June 1940, the Nazi invasion was imminent, so Hans built two bicycles out of spare parts, and the Reys gathered whatever they could carry, including the collection of monkey sketches for the book manuscript. They fled Paris two days before the Nazis invaded, and rode 75 miles in three days, which turned into a four-month journey that took them to Lisbon, then Rio de Janeiro, and finally New York.

The first book, Curious George, as the monkey was now called, was published in the United States in 1941. George went on to become an international sensation. Margret Rey explained the little monkey's success this way: "George can do what kids can't do. He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do." H.A. Rey's explanation was even simpler: "I know what I liked as a child, and I don't do any book that I, as a child, wouldn't have liked."

Rey was also an astronomy buff, and besides the Curious George books, he wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them in 1952. The book includes constellation diagrams with cartoon outlines to make them easier to remember and recognize. His new diagrams were widely adopted by other astronomical texts, and the book is reissued from time to time as we learn more accurate information about our galaxy.

It's the birthday of department store founder James Cash "J.C." Penney Jr., born in Hamilton, Missouri (1875). He originally wanted to be a lawyer, but he couldn't afford to go to college, so he took a series of jobs at dry goods stores in Missouri and Colorado. After a few years, he was offered the position of assistant manager at a Wyoming store called "The Golden Rule." Penney, who was the son of a Baptist minister, had grown up using the Golden Rule as a model for his own life, and he interpreted this as a sign from God. He took the job and did so well that in 1902 he was offered a one-third share in a new store in a nearby town. Penney managed the store and lived in the attic, and five years later, he bought out the other two partners.

Living by his Golden Rule philosophy, Penney was committed to setting the same price for everyone. In 1913, he incorporated the company as J.C. Penney Stores. In 1927, he found out that the Hamilton storeowner who had given him his first job was retiring. Penney bought the store, and it became the 500th J.C. Penney store. But he lost most of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. He borrowed against his life insurance policy to make payroll, and he checked into Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium, suffering from depression. Eventually, the business and its owner recovered. He established profit sharing among his managers, and later the rest of his employees — whom he called "associates." By the time he died in 1971, all of the 50,000 Penney employees were participating in the profit-sharing program.

It's the birthday of Canadian author and translator Nancy Huston (books by this author), born in Calgary, Alberta (1953). She moved to New Hampshire when she was 15, and she later went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She applied for a yearlong study-abroad program in Paris during her junior year. She never left France after that. She went on to graduate school and studied linguistics and theory under the philosopher Roland Barthes. She writes with equal comfort in both French and English. Her first novel, The Goldberg Variations (1981), was written in French and later translated to English in 1996. She's written novels, plays, nonfiction, and children's fiction. Her most recent book is a novel in French; it's called Infrarouge (2010).

Anne Bradstreet (books by this author), America's first published poet, died on this date in 1672. She was born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England. We don't know exactly when she was born, but it was probably sometime in 1612. She married Simon Bradstreet when she was about 16 and left England with him two years later, in 1630, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually settled in Andover, Massachusetts, and raised eight children. Simon Bradstreet later became one of the early governors of the colony.

Somehow, despite the rigors of life in the new colony, Anne found time to write poetry for her family and close friends. Her brother-in-law took the poems to England without her knowledge, and they were published there as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts (1650). He assures readers on the title page that Anne didn't shirk her wifely duties in the writing of the verses: "These poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments." It was the first published work by a woman in America, and it was the only volume of her work published during her lifetime.

Bradstreet's subjects were most often her devotion to her husband, her children, and God. Her later poems were shorter, and more focused on her daily life rather than conveying a set of virtues. She wrote about her fear of childbirth, the loss of her home to fire, and the death of her granddaughter. She also sometimes hinted at discontentment with her role as a Puritan woman. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1672.

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