Dec. 19, 2012

Apples Peaches

by Donald Hall

Apples, peaches
       Pumpkin pie.
How many years.
      Until I die?

             -jump rope rhyme,
             A Treasury of New England Folklore

Hostess Twinkies,
        Wonder Bread.
How many springs
        Until I'm dead?

Plague and pestilence,
        Rot and mold.
How many months
        Before I'm cold?

Unicorn, sphinx,
        Phoenix, griffin.
How many hours
        Before I stiffen?

Helga, Olga,
        Astrid, Ingrid.
How many days
        Until I'm rigid?

The New York Times,
        Le Monde, Der Sturm
How many breaths
        Before the worm?

"Apples Peaches" by Donald Hall, from The Back Chamber. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol" was published (books by this author). Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" in six intense weeks. He was struggling for money — he had a large mortgage payment, his parents and siblings were asking for money, his wife was expecting their fifth child, and sales from his most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were disappointing. He rushed through "A Christmas Carol" in time to get it printed for the holiday season, finished it in early December, wrote "The End" in huge letters and underlined it three times.

Dickens was angry with his publisher over how little money he had made from Martin Chuzzlewit, so he refused the lump-sum payment that his publisher offered for A Christmas Carol. Instead, he decided to publish it himself. He oversaw every detail of the publication, and he had a very specific vision for the book: he wanted a gold-stamped cover, woodcuts and four hand-colored etchings, a fancy binding, gilt-edged pages, title pages in red and green, and hand-colored green endpapers. He examined the first copies and decided that he didn't like them after all — the green on the title pages was not bright enough, and the endpapers smudged. So he demanded a new version: red and blue title pages, and yellow endpapers. All the changes were made to Dickens' satisfaction by December 17th, two days before the book was to go on sale.

Dickens wanted as many people as possible to purchase the book, so he charged five shillings, and sure enough, it was a huge best-seller — the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. By the following spring, the book had run through seven editions.

Unfortunately, Dickens priced the book too low for the amount of cost that went into it — he had hoped to net £1,000 from the first edition, but he made just over £200. He wrote to a friend: "I had set my heart and soul upon a Thousand, clear. What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment! My year's bills, unpaid, are so terrific, that all the energy and determination I can possibly exert will be required [...] I am not afraid, if I reduce my expenses; but if I do not, I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption."

It's the birthday of French singer Édith Piaf, born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Paris (1915). Her mother was a café singer and a drug addict, and her father was a street performer — an acrobat and contortionist. As a young girl, she was sent to her grandmother's brothel, where she was raised by prostitutes. When she was a teenager, her father took her along with him to sing on street corners as part of his act. In 1935, she was discovered by a nightclub owner, Louis Leplée, who nicknamed her La Môme Piaf, or "the little sparrow" — she was not even 4' 10".

With the help of Leplée's publicity, Piaf made her first record within the year; but in 1936, Leplée was murdered, and the police held Piaf for questioning. She was let go, but her reputation was damaged. The lyricist Raymond Asso, her lover, helped rebuild her image — he taught her how to dress and act on stage, and he wrote her songs about the tough life of the working class.

Piaf went on to become an international star, with songs like "La vie en rose" and "Non, je ne regrette rien." She died at the age of 47, and 40,000 mourners joined her funeral procession in Paris.

It's the birthday of educator Maria Sanford, born in Saybrook, Connecticut (1836). She took all the money that had been set aside for her dowry and used it to pay for college tuition. She began teaching for a salary of $10 a month, but she went on to become one of the first female college professors in the country. Sanford was the first woman to deliver a commencement speech at a university, and she was a frequent public speaker at a time when it was considered inappropriate for women to speak in public. She was able to project her voice to the back of any room. On her 80th birthday, the University of Minnesota held an event to celebrate her long career, and someone recited a speech that described her as "vehement and gusty, leonine, hale, and lusty."

It was on this day in 1776 that Thomas Paine's The American Crisis, Number I was published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (books by this author). He wrote it to try to raise morale on the colonial side of the Revolutionary War.

George Washington had American Crisis I read aloud to his freezing, starving troops. It begins: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

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




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