Dec. 21, 2012

Leaning In

by Sue Ellen Thompson

Sometimes, in the middle of a crowded store on a Saturday
afternoon, my husband will rest his hand
on my neck, or on the soft flesh belted at my waist,
and pull me to him. I understand

his question: Why are we so fortunate
when all around us, friends are falling prey
to divorce and illness? It seems intemperate
to celebrate in a more conspicuous way

so we just stand there, leaning in
to one another, until that moment
of sheer blessedness dissolves and our skin,
which has been touching, cools and relents,

settling back into our separate skeletons
as we head toward Housewares to resume our errands.

"Leaning In" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from The Golden Hour. © Autumn House Press, 2006. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of essay writer Edward Hoagland (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). He grew up exploring the woods near his Connecticut house, and he always loved animals — he couldn't decide if he wanted to be a zoologist or a writer. He went to Harvard to write fiction, but after his first year there, he got a summer job working at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His first task at the circus was to chop up a dead horse and feed it to the big cats. He slept under the lion cage, and worked with the tigers. When he got back to Harvard, he wrote his first novel, Cat Man (1955).

Hoagland was hailed as a young celebrity, with his picture in Time and Newsweek and The New York Times. But he had a bad stutter, and he felt uncomfortable at literary parties because of what he called "flabbering," where his face would contort and sometimes he couldn't help himself from spitting. The only people he could talk to normally were his wife and a couple of close friends. He turned away from fiction and started writing essays. He said, "My main reason for turning into an essayist [... was] the painful fact that I stuttered so badly that writing essays was my best chance to talk."

He wrote essay after essay, many of them about nature and its place in culture, but also about travel, tugboats, rodeos, jury duty, taxidermy, the circus, and cities. He split his time between New York City and Vermont; he said: "I got my locus and focus in Vermont, and I got my energy and ambition in New York. If I were a full-time Vermonter I would have published half as many books. But if I were a full-time New Yorker they would not have been as good."

His books include The Courage of Turtles (1971), Heart's Desire (1988), Compass Points (2001), Sex and the River Styx (2011), and, most recently, Alaskan Travels (2012).

Today in 1879, the world premiere of Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House took place at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark (books by this author). When the play opened, the cast had only rehearsed together 11 times, including the dress rehearsal. There was a director, but he didn't give much guidance to the actors about how they should approach their characters. The stage set from Ibsen's play The Pillars of Society (1877) was still hanging around the theater, so the production used the same set for A Doll's House.

The print version of A Doll's House was published a couple of weeks before the stage premiere, so most of the critics had already read it. The play was hugely controversial because of its ending: the main character, Nora, walks out on her family, leaving behind her husband and three young children.

When A Doll's House was first produced in Germany a year later, the lead actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to act the final scene, claiming that she would never leave her own children. She insisted on a new ending. There were no sufficient copyright laws to protect A Doll's House from being rewritten by someone else, so Ibsen finally agreed to write a new ending, rather than have someone else butcher it. In the new version, Nora is overcome with emotion when her husband shows her the door to the nursery, and she sinks down on her knees and doesn't leave. Ibsen hated the alternative ending, calling it "a barbaric outrage."

It's the birthday of journalist and novelist Rebecca West (books by this author), born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London (1892). As a teenager, she began publishing articles in a feminist weekly called The Freewoman. She wrote theater and literary reviews, and pieces about women's suffrage. She chose a pen name, Rebecca West, so she wouldn't embarrass her family with her radical politics and strong opinions. She wrote: "When a socialist takes to being dull, he is much duller than anyone else." In a review of a book about the joys of motherhood, she described housework as "domestic slavery, to be shunned like rat-poison."

West continued to work as a reporter for many of the most respected magazines and newspapers of the day. She covered international affairs, including a series on the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, and a series on South Africa's apartheid for the Sunday Times. In 1948, President Truman presented her with an award and called her "the world's best reporter." Her most famous book was Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a long book about the history, culture, and politics of Yugoslavia.

Her other books of nonfiction and fiction include The Strange Necessity: Essays and Review (1928), The Meaning of Treason (1947), and The Fountain Overflows (1956).

She wrote: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."

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




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