Feb. 3, 2014

Inaction of Shoes

by Ron Padgett

There are many things to be done today
and it's a lovely day to do them in

Each thing a joy to do
and a joy to have done

I can tell because of the calm I feel
when I think about doing them

I can almost hear them say to me
Thank you for doing us

And when evening comes
I'll remove my shoes and place them on the floor

And think how good they look
sitting?... standing?... there

Not doing anything

"Inaction of Shoes" by Ron Padgett, from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the artist who said: "I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed." That's Norman Rockwell, born in New York City (1894). He was an awkward, clumsy boy, with pigeon toes and bad eyesight even behind thick glasses. He did push-ups every morning, but remained skinny and weak. He had trouble reading and writing, too. He said: "I could see I wasn't God's gift to man in general, and the baseball coach in particular. A lump, a long skinny nothing, a bean pole without beans — that was what I was." Rockwell did show some talent as an artist. Teachers asked him to draw holiday illustrations on blackboards. He crafted cardboard reproductions of battleships for his older brother to play with. In the evenings, his father, a textile salesman, read aloud from Dickens; while he listened, Rockwell drew illustrations of the scenes.

He started taking classes at an art school when he was 14 years old; two years later, he left high school to enroll as a full-time art student. His career took off quickly. He was hired by the magazine Boys' Life as a cover illustrator and art editor, and he did freelance illustrations for other magazines. His dream was to be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine in America. So in 1916, he took a trip to Philadelphia to visit the Post's editor. The 22-year-old Rockwell was terrified and almost turned around, but he managed to make it into the office with two paintings and three sketches. The editor liked them so much that he purchased both paintings on the spot to use as covers, paying $75 for each — which Rockwell could hardly believe, since his salary at Boys' Life had been $50 a month. The Post also asked the young man to turn the other sketches into cover paintings.

Rockwell became a regular illustrator for the Post, eventually producing more than 300 covers in about 50 years.

During World War II, Rockwell produced a series of four paintings based on the Four Freedoms identified by President Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Rockwell was living in Vermont, and instead of war images to illustrate the freedoms, he used his neighbors for models: a family gathered for Thanksgiving, a couple putting a child to bed, people praying together, and a man speaking out at a town hall meeting. Rockwell intended to offer the paintings as propaganda for the government, but when he visited the Office of War Information in Arlington, officials there refused to even look at Rockwell's work. One official told him: "The last war, you illustrators did the posters. This war, we're going to use fine-arts men, real artists." So the four paintings were published as covers for the Post in February and March of 1943, and the public loved them. Realizing its mistake, the Office of War Information printed 2.5 million copies.

Rockwell was 74 years old when he got a call from a New York City gallery that wanted to curate an exhibition of his paintings. Rockwell's first response was to politely explain that the caller must have gotten him mixed up with an artist named Rockwell Kent. The show opened in October of 1968, and although it was pretty much ignored by art critics, artists like Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol came to admire it. One of Rockwell's paintings showed a well-dressed, gray-haired man in a museum viewing a Jackson Pollock painting; de Kooning declared, "Square inch by square inch, it's better than Jackson!" But despite occasional artists lauding his work, Rockwell was never taken seriously by critics. In 2001, more than 20 years after his death, Rockwell was exhibited in a New York museum for the first time when the Guggenheim launched a major retrospective.

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell born 1821 in Bristol, England, and came to this country as a child when her father set up a sugar refinery in New York. She had a woman friend who was dying a painful death from uterine cancer and that convinced Elizabeth to go to medical school, the only woman at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. When her anatomy professor came to the section on reproductive organs, he asked her not to attend, and she argued to be admitted, and she was. She became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Her sister Emily was the third.

In 1853, she opened a clinic that became known as the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children near Tompkins Square. She created a medical school for women in the late 1860s. She advocated for preventive medicine, women's rights, and Christian socialism — and helped form a couple of utopian communities — but she did not believe in germ theory. She believed that disease came from moral impurity, not from microbes, so she was opposed to inoculation and vaccines, and believed in spiritual healing.

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates (books by this author), born in Yonkers, New York (1926). He was a writer whose work influenced many other writers, but he never sold many copies of his own books. He spent his life struggling to pay the bills with teaching jobs, trying to find time to write.

When he died in 1992, few of his books were still in print. But a group of writers, including Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, and Kurt Vonnegut, began to champion his work, and they brought many of his novels back into print, including Revolutionary Road (1961) and The Easter Parade (1976). They also published The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (2001), which became a minor best-seller.

It's the birthday of the novelist James A. Michener (books by this author), born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907). His parents abandoned him when he was a very young boy, and he was adopted by a poor young widow named Mabel Michener. He joined the Navy during World War II. It was in a Quonset hut that he began writing his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It was turned into the Broadway musical South Pacific, and the proceeds from the musical let him devote his life to writing.

He went on to write a series of big historical novels, most of them about places, including Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Texas (1985), and Alaska (1988). He filled his books with historical and geographical details. His books sold more than 75 million copies, but even though he made a great deal of money, he lived an extremely frugal life and gave most of his money away. Over his lifetime, he donated $117 million to various institutions, including the University of Texas.

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