Feb. 7, 2014

Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief

by Maxine Kumin

Blue landing lights make
nail holes in the dark.
A fine snow falls. We sit
on the tarmac taking on
the mail, quick freight,
trays of laboratory mice,
coffee and Danish for
the passengers.

Wherever we're going
is Monday morning.
Wherever we're coming from
is Mother's lap.
On the cloud-pack above, strewn
as loosely as parsnip
or celery seeds, lie
the souls of the unborn:

my children's children's
children and their father.
We gather speed for the last run
and lift off into the weather.

"Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief" by Maxine Kumin from Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. © Penguin, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis (books by this author), born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He felt stifled by Sauk Centre and once tried to run away to fight in the Spanish-American War when he was 13. He escaped to the East Coast for college at Yale University, and during school vacations, he would smuggle himself onto cattle ships heading for England. As a young man, he tried to get a job working on the Panama Canal, and he traveled across 40 states in the U.S. working as a journalist. Though he spent time in 14 countries in Europe and traveled through Venezuela, Colombia, and Russia, the majority of his books are set in small-town Midwestern America. His first success was his novel Main Street (1920), about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott, who is ostracized by the citizens of the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie.

It's the birthday of another writer from the prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (books by this author), born just north of Pepin, Wisconsin (1867), author of the wildly popular children's book Little House on the Prairie (1935) and several other books about growing up in the Midwest in the late 1800s. They're all part of the Little House series, which she began writing when she was in her 60s. Since her death, about a hundred different titles have appeared in the Little House series that she created. From her books have come also a television series on NBC (1974-84), a 26-episode animated Japanese cartoon series called "Laura, The Prairie Girl," a couple of made-for-TV movies, an ABC mini-series (2005), and a musical.

It's the birthday of the poet David Ignatow (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). His parents were Russian immigrants, and he was inspired to become a writer by his father's love of literature. He said: "My father would sit relaxed in his soft chair under a floor lamp and reminisce of his readings in Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov in their original language. The reverence with which he spoke of them as men and writers impressed itself upon me indelibly." But when the stock market crashed in 1929, his father forced David to work in the family bindery company. He eventually became the president of the company.

While working at the bindery, he wrote poetry whenever he got the chance, and he published several collections about the daily lives of urban workers. When his first collection, Poems, was published in 1948, William Carlos Williams wrote a review of it that said, "These are poems for the millions, in the cities and out of them, [for] those who would read ... poems such as these, if only they could get to them; manna in the wilderness." Ignatow went on to write many more collections of poetry, including Rescue the Dead (1968) and I Have a Name (1996).

It's the birthday of novelist Charles Dickens (books by this author), born in Portsmouth, England (1812). When his father was thrown in debtors' prison, 12-year-old Dickens was forced to leave school and work in a factory, repetitively labeling jars of shoe polish for 10 hours a day in miserable conditions. Dickens' father inherited money and was able to leave prison, and Dickens went back to school, but he remained bitter about his childhood. Many years later, when he was famous and his father was asking for money, Dickens wrote to a friend: "I am amazed and confounded by the audacity of his ingratitude. He, and all of them, look upon me as a something to be plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage. They have no idea of, and no care for, my existence in any other light. My soul sickens at the thought of them."

By the mid-1850s, Dickens was a popular and successful writer; his novels included The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), A Christmas Carol (1843), and David Copperfield (1849-50). In 1856, he had finally earned enough from his writing that he was able to buy a home in the country, an estate called Gad's Hill Place near where he had grown up. He said, "I used to look at it as a wonderful Mansion (which God knows it is not) when I was a very odd little child with the first faint shadows of all my books in my head."

The same year that he bought Gad's Hill Place, Dickens helped his friend Wilkie Collins write a play called The Frozen Deep (1856). Dickens hired the cast, which included an 18-year-old actress named Ellen Ternan. Forty-five-year-old Dickens fell in love with Ellen and became increasingly frustrated by his marriage of more than 20 years and the 10 children he had to support; he felt that his wife, Catherine, did not match his energy and intellect. He wrote: "Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too." And in another letter, he said that he would like a prize "for having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves." A year after meeting Ellen, Dickens bought her a gold bracelet, which the mailman mistakenly delivered to Catherine. A month later Dickens and his wife separated; hoping to squash any rumors, he published an official notice in several major newspapers explaining that the separation was mutual and "involves no anger or ill-will of any kind." Dickens' affair with Ellen Ternan lasted for the rest of his life, but he was very careful to keep her out of the public eye, even using fake names to buy her homes.

For the next decade or so, Dickens wrote less and toured more. He had given a couple of successful charity readings of A Christmas Carol, and he knew a business opportunity when he saw it. His first tour consisted of 149 performances in 49 towns throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. He performed alone on stage, with dramatic lighting, a maroon curtain, and a red reading stand. There he had selections from his novels, covered in performance notes. Dickens used different voices for different characters and acted out the dramatic parts. His most popular reenactment was of Bill Sikes' murder of his lover Nancy from Oliver Twist. One audience member wrote: "Warming with excitement, he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murderer [...] It is here, of course, that the excitement of the audience is wrought to its highest pitch."

His tours were wildly popular, with scalpers hawking tickets outside the theaters, and audience members frequently crying and fainting. In the late 1860s, Dickens gave a reading tour of the United States, performing 76 times even while his health failed. He suffered from repeated small strokes, one of his feet was so painful that there were times he couldn't wear a shoe, and by the end of the American tour he could barely eat solid food. His friends, family, and doctor urged him to stop — they were particularly concerned that his reenactment of Nancy's death was taking a huge toll on his health. His son declared it the best thing he had ever heard, and told him never to do it again. Back in England, he continued his performances at the same level despite giddiness and paralysis. His doctor confirmed that Dickens' heart rate skyrocketed when he performed, and finally put an end to the tours. Dickens went to work on his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but before he could finish it — less than three months after his final public reading — he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 58.

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