Feb. 8, 2014

Nothing is Lost

by Noel Coward

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.

"Nothing is Lost" by Noel Coward from Collected Verse. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1910 that the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated as a youth organization in the United States. The idea for the Boy Scouts came from a British Army Officer named Robert Baden-Powell who returned from a war in South Africa to find that the young people in his country had grown soft and undisciplined in his absence. He said, "[Young people today are] without individuality or strength of character, utterly without resourcefulness, initiative or guts for adventure." He created the Boy Scouts as an organization and wrote a book called Scouting for Boys that became the Boy Scout manual.

An American man named William Boyce was visiting London, England, when he got lost in a heavy fog. A young Boy Scout offered to help him, and the experience inspired him to bring Boy Scouting to America. The Boy Scout program had been popular in England, but it became a sensation in the United States after it was incorporated here. Within four years, there were more than 100,000 American Boy Scouts, and by the outbreak of World War II, there were more than a million.

Among the many Americans who joined the Boy Scouts were Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Alfred Kinsey, John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Moore.

The Boy Scout Handbook says, "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

It's the birthday of the novelist Kate Chopin (books by this author), born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri (1851). Her father was one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad, and he died during the first trip on that railroad, when a railway bridge collapsed. Chopin was raised by her mother and her great-grandmother, and it was her grandmother who told her endless stories full of criminals and pioneers and other notorious characters from the early days of St. Louis.

When she was 11 years old, Chopin's older brother died while fighting in the Civil War. She was so distraught that she rarely left the attic of her house for the next two years, and spent almost all of her time reading. She finally began to leave the house again in her early teens, and she developed a reputation as a free spirit. When the Union army came through town, they tied up Union flags on people's houses. Young Kate took one of these flags down from her own house, an offense for which she could have been shot. The townspeople began calling her the town's "Littlest Rebel."

She married a wealthy owner of a cotton business, and lived with him in New Orleans. But after her husband suddenly died of a fever, a rumor got out that she'd been having an affair with a married neighbor. The town turned against her, and she eventually moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother.

It was there that she first began to write. She had six children to take care of, so she wrote on a lapboard in the living room while her children played around her. Because she was so busy, she tried to write as quickly as she could, and in less than 10 years she produced three novels and more than a hundred short stories.

Chopin's early work was melodramatic and sentimental, but everything changed when she first read the French writer Guy de Maupassant. She wrote: "Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes ... [who wrote] without the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."

Chopin began to write more explicitly about dissatisfied wives and marital infidelity, and she found it harder and harder to get her work published. Then she published The Awakening (1899), about a woman who leaves her husband and her children to have an affair and become an artist and then eventually commits suicide by swimming out to sea until she is exhausted. It was one of the first novels ever written by a woman about a woman committing adultery, and it was almost universally attacked by critics as "moral poison," "sordid," "unhealthy," "repellent," and "vulgar." The St. Louis literary community refused to review the novel at all, and libraries and bookstores in Chopin's hometown wouldn't stock the book. Chopin was unable to publish her next book of short stories, and she died five years later, in 1904.

Her work was forgotten for almost 50 years, and it was only revived because of a series of European critics who championed her work. A Norwegian literary scholar published the first biography of her, and he also helped publish The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (1969). Today, The Awakening is considered one of greatest novels of 19th-century American literature.

It's the birthday of the man known as the father of science fiction, Jules Verne (books by this author), born in Nantes, France (1828). In his adventure novels, Paris in the 20th Century (written 1863, not published until 1994), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), Verne described inventions that were similar to modern airplanes and automobiles, and tall skyscrapers where people use electricity to listen to the radio and send faxes, and yet he wrote his stories by candlelight.

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year, she mustered up all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking, and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend.

She was an extremely slow writer and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "The Moose" for more than 25 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote 40 letters in a single day. She said, "I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here." A collection of her letters, One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, was published in 1994.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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