Feb. 18, 2014

So We'll Go No More A-Roving

by George Gordon Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

"So We'll Go No More a-Roving" by Lord Byron from Selected Poems. © Penguin Classics, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Toni Morrison (books by this author), born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). Lorain was a steel town. Her father worked at the steel mill and in construction, and her mother raised the kids. Morrison said about her mother: "When an eviction notice was put on our house, she tore it off. If there were maggots in our flour, she wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt. My mother believed something should be done about inhuman situations."

Morrison went to college, got interested in theater and traveled around in an acting troupe, then went on to get a master's in English. She loved to read, but had never been a writer except for a few stories in high school. But after she got married and had two children, her marriage started to dissolve, and she needed an escape. She joined a writing group, but after she had workshopped her stories from high school, she was out of things to share, so she wrote a story about a black girl who wanted blue eyes. And then she started to expand it into a novel called The Bluest Eye (1969). She went on to write eight more novels, including Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), and most recently, Home (2012). She was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

It's the birthday of writer Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). Wallace's father had what Wallace called "the pioneering itch in his bones," and moved his family around hoping to strike it rich in a Western boomtown. They moved from North Dakota to Washington state, then Montana, California, Saskatchewan, and finally settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner got into the University of Utah when he was just 16. He was finishing his dissertation when his brother died suddenly of pneumonia. Not long after, his mother died of cancer and, finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire family.

Stegner wanted to write about the American West, but instead of a novel about cowboys and heroic pioneers, a novel "about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities are all used up." His first big success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family.

Stegner wrote many novels and started the creative writing program at Stanford, where he taught Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry.

Not only did he write about the American Western experience and the need to preserve those spaces, Stegner also actively fought for preservation and became involved with the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said: "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

It was on this day in 1678 that The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan was published (books by this author), a book that became a huge mass-market best-seller during the author's lifetime. At the time of its publication, Bunyan was 50 years old, a little-known Baptist preacher who had been thrown in jail for preaching without a license. Bunyan talked up his working-class childhood in rural Bedfordshire, claiming his home was "of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land." But most people think he exaggerated his poverty and his lack of education. The Bunyans weren't rich, but they owned their property, a small farm that provided the family with vegetables and meat. John's father worked as a tinker mending utensils, pots, and pans. The boy probably received a decent education at a nearby school. Later, he helped his father in his work as a tinker — he learned to use the forge and traveled with his father across the countryside, meeting interesting people. When he was 16, he joined the Parliamentary army to fight in the English Civil War. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding (1666), Bunyan wrote about his wild youth, describing himself as the "chief of sinners." The sins he named specifically were profanity, dancing, and bell-ringing.

After his stint in the army, he went back to tinkering, and he soon married a young woman he described as "amiable and religious"; her entire dowry consisted of the Bible and two other religious books. Bunyan had a religious conversion and started practicing with a nonconformist sect (meaning that they didn't conform to the teachings of the Church of England). He started preaching publicly, and for a while the authorities looked the other way, but after a new king came to power, the government started cracking down, and Bunyan was thrown in jail. The judge asked him to give up preaching, but he refused. So the judge asked Bunyan to just stop preaching to private gatherings, because that's where the king was worried about plots forming against him. Bunyan refused again and stayed in jail for 12 years. He was released, but soon jailed again, this time just for six months. During his years in jail, Bunyan made thousands of shoelaces to help support his family financially. But he needed something else to do, so he began to write The Pilgrim's Progress. A denn was another word for jail, and The Pilgrim's Progress begins: "As I walk'd through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream." The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory following its main character, Christian, on a journey from the City of Destruction (earth) to the Celestial City (heaven). Christian travels through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, Hill Difficulty, and Doubting Castle; and along the way, he meets a colorful cast of characters, including Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, Old Honest, Mr. By-Ends, and Talkative.

The Pilgrim's Progress was published by a sympathetic London publisher named Nathaniel Ponder, himself a nonconformist. He can hardly have imagined what a good business decision he had made — the book was such a huge best-seller that it went through numerous reprints, spawned all sorts of pirated copies and unauthorized sequels, and caused Ponder's fellow booksellers to nickname him "Nathaniel ‘alias Bunyan' Ponder."

William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847) is a reference to one of the places visited by Christian on his journey: a fair in the town of Vanity, where everyone indulges in mindless amusements and the purchasing of worldly possessions. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott opens with Jo and her sisters acting out scenes from the Bunyan's book. Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838) is subtitled The Parish Boy's Progress, and Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad (1869) is subtitled The New Pilgrims' Progress. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck says: "There were also some books piled up neatly on each corner of the table. One was [...] Pilgrim's Progress, a book about a man who left his family, though it didn't say why. I read it every now and then, and got through quite a bit of it. The sentences were interesting, but difficult to get through."

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