Apr. 13, 2014

Prairie Spring

by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

"Prairie Spring" by Willa Cather from Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. © Library of America, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Jefferson (books by this author), third president of the United States, born on his father's plantation at Albemarle County, on the western fringes of the Virginia settlement (1743). He wrote the Declaration of Independence at age 33, which includes the famous lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's the birthday of Irish author, poet, and playwright Samuel Beckett (books by this author), born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin (1906), best known for his plays Waiting for Godot (1952), Endgame (1957), and Krapp's Last Tape (1959). After college, he went to Paris, where he was James Joyce's secretary for a time. He served in the French Resistance during World War II. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, but gave the money away to artists in need. He continued to live simply, in a working-class neighborhood of Montparnasse, in an apartment overlooking a prison.

It's the birthday of the man who invented the game Scrabble. Alfred M. Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York (1899). He was an architect, but during the Depression he was out of a job and decided he'd invent an adult game. He classified games into three groups — chance, skill, and a combination of both — and decided that the last was the most promising. He said the hardest part of developing the game was assigning point values for letters. He went methodically through the dictionary and several popular newspapers and counted by hand the frequency of letter usage. He had trouble selling the game to major board game companies, but a friend of his decided to produce it on an assembly line, and it became a great success. He enjoyed playing Scrabble with his wife, who was a good opponent. He said, "Nina knows more words and spells better than I, but my architectural training helps me to plan better." The game has been beloved by many writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, who had a special Russian version made for him and his wife, and he worked the game into his novel Ada or Ardor (1969).

It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney (books by this author), born in Castledawson, Ireland (1939). He was the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, and Heaney grew up in a three-room thatched farm. He said, "[It was] an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other."

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty (books by this author), born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). She studied literature in college, and she wanted to pursue a career in writing or photography; but her father thought she needed a day job, so she moved to New York City to attend business school and study advertising. When she wasn't in class, she went to vaudeville shows, toured art galleries, and listened to jazz in Harlem nightclubs. She spent hours wandering the city, taking photographs of ordinary people in the early days of the Depression. She wrote: "Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know."

After she got her degree, Welty moved back to Jackson. She worked for a while at Jackson's first radio station, writing the station's newsletter. She spent two years as the Jackson society columnist for a Mississippi paper. In 1935, she was hired as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration. That same year, she began hosting regular meetings with a group of other young writers, and they dubbed themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, named for a mysterious cactus — once a year, the night-blooming cereus produced a single beautiful white flower that only lasted for one night. When their plants were about to bloom, residents of Jackson would post the news in the paper and invite everyone to an all-night party to watch it. Welty referenced the cactus repeatedly in stories, and in her letters she sometimes addressed friends as "you night-blooming cereus." The group created a motto for their club: "Don't take it cereus, life's too mysterious." Welty said: "Now that I think back on those days, I know they must have been very bad times indeed, but actually, I'm not sure we realized it, my friends and I." She felt that the Depression was less obvious in Mississippi than other places, since it was such a poor state to begin with. Welty and her friends played word games, went on picnics, drank bourbon, and listened to jazz on the phonograph. They loved to take the train down to New Orleans, but none of them had enough money to spend the night, so it was always a day trip. Welty took trips to New York to show her photos to publishers, but no one was interested, and neither were gallery owners — the only place she managed to get a show was at a camera shop.

In 1936, Welty sent a story called "Death of a Traveling Salesman" to a literary magazine, and it was accepted. She said, "I had received the shock of having touched, for the first time, on my real subject: human relationships." It was the first story she had ever submitted, and she hoped that publication would always be that easy; but after that, she received a string of rejections. In 1937, she sent the story "Petrified Man" to Robert Penn Warren at his new Southern Review, and he rejected it. She was so upset that she burned her only copy of the story. Then Warren wrote to say that he had changed his mind, so she rewrote it from memory. Her stories began to be published widely in the South, and admired by fellow writers. But no one wanted to publish a book of her stories, convinced it would lose money, and asked if she would try a novel instead. Finally, out of the blue, a literary agent wrote her and asked if he could represent her. She didn't know what a literary agent was, but she agreed; he wrote back: "Wait! You don't know a thing about me. I may be a crook!" They hit it off, and he remained her agent until his death. He sent out her stories over and over, undeterred by rejections, and finally found a publisher for her first book, A Curtain of Green (1941).

She wrote many stories and novels, including The Golden Apples (1949), The Ponder Heart (1954), The Optimist's Daughter (1972), and Moon Lake and Other Stories (1980), as well as her best-selling memoir One Writer's Beginnings (1984). She died in 2001, at the age of 92.

She said, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

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




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