May 15, 2014

By the Front Door

by W. S. Merwin

Rain through the morning
and in the long pool a toad singing
happiness old as water

"By the Front Door" by W.S. Merwin from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1817 that the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason was founded in Philadelphia. It was the first private mental health hospital in the United States. The Asylum was founded by a group of Quakers, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, who built the institution on a 52-acre farm. It is still around today, but goes by the name Friends Hospital.

At the time that Friends Hospital was founded, mental illness was widely misunderstood and treated as criminal behavior. Mentally ill people were tied up, put in chains, isolated, or beaten. The Quakers wanted to model a new type of care. They wrote out their philosophy in a mission statement for the hospital: "To provide for the suitable accommodation of persons who are or may be deprived of the use of their reason, and the maintenance of an asylum for their reception, which is intended to furnish, besides requisite medical aid, such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery."

The group purchased the 52-acre farm for less than $7,000, and tried to create a beautiful place with gardens and lots of outdoor space. These days, the hospital occupies 100 acres, which include flower gardens and about 200 varieties of trees. Much of this was the work of one man who started out at the hospital as a bookkeeper in 1875 and ended up working there and managing the grounds until his death in 1947. One day, he found an azalea that a family member had brought for a patient and tossed out. He tended it in the greenhouse until it was healthy again, took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter (books by this author), born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She grew up in poverty, in a small log house on the edge of a dirt farm. Just after her 16th birthday, she married a 21-year-old railway clerk. But she wasn't happy in her marriage, and in 1914 she ran away to Chicago, where she hoped to make it as a movie actress.

After a struggle with tuberculosis, Porter got a job writing for a newspaper in Fort Worth, then at the Rocky Mountain News. She barely survived the influenza epidemic, and afterward she set out for a new life as a writer in Greenwich Village. In 1922, she sold her first short story to Century magazine, and in 1930 published her first book of short stories, Flowering Judas. Her writing got good reviews but not a lot of attention, until she published her first and only novel, Ship of Fools (1962), which came out on April Fools' Day. It was the best-selling novel of 1962, and she finally had the financial security she had wanted for so long. Three years later, she published The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She died in 1980 at the age of 90.

Her friend Kitty Barry Crawford, who founded the Fort Worth Critic and inspired Porter to write, said of her friend: "I am frank to say, however, that K.A. as a person has always interested me more than her writings. She had and perhaps still has qualities of personality which lift her far, far above even highly talented people. Her delicate beauty — lovely black-lashed violet eyes, dark wavy hair, small nose, pertly snubbed — just to look at her was to love her."

Katherine Anne Porter said: "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I'm going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God's grace."

And, "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it."

Today is the birthday of Lyman Frank Baum (books by this author), born in Chittenango, New York (1856). He moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, when he was 32, and opened up a general store called "Baum's Bazaar." He was popular with the neighborhood kids, telling them stories, all the while chomping on a cigar. He was also generous with his credit and the store went bankrupt. So he got a job as an editor for the local newspaper. He published his first book, Mother Goose in Prose, in 1897; it was a collection of stories based on traditional nursery rhymes. After that came Father Goose, His Book in 1899, but it was his 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that we remember him for today. It was a critical and commercial success, and he went on to write 13 more novels based on the Land of Oz.

L. Frank Baum was a socialist. And he wrote: "There were no poor people in the land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. Each person was given freely by his neighbours whatever he required for his use, which is as much as anyone may reasonably desire. Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do."

It's the birthday of writer Mary Borden (books by this author), born in Chicago (1886). Her millionaire father had made his fortune prospecting in Colorado and investing in Chicago real estate. Her mother converted to an extreme form of religious evangelicalism, which led to a strict and unhappy household. Borden rebelled, going off to Vassar College. When her father died not long after, he left her a sizable fortune, and she set off on a world tour. She met and married a Scottish missionary named George Douglas Turner. Turner was a gentle man; after meeting him in India, novelist E.M. Forster described the missionary as "the only Englishman I have met who seems to care for the people." But Borden was not satisfied in her marriage. The couple lived for a while in India, then moved to London. There, she had an affair with the artist Percy Wyndham Lewis; joined the suffragette cause, and was briefly imprisoned as a protester; and — under a pseudonym — published two novels, The Mistress of Kingdoms (1912) and Collision (1913).

After World War I broke out, her husband enlisted. She gave birth to her third daughter in November of 1914, and two months later she headed off to Belgium to volunteer with the French Red Cross, despite the fact that she was still physically recovering from the birth, spoke no French, and had no nursing experience. She didn't like the way the hospital operated and thought she could do a better job, so she decided to use her fortune to start her own mobile hospital operating on the front lines. Borden moved her field hospital wherever the fighting was most intense, and in October 1916 she set up and administered to soldiers in the Battle of the Somme. She said: "Looking back, I do not understand that woman — myself — standing in that confused goods yard filled with bundles of broken human flesh. The place by one o'clock in the morning was a shambles. The air was thick with steaming sweat, with the effluvia of mud, dirt, blood."

It was in the midst of the Battle of the Somme that Borden met a handsome lieutenant named Louis Spears. He showed up at her hospital unit accompanied by a German shepherd and covered in mud, and he found Borden wearing a bloodstained apron in a room that stunk of gangrene. They soon became lovers. Borden wrote sonnets for Spears about death, despair, sex, and love. Many of them were penned on hospital stationary. She wrote:
The patient wounded in their narrow beds
Welcome me and smile as I go by
Down the long wooden buildings where they lie
Wan weary rows of helpless haggard heads —
Mysterious burning eyes that seem to gaze
From a great distance, gaze but do not know
Why they are glad to see me come and go.
Sometimes with feeble hands as in a daze
They beckon me, poor things that vaguely grope
Out of great darkness toward a distant light;
And from the unknown woman dressed in white
Seem in some strange way to gather hope —
They do not know that in this shadowed place
It is your light they see upon my face.

She claimed to have the lowest mortality of any hospital on the front, and she was made a member of the French Legion of Honor and awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, Borden went through a messy divorce with her husband, and married Spears. She was a famous hostess, and she and her new husband entertained writers, artists, and politicians in their Paris salon. She often traveled to America to visit her nephew, Adlai Stevenson, and helped him on some of his speeches. She continued writing, and published more than 20 books, including Jane, Our Stranger (1923), Flamingo (1927), and Mary of Nazareth (1933), a fictionalized account of the life of Mary that prompted a lawsuit from the Catholic Herald. She is best remembered for The Forbidden Zone (1929), a memoir of her work as a nurse on the front lines.

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