Jun. 12, 2014


by W. S. Merwin

Once only when the summer
was nearly over and my own
hair had been white as the day's clouds
for more years than I was counting
I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding around
flowers that open after dark
and I looked up to the clear sky
and saw the new moon and at that
moment from behind me a band
of dark birds and then another
after it flying in silence
long curving wings hardly moving
the plovers just in from the sea
and the flight clear from Alaska
half their weight gone to get them home
but home now arriving without
a sound as it rose to meet them

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

It's the birthday of writer Djuna Barnes (books by this author), born near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York (1892). For many years she lived in the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village and then as an expatriate in Paris, drinking and smoking and having love affairs with men and women alike. She interviewed celebrities, from Florenz Ziegfield to Coco Chanel, and she was friends with James Joyce, Emily Coleman, and Gertrude Stein.

She had a long affair with the sculptor Thelma Wood, who was constantly unfaithful. Barnes' most famous novel, Nightwood (1936), was a modernist novel about the destructive relationship of lovers named Robin and Nora, and she based Robin heavily on Thelma. Nightwood didn't sell well—her first royalty check was for £43. But it got rave reviews from other writers. T.S. Eliot convinced Faber and Faber to publish it, and he said, "It is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Dylan Thomas called it "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman." William S. Burroughs wrote: "I read Nightwood back in the 1930s and was very taken with it. I consider it one of the great books of the twentieth century. At that time I even tried a few writing experiments, consciously imitating her style. It is an entirely unique style: one sentence, and you know it is Djuna."

Whatever its critical reception, Nightwood didn't make money, and Barnes lived off the support of Peggy Guggenheim, the patron of many writers and artists. She went through a bottle of whiskey a day. As early as 1930 she wrote: "I've gotten cranky and old-maid like — I don't even like to have an animal looking at me, and when I lay a thing down I want to find it exactly where I put it — it's as bad as that!"

So she moved back to New York City and into an apartment in Greenwich Village, 5 Patchin Place , where she lived as a recluse for the last 42 years of her life. In 1971, she agreed to be interviewed by The New York Times. She said, "Years ago I used to see people, I had to, I was a newspaperwoman, among other things. And I used to be rather the life of the party. I was rather gay and silly and bright and all that sort of stuff and wasted a lot of time. I used to be invited by people who said 'Get Djuna for dinner, she's amusing.' So I stopped it." Writers came to pay homage to her, including Bertha Harris and Carson McCullers, but she sent them away. Her neighbor E.E. Cummings used to check on her by yelling out his window. She rarely left her house, and she spent her last 30 years working on a long poem that was found in her apartment when she died in 1982. In 1973, she told her editor Douglas Messerli: "It's terrible to outlive your own generation."

It's the birthday of novelist and priest Charles Kingsley (books by this author), born in Holne, England (1819). He is best remembered for his children's book The Water-Babies (1863). It was an allegorical story written to teach Christian values, and he wrote in a letter to a friend: "I have tried, in all sorts of queer ways, to make children and grown folks understand that there is a quite miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature, and nobody knows anything about anything, in the sense in which they may know God in Christ, and right and wrong. And if I have wrapped up my parable in seeming Tomfooleries, it is because so only could I get the pill swallowed by a generation who are not believing with anything like their whole heart, in the living God." The "tomfooleries" were elaborate—The Water-Babies might have been Christian propaganda, but it was also a strange and enjoyable fairy tale. It is the story of a 10-year-old chimney sweep named Tom. He falls through a chimney into the room of a wealthy young girl, and when he is discovered there he is chased out of town, until he gives in to thirst and weakness and falls into a river and drowns. Fairies turn him into a creature called a "water-baby," which is 3.87902 inches long and has gills. He is guided by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, and various fairies in his journey to the Other-End-of-Nowhere, where he has to rescue the cruel Mr. Grimes, his former master.

The Water-Babies was extremely popular when it was published, and it helped drum up public support for the Chimney Sweepers' Regulation Act, which made it illegal for adult chimney sweep masters to force child laborers to climb chimneys.

Charles Kingsley wrote: "I am not fond, you know, of going into churches to pray. We must go up into the chase in the evenings, and pray there with nothing but God's cloud temple between us and His heaven! And His choir of small birds and night crickets and booming beetles, and all happy things who praise Him all night long! And in the still summer noon, too, with the lazy-paced clouds above, and the distant sheep-bell, and the bee humming in the beds of thyme, and one bird making the hollies ring a moment, and then all still — hushed — awe-bound, as the great thunderclouds slide up from the far south! Then, there to praise God!"

It's the birthday of sociologist and writer Harriet Martineau (books by this author), born in Norwich, England (1802). She had a tough childhood—she was one of eight children, and her mother was a cold and difficult woman. Harriet was sick often, and from her infancy she had no sense of taste or smell. By the age of 12, she was mostly deaf. While her brothers went off to school, she was tutored at home.

When she was 16, her parents sent her to stay with an aunt in Bristol for more than a year. In her Autobiography, she wrote: "Before I went to Bristol, I was the prey of three griefs,--prominent among many. I cannot help laughing while I write this. They were my bad hand-writing, my deafness, and the state of my hair. Such a trio of miseries!" Her aunt was much more warm and loving than her own parents—Martineau described her: "For the first time, a human being whom I was not afraid of." In Bristol, she met a Unitarian minister named Lant Carpenter. Maritneau was fascinated by his teachings. She wrote later: "He was a very devoted Minister, and a very earnest pietist: superficial in his knowledge, scanty in ability, narrow in his conceptions, and thoroughly priestly in his temper. He was exactly the dissenting minister to be worshiped by his people, (and especially by the young) and to be spoiled by that worship. He was worshiped by the young, and by none more than by me; and his power was unbounded [...] A more extraordinary diversity of religious opinion than existed among his pupils when they became men and women could not be seen. They might be found at the extremes of catholicism and atheism, and every where between. As for me, his devout and devoted Catechumen, he made me desperately superstitious—living wholly in and for religion, and fiercely fanatical about it. I returned home raving about my pastor and teacher, remembering every word he had ever spoken to me,—with his instructions burnt in, as it were, upon my heart and conscience, and with an abominable spiritual rigidity and a truly respectable force of conscience curiously mingled together."

This transformation changed Martineau's life. She was so fired up that she started writing, anonymously, for a Unitarian publication, The Monthly Repository. In her second article, she wrote about gender, arguing that women were not inherently stupider than men, just given less access to education. She taught herself at home as best she could. She wrote to a friend about those years: "I liked cooking very well and ironing better. I used to get up at five to try whether I could not write stories and scraps of verse. My Latin prospered then, and I read much French, and taught myself Italian. Translation was a good exercise, I found, and I translated Tacitus into prose and Petrarch into verse, and used to read to my mother from French books. Then I learnt Wordsworth by heart by the bushel...and puzzled out metaphysical questions in my own mind all day long...and music burst out at all odd times, besides my daily practice. Oh, those were glorious days!" She started winning awards for her essays, but as her ideas became more radical, eventually she broke with the Unitarian church. Soon after, her father's business failed and he died. He left his wife and children almost nothing, and Martineau had to earn her own living. So she turned to writing more seriously, and supplemented her income with needlework.

Martineau was fascinated by political theory, by the ideas of Adam Smith, Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Bentham, and others. She thought that their ideas were important to the lives of everyday people, but that it was hard for most people to understand their writing. So she wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, fictional stories that illustrated various principles of political theory. Each of 25 stories had stated themes—there was "The Hill and the Valley," which illustrated "industry, commerce, agrarianism, Luddism"; "Ella of Garveloch," which taught "Ricardian rent theory, economic self-sufficiency"; or "Cinnamon and Pearls," illustrating "imperialist exploitation in Ceylon." Each story was fully drawn out—Ella of Garveloch, for example, was a poor Scottish fisherwoman struggling to make her way in a world of men, burdened by her many orphaned brothers and an unjust landlord.

Martineau had never published a book, and had no agent, publisher, or connections. She approached every publisher she could find, but the manuscript was rejected over and over. Finally it was accepted by a publisher named Charles Fox, who paid her poorly and was not very optimistic about its sales. But Illustrations of Political Economy was a huge success. It was published as a serial, between 1832 and 1834, and is estimated to have sold 10,000 copies per month at the height of its popularity—more popular than novels by Charles Dickens.

She said, "Readers are plentiful; thinkers are rare."

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