Jun. 16, 2014

Vernal Sentiment

by Theodore Roethke

Though the crocuses poke up their heads in the usual places,
The frog scum appear on the pond with the same froth of green,
And boys moon at girls with last year's fatuous faces,
I never am bored, however familiar the scene.

When from under the barn the cat brings a similar litter,—
Two yellow and black, and one that looks in between,—
Though it all happened before, I cannot grow bitter:
I rejoice in the spring, as though no spring ever had been.

"Vernal Sentiment" by Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor Books, 1974. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is "Bloomsday," the annual celebration of that 1904 day featured in James Joyce's novel Ulysses (books by this author). The holiday is named after Leopold Bloom, the novel's protagonist; the book follows his progress through an ordinary day in Dublin. Bloom buys kidneys at the butcher's, serves his wife, Molly, breakfast in bed, reads the mail, and visits the outhouse. He attends a morning funeral, runs an errand at the drug store, and inadvertently gives a man a winning tip about a racehorse. He bumps into an old flame, stops off for a sandwich and a glass of wine, helps a blind man cross the road, and ducks into a museum to avoid his wife's lover. He gets into an argument at Barney Kiernan's pub, ogles a young woman at the beach, and pays a hospital visit to a woman in the throes of a difficult childbirth. He spends the evening in a red-light district with young Stephen Dedalus, protagonist of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Bloom feels paternal toward the young Dedalus, and sees him home safely. Finally, in the wee hours of June 17, Leopold returns home to Molly, just as Odysseus returned to Penelope.

It's the birthday of Joyce Carol Oates (books by this author), born in Lockport, New York (1938). She's the author of books such as Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), and We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).

Oates published her first story, "In the Old World," in Mademoiselle magazine (1959) just before her senior year of college, and she published her first book of short stories, By the North Gate, a few years later, in 1963. She has gone on to become one of the most prolific writers of her generation, writing more than 70 books in 40 years, including novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and essays. She writes almost everything in longhand before typing, and she usually cuts out a few hundred pages from every novel before it is published.

It was Joyce Carol Oates who said: "I think all art comes out of conflict. When I write I am always looking for the dramatic kernel of an event, the junctures of people's lives when they go in one direction, not another."

On this day in 1858, Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois, urging that the issue of slavery be resolved once and for all. He said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

It's the birthday of Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). Her parents were Polish immigrants, and they raised their daughters as secular Jews; Dawidowicz didn't attend a Jewish service until she was in her 20s. She went to Columbia to earn her master's degree in literature, but as the Nazis gained power in Germany, she couldn't concentrate on poetry — she discovered that she was more interested in political events in Europe. She talked it over with a professor, and he convinced her to switch her focus to Jewish history. She was excited, even though she would essentially have to start over on her graduate work, and there weren't really careers in Jewish studies unless you wanted to be a rabbi. She said, "It was even more impractical than studying English literature."

In 1938, Dawidowicz went to Vilna, Poland, to study at the Institute for Jewish Research. Vilna had been a thriving Jewish cultural center for more than 500 years, nicknamed "Jerusalem of the North" by Napoleon. She said, "I went there with the romantic belief that it might become the world center for a self-sustaining Yiddish culture." Instead, by the time Dawidowicz arrived in Vilna, the city was segregated, and the Institute for Jewish Research was trying to keep alive a culture that was increasingly threatened. She loved being in Vilna, and she felt at home there, meeting scholars, families, merchants, students, and activists. She said she felt closer to one family there than she was to her own parents. But she stayed for only a year. Her friends in Vilna told her to return to America for her own good, and finally convinced her that if war broke out, she would be more of a burden than a help. Shortly after Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact in August of 1939, she sailed home to New York City, arriving at the end of September. By the time she reached New York, the Nazis had invaded Poland.

After the war, she went back to Europe. For 18 months, she worked with Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. She also found and catalogued Jewish books stolen by the Nazis and sent them back to New York City. She said, "By arranging for the transfer of these volumes [...] I felt I had, in some small, perhaps symbolic way, responded to the obsessive fantasies of rescue that had haunted me for years."

Dawidowicz worked as a scholar and professor, and she published numerous books about the Holocaust. Her most famous — and controversial — book was The War Against the Jews (1975). She believed that the Holocaust was one of Hitler's main objectives from the beginning, and she argued with historians who claimed that the idea evolved as the war took its course. She also argued against scholars who said that the Jews had been too complacent and failed to launch a better resistance. The War Against the Jews was a best-seller.

Her other books include The Jewish Presence (1977), The Holocaust and the Historians (1981), and a memoir about her year in Vilna, From That Place and Time (1989).

She said: "Some people think that the professional historian's personal commitments — to his people, his country, his religion, his language — undermine his professional objectivity. Not so. Not so, as long as historians respect the integrity of their sources and adhere strictly to the principles of sound scholarship. Personal commitments do not distort, but instead they enrich, historical writing."

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