Jul. 11, 2014

The Last Perfect Season

by Joyce Sutphen

No one knew it then, but that was the last
perfect season, the last time sky and earth

were so balanced that when we walked,
we flew, the last time we could pick a crate

of strawberries every morning in June,
the last time the mystical threshing

machine appeared at the edge of the field,
dividing the oats from the chaff, time of

hollyhocks and sprinklers, white clouds over
a tin roof. Everyone we knew was young then.

Our mothers wore dresses the color of
dove wings, slim at the waist, skirts flaring

just enough to let the folds drape slightly,
like the elegant suits our fathers wore,

shirts so white they dazzled even
the grainy eye of the camera when

we looked down into the viewfinder to
press the button that would keep us there,

as if we already knew that this was
as good as it was ever going to get.

"The Last Perfect Season" by Joyce Sutphen from After Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To Kill a Mockingbird was published on this date in 1960. Nelle Harper Lee (books by this author) started writing anecdotes about life in the South after she moved to New York City in 1949, but they just weren't coming together. The work she produced was good enough to land her an agent, who encouraged her, but in 1957 she became so frustrated that she threw her manuscript out the window of her apartment. Luckily for lovers of literature, she quickly repented and retrieved the pages. She completely dismantled what she had written, rebuilt it, and turned it into the book that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.

When To Kill a Mockingbird first came out, Lee wasn't sure what to expect. "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement," she later said. "I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

At first, she was happy to grant interviews with anyone who asked, but she soon realized that journalists were just asking the same questions over and over again — most people wanted to know how much of the book had been drawn from Lee's own childhood. She grew up a tomboy in Monroeville, Alabama, and her father practiced law at the courthouse. Young Nelle would often sit in on his trials, just as Scout did in the book. But she insisted that any similarity was superficial. Others tried to get her to admit that her friend Truman Capote had written most of the book. And finally, everyone wanted to know what her next book was about, and when it would be published. After several failed attempts to write a follow-up book, she finally admitted that she had been overwhelmed by the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, and she feared she would never be able to match it. She has shunned publicity for herself and her novel since 1964, and she has never written another book.

For many years, Lee divided her time between Monroeville and New York, but now lives in her hometown full time. There have been many changes since her childhood; since the book's publication, Monroeville has become a popular destination for literary tourists. Her father's courthouse has been turned into a Mockingbird museum and gift shop, and there are a handful of restaurants named after the book and its characters. The town has staged a play based on the book every year since the early 1990s; the first act is presented in the town square, and everyone troops inside the courthouse for the second act.

The novel has sold more than 30 million copies since it was published, and has been translated into 40 languages. In 1999, librarians named it their favorite 20th-century novel. It was also one of the most frequently challenged or banned books of the 20th century. Last spring, Lee finally agreed to allow her book to be published in an electronic format. It's one of the last classic American novels to move to that format. She announced the news on April 28, her 88th birthday. "I'm still old-fashioned," the author said. "I love dusty old books and libraries." She added, "I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation." The e-book and a new audio book narrated by Sissy Spacek were released on July 8.

It's the birthday of John Quincy Adams, born in Braintree, Massachusetts, (1767). He was the sixth president of the United States, but he almost didn't become president. In the year he was elected, 1824, none of the six candidates had an electoral majority. So the decision went to the House of Representatives, which was still divided, and the decision came down to one last member of the New York delegation, a man named Stephen Van Rensselaer. Everyone was giving him advice, telling him to vote for one candidate in order to avoid the election of someone else, or to block a certain candidate so that another part of the party didn't gain footing, and eventually the poor man was so confused that he closed his eyes and prayed to God to give him an answer. When he opened them he saw a ballot with John Quincy Adams written on it, and so Adams became the sixth president.

It's the birthday of the essayist and children's writer E.B. White (books by this author), born Elwin Brooks White in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). After a young pig he was raising got sick and he failed to save its life, he wrote one of his most famous essays, "Death of a Pig." Then he wrote a children's novel in which the pig doesn't have to die: Charlotte's Web (1952). It's the story of a runt pig named Wilbur who is saved the first time by a little girl and the second time by a wise spider. It is one of the best-selling children's books of all time.

E.B. White said: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

It's the birthday of the literary critic Harold Bloom (books by this author), born in New York City (1930). His parents were Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish, but he fell in love with English poetry and read it before he had ever heard English spoken aloud. He started reading Walt Whitman and Hart Crane when he was eight years old. Like Walt Whitman, he has written reviews of his own books. And he went on to become one of the most influential literary critics in the country. He is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn't read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition. He said: "In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read."

In the last few years, Bloom has been writing books for general readers because he thinks that scholars have forgotten how to read for pleasure. Many of his books have become best-sellers, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) and How to Read and Why (2000).

It's the birthday of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it's more commonly known as "Whistler's Mother." It's a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler's scheduled model didn't show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead.

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