Thursday Sep. 3, 2015

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Swimming to New Zealand

Once or twice in life you find a woman
you’d swim the ocean for. What are you doing?
friends will ask, as you perfect your stroke,
meantime pitying everyone outside of love.
Your only obstacle, the blue Pacific—
where your sun sinks, she’s dressing in the morning,
and when the dawn comes reaching back around,
turning up the volume in your city,
she’s drawing blinds, removing her make-up.
If you were Gatsby you would build a mansion
in some cove off the Tasmanian sea
and throw parties to lure her in. You’re not
of course—though nothing’s impossible,
except life without her, and so you swim.

“Swimming to New Zealand” by Douglas Goetsch from Nameless Boy. © Orchises Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1947, the classic children’s bedtime story Goodnight, Moon was published. Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author) had already published several children’s books when she woke up one morning and began listing the items in her house, and saying goodnight to each of them. She thought the poem-like list might make a good story, and she sent it to her editor. The tale of a little rabbit who wanders about his room, saying goodnight to, among other things, his comb, his brush, and his bowl full of mush, is now a soothing bedtime anthem for millions of children worldwide.

Life magazine once asked Brown, known as “Brownie” to her friends, about her penchant for hunting rabbits. Brownie answered, “Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago (1926). She is the author of The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989) and Foreign Affairs (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize (1985).

About her characters, Lurie said: “I want them all to have happy endings although I do realize this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don’t really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I’ve killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn’t.”

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Form follows function.” That’s American architect Louis Henry Sullivan, born in Boston (1856). He worked in Chicago in the 1880s and ’90s, when the city was teeming with immigrants, grain trading, and railroads. Sullivan designed more than 100 buildings for the city, including its early steel-frame skyscrapers — innovations in their day for using a kind of experimental skeleton construction on the inside and intricate, subtle ornamentation outside.

It’s the birthday of anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley (books by this author), born in Lincoln, Nebraska (1907). He spent most of his long academic career as a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1947 to 1977. He was interested in the dating of fossils and in extinctions during the Ice Age. But he’s remembered today as a writer of popular and poetic books about anthropology and evolution — books like The Immense Journey (1957), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), and The Star Thrower (1979). About the evolution of the brain and the development of consciousness in humans, he wrote: “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of wind in the night reeds.”

It’s the birthday of writer Sarah Orne Jewett (books by this author), born in South Berwick, Maine (1849). Her father was a country doctor, and she thought about becoming a doctor herself. Instead, she turned to writing and had her first story published in The Atlantic when she was just 20 years old. She wrote about the people of Maine and about the old country ways that were quickly dying out around her, and earned a reputation as one of the finest writers in the “local color” tradition. Her first collection of stories, Deephaven, came out in 1877. Her most famous work was the collection The Country of the Pointed Firs, which was published in 1896.

Jewett said, “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that.”

On this date in 1838, Frederick Douglass (books by this author) boarded a train to escape from slavery. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), he wrote, “On Monday, the third day of September, 1838, in accordance with my resolution, I bade farewell to the city of Baltimore, and to that slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood.”

He had been born Frederick Bailey to a slave woman on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Maryland, about 1817. He never knew when his actual birthday was, but he always celebrated it on Valentine’s Day, because his mother had given him a heart-shaped cake the last time he ever saw her. She died when he was very young; when he was eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore to work in the home of the Auld family. Mrs. Auld taught him to read, in defiance of Maryland law. He spent the rest of his childhood picking up an education any way he could. One bit of knowledge ended up being crucial to the sailor’s disguise he adopted in his escape: “My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt,’” he wrote. Dressed in a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf, and carrying forged documents, he boarded a train bound for Philadelphia.

Eventually, he settled in Massachusetts and changed his name. He let a friend named Mr. Johnson choose his new last name, stating only that he wished to keep “Frederick” as a link to his previous identity. Johnson, who had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, chose “Douglass” after characters in the poem.

Frederick Douglass went on to campaign tirelessly for the abolition of slavery. He was also an advocate of women’s suffrage, and was one of the original signers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” in 1848.

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