Great Island, Harpswell, Maine
Clear windy day and
the ocean’s waters rush ahead
In the distance off the low islands
the white splash of waves.
huge white puffs, stationary
in the bluest
air, seem unreal,
as if imported
and tacked up
by some grand producer.
Oh, the blue
we live in, bright sky
blue, glossy silvery
ocean blue—the blue
our essential bed,
our daily blanket—
it’s our home, this life in,
through and around
blue—by plan or chance,
by any account
a wonder, a miracle,
day like today,
the water busy,
noisy and constant
as if no amount of praise
for our blue, brilliant world.
“Blue” by Elizabeth Poliner from What You Know In Your Hands. © David Robert Books, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published on this date in 1813 (books by this author). Austen had completed the first draft of the book — which was originally titled First Impressions — by August 1797, when she was 21. Her father queried a London bookseller about publishing the novel. The bookseller turned him down without ever looking at the manuscript, so Austen put the book aside. Fourteen years later, encouraged by the success of Sense and Sensibility, she returned to First Impressions again and began reworking it into the novel we know today. Thomas Egerton of Whitehall bought the rights for £110 and published it in three volumes. It was well received and made decent money for the publisher, but Austen never saw another penny. Although she had sold Sense and Sensibility on a commission basis and eventually made a fair amount of money, Austen sold Pride and Prejudice for one lump sum. She was widely read during her lifetime, but her name never appeared on any of her books; the title page of Pride and Prejudice read only “by the author of Sense and Sensibility.”
It’s the birthday of novelist Colette (books by this author), born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Sauveur-en Puisaye, France (1873). She was named for her mother, Sidonie, so she went by Gabri. She grew up in the countryside, exploring the woods and hills around her home, making friends with animals. She wore wooden clogs to school and carried a metal box of coals to keep warm. She ate simple food, but she delighted in more gourmet meals. She wrote: “Where did I get my violent passion for rustic wedding-breakfasts? What ancestor bequeathed to me, via my frugal parents, a positively religious fervor for stewed rabbit, leg of mutton with garlic, soft-boiled eggs in red wine, all served between barn walls draped with buff sheets decorated with branches of red June roses?”
Colette grew into a beautiful young woman. She was strong and athletic, and she always wore her hair in a long red braid. She was witty, forward, and down-to-earth. The Parisian gentleman Henry Gauthier-Villars spent quite a bit of time with Colette’s family, and when she was 20, he asked her to marry him. Gauthier-Villars was attractive, sophisticated, and a well-known writer. He went by “Willy” — it was one of his pseudonyms — and he is the one who changed his new wife’s name from “Gabri” to “Colette.”
Colette said later: “My God! How young I was and how I loved that man!” But their marriage was tense from the start — Willy didn’t earn much writing witty newspaper columns, and Colette earned nothing and on top of that wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Willy also earned money by employing hacks to write books for him, which he published under his own name. It occurred to him that since his new wife was such a good storyteller, he might as well get her to help pay the bills. So Colette wrote four novels based on her life as a girl growing up in the French countryside, but they were all published under the name “Willy”: Claudine à l’école (1900, Claudine at School); Claudine à Paris (1901, Claudine in Paris); Claudine en ménage (1902, Claudine Married); and Claudine s’en va (1903, Claudine and Annie). They were hugely successful, in large part due to Willy’s talent at self-promotion.
Colette felt like a forced laborer — sometimes her husband locked her up in a room and demanded a certain number of pages before he would let her out. But the books helped the couple financially, and she capitalized on their success. After Claudine was made into a play, it became a cultural sensation — the name Claudine was given to pastries, soap, cigarettes, and ice cream. Colette took mime classes, and installed a trapeze and parallel bars above her apartment. She was friends with everyone from Marcel Proust to cabaret dancers. She later dramatized the scene in which she met the young Proust: “He contemplated me with his long-lashed, caressing eyes and murmured, for the two of us: ‘Ah, yours is the daydream of the child Narcissus; it’s his soul, filled with sensuality and bitterness ...’ ‘Monsieur,’ I tell him firmly, ‘you’re delirious. My soul is filled with nothing but red beans and bacon rinds.’“
Eventually, she left Willy and joined the theater. She was an actress, a dancer, and a mime. She caused and uproar when she and her lover, a woman named Missy, acted out a scene at the Moulin-Rouge in which Colette was a mummy and Missy was an archaeologist who stripped her of her bandages and then kissed her. She married the editor of the newspaper Le Matin, then had an affair with her stepson, which she dramatized in her novel Chéri (1920) — although she toned it down by making the main characters an older woman and a young, inexperienced man. She wrote 50 novels, including Gigi (1944), which was made into a Broadway play and a film.
Colette died in 1954, and she was the first woman in the history of France to be given a state funeral — although she was denied a Catholic burial. There were 2,500 guests invited to the funeral, and 6,000 more turned up to visit her casket and cover it in flowers. The French flag was laid on her coffin, along with wreaths sent by everyone from the French government to the Queen of Belgium to her fellow performers from the music hall.
When a friend needed help starting a business, Colette wrote to her: “How many times have I been ready to tell you: make use of me ... my physical solidity, my good head, which isn’t crazy, my desire for work, my good old bourgeois work ethic, which compels me to succeed at whatever task is entrusted to me.”
She said, “To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”
Today is the birthday of artist (Paul) Jackson Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming (1912). He was the youngest of five boys, and he grew up in Arizona and California. His older brother Charles was a father figure to him, especially after LeRoy Pollock, the family’s alcoholic patriarch, abandoned the family. Charles was an artist, so in addition to helping raise young Jackson, he also inspired the boy in his future career. Charles was studying art in New York, and Pollock joined him as soon as he turned 18. He studied with the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, and became very close with Benton and his family. During the Depression, Pollock found work with the WPA’s Federal Art Project. He and another brother, Sanford, painted murals and were able to live on the money they earned with the WPA.
Pollock inherited his father’s addiction to alcohol, and while seeing a Jungian psychotherapist, he became interested in symbolism and Native American art. Pollock’s therapist encouraged him to produce drawings as part of his therapy. He also became interested in abstract art after attending an exhibition of Picasso’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. He became romantically involved with fellow painter Lee Krasner, and the two were married in 1945. Krasner began managing Pollock’s career, and he signed a contract with the art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim, who paid him a stipend just to paint at the couple’s Long Island farm. His first solo exhibition was at Guggenheim’s New York gallery, Art of This Century, in 1943.
In the late 1940s, Pollock began experimenting with a technique in which he let the paint simply drip onto canvases laid on the floor of his studio. It was a radical departure from the Western tradition of applying paint by brush to an upright canvas on an easel. Pollock threw his whole body into his art. He described his process in a statement to Possibilities magazine: “My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” He used household paints rather than typical artists’ paints, because it was more liquid in texture and dripped more easily off of whatever implements he was using: brushes, sticks, or turkey basters. Pollock produced some of his most famous work during this “drip period.” Time magazine dubbed him “Jack the Dripper.” Life suggested that he might be the greatest living painter in the United States.
But as his fame grew, Pollock became more and more isolated from his friends and fellow artists. Some of them turned against him out of professional jealousy, and he became critical and dismissive of their work in turn. He was often insecure about whether his paintings were any good. He abruptly gave up his drip-style technique and started to paint in black enamel on untreated canvas. He began drinking excessively again, and he cheated on Krasner, who found she couldn’t keep up with his needs and still produce her own work. The two separated in 1956, and Krasner moved to Paris. Pollock stopped painting, but didn’t stop drinking. In August 1956, he crashed his car into a tree while driving drunk; he was thrown 50 feet out of the car, struck a tree, and died instantly. Krasner mourned his death for the rest of her life.