Friday Jan. 6, 2017

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She’s gone. She was my love, my moon or more.
She chased the chickens out and swept the floor,
Emptied the bones and nut-shells after feasts,
And smacked the kids for leaping up like beasts.
Now morbid boys have grown past awkwardness;
The girls let stitches out, dress after dress,
To free some swinging body’s riding space
And form the new child’s unimagined face.
Yet, while vague nephews, spitting on their curls,
Amble to pester winds and blowsy girls,
What arm will sweep the room, what hand will hold
New snow against the milk to keep it cold?
And who will dump the garbage, feed the hogs,
And pitch the chickens’ heads to hungry dogs?
Not my lost hag who dumbly bore such pain:
Childbirth at midnight sassafras and rain.
New snow against her face and hands she bore,
And now lies down, who was my moon or more.

“Complaint” by James Wright from The Branch Will Not Break. © Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. It celebrates the day when the three Magi visited Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

James Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead” is set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany. The story ends: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Joyce also gave us a secular meaning of “epiphany,” using the word to mean the “revelation of the whatness of a thing,” the moment when “the soul of the commonest object [...] seems to us radiant.”

It’s the birthday of novelist, critic, and photographer Wright Morris (books by this author), born in Central City, Nebraska (1910). In 1940, he set out on a 15,000-mile tour around the United States, taking photographs along the way. He focused on capturing the inanimate objects of rural America. He took pictures of tiny churches, grain elevators, and farm implements as well as the clothing in closets, the objects in dresser drawers, and the decorations on mantelpieces.

Morris eventually began to use his photographs to inspire his fiction. In 1946, he published The Inhabitants, a collection of photographs of American houses with a series of stories written in the voices of people who might have lived in those houses. He went on to publish more than 30 books of both fiction and photography, and he won the National Book Award twice, for his novel The Field of Vision in 1956 and his novel Plains Song for Female Voices in 1980.

Morris wrote: “There’s little to see, but things leave an impression. It’s a matter of time and repetition. As something old wears thin or out, something new wears in. The handle on the pump, the crank on the churn, the dipper floating in the bucket, the latch on the screen, the door on the privy, the fender on the stove, the knees of the pants and the seat of the chair, the handle of the brush and the lid to the pot exist in time but outside taste; they wear in more than they wear out. It can’t be helped. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s the nature of life.”

It’s the birthday of the American novelist that the New York Times called a “literary time traveler” and “one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters.” That’s E.L. Doctorow (books by this author), born in New York City (1931). His parents named him after Edgar Allan Poe, because his dad was a big fan — he liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was “the best of the bad writers,” Doctorow said. He enjoyed a pleasant childhood in the Bronx: “As a boy I went matter of factly to plays, to concerts,” he recalled. “And as I grew up I was a beneficiary of the incredible energies of European émigrés in every field — all those great minds hounded out of Europe by Hitler. They brought enormous sophistication to literary criticism, philosophy, science, music. I was very lucky to be a New Yorker.”

He started writing after a job as a script reader for CBS got him started thinking about a novel of his own. His first novel started as a satire of the popular TV Westerns. It was called Welcome to Hard Times (1960), and it ended up being a violent and unflinching look at life on the Western frontier. He first attracted critical notice with The Book of Daniel (1971), which was inspired by the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Doctorow was struggling with writing The Book of Daniel and he needed a change, so he and his wife, Helen, consulted the I Ching. The oracle told them to cross a great river, so they pulled up stakes, crossed the Mississippi, and moved to Irvine, California, where Doctorow took a temporary teaching post. Even though The Book of Daniel sold modestly when it first came out, critics loved it, and many people now consider it his best work.

Ragtime (1975), his fourth novel, was the book that made him famous. It became a huge best-seller, and Doctorow claimed it was the easiest book he had ever written. His last book was Andrew’s Brain (2014). It’s the story of a cognitive neuroscientist who is telling his life story — a life filled with disastrous events that he seems in some way to have attracted — to an unknown listener.

E.L. Doctorow didn’t put much faith in the advice to “write what you know,” and actually advocated for the opposite in a conversation with George Plimpton that appeared in Paris Review: “We’re supposed to be able to get into other skins. We’re supposed to be able to render experiences not our own and warrant times and places we haven’t seen. That’s one justification for art, isn’t it: to distribute the suffering?”

It’s the birthday of the poet who once wrote, “Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes. Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration.” Carl Sandburg (1878) (books by this author) was born on this day in a three-room cottage in Galesburg, Illinois. When he was 13, he left school and started driving a milk-wagon. After that, he worked as a bricklayer, a coal heaver, a hotel servant, and a porter at a hotel barbershop. He liked talking to people; he liked writing about them. He didn’t put much stake in modern poetry, calling it “a series of ear-wigglings.” He once said, “I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass. I’ll probably die propped up in bed trying to write a poem about America.”

By 1897, Sandburg was one of thousands of men stowing away on railroad boxcars, looking for jobs out West. He spent eight months in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, but never saw battle. Back in Chicago, he worked furiously on a series of poems about the city that denounced its filth and corruption while also praising the hardworking people. Harriet Monroe published some of them in her magazine, Poetry. People complained about Sandburg’s critical view of the city and his odd, plainspoken speech, but Monroe didn’t care. She said, “Next to making friends, the most thrilling experience of life is to make enemies.”

Carl Sandburg’s book Chicago Poems was published in 1916 to great acclaim. In the poem “Chicago” he writes, “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler / Stormy, Husky, Brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Cornhuskers (1918).

Carl Sandburg became so popular that he traveled the country giving readings, lectures, and concerts. He even recorded an album, American Songbag (1927), an anthology of urban folk songs, on which he sang and played guitar. He thought children’s fairy tales from Europe had too many stories about princesses and royalty, so he wrote a book for children called Rootabaga Stories, in which skyscrapers talk to each other and fall in love; balloons are really potatoes; and the capital city is “The Village of Liver and Onions.”

The Rootabaga books were so popular that his editor asked him to consider writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln for kids. Sandburg became so enraptured by Lincoln’s life that he spent years researching and writing the book at his home on Lake Michigan, where he installed a fireproof bank vault to protect his Lincoln papers. He wrote the book sitting in the sun on an overturned orange crate, bare-chested. He was so immersed in writing that his neighbors persuaded a tall friend to don a top hat and frock coat and walk by Sandburg as he worked. “Good morning, Mr. Sandburg,” the figure said. Sandburg glanced up, said, “Good morning, Mr. Lincoln,” and continued writing. Sandburg’s history of Lincoln eventually stretched to six volumes. The final four volumes, published in 1940, won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

When Carl Sandburg died in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Sandburg’s work fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t until Penelope Niven, a high school English teacher, published Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991) that interest in Sandburg was revived. Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, had been turned into a historic site and Niven was a volunteer, organizing and sorting his papers and memorabilia for an exhibition.

She became fascinated by his life and work. She’d never written a book before in her life, but his family trusted her, and Niven spent years working on the book. It’s now considered a landmark biography.

Amtrak added a “Carl Sandburg” train in 2006. In Galesburg, Illinois, you can shop at Sandburg Mall on Carl Sandburg Drive and take classes at Carl Sandburg College. There are dozens of elementary schools across the U.S. named for Carl Sandburg.

Carl Sandburg said: “My father couldn’t sign his name. My mother was able to read the Scriptures in her native language, but she could not write, and I wrote of Abraham Lincoln whose own mother could not read or write! I guess that somewhere along in this you’ll find a story of America.”

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