Saturday Jan. 7, 2017

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First Snow

The text of today’s poem is not available online.

“First Snow” by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man most responsible for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda born in Luzhki, part of the Russian Empire (1858). He wanted to make sure that Jewish people from around the world could communicate with each other. Though children from Jewish families often learned some Hebrew at Hebrew school, at the time no one on earth spoke modern Hebrew at home as a first language. Many European Jews spoke Russian or Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Ben-Yehuda felt that reviving the Hebrew language was firmly intertwined with the creation of a Jewish homeland, which did not yet exist. He raised his child to be the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, and he’s the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary. Today, modern Hebrew is spoken by more than 7 million people in Israel. It’s one of Israel’s two official languages. The other is Arabic.

It’s the birthday of American writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891) (books by this author), best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which is a staple of high school and college curriculums.

Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and raised in Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was established in 1887 and was the nation’s first incorporated African-American township. Hurston loved Eatonville, calling it, “A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.” Many of Hurston’s stories and novels take place in Eatonville.

She grew up happy in an eight-room house on five acres of land, but when her mother died when Zora was 13, her father remarried soon after, and Hurston and her stepmother didn’t get along. She was expelled from boarding school when her father stopped paying her tuition and she simply left home, joining Gilbert & Sullivan’s traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. Hurston said she was “bare and bony of comfort and love.”

When she landed in Baltimore, she decided to lop 10 years off her age so she could take advantage of free public schooling and finish high school. She was 26 and pretended to be 16 and never added the years back. She got a scholarship to Barnard College, where she was the sole black student. She wrote a lot of stories, and graduated with a degree in anthropology, and when she finally landed in Harlem with $1.50 in her pocket and no job, she found herself smack in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance, and made friends with writers like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in three weeks while on a fellowship in Haiti. The story of Janie Crawford and her search for identity and love poured out of Hurston; she based Janie’s love affair with Tea Cake, a younger man, on her own failed romance with a man named Percival Punter. When the novel came out, it received mixed reviews. Ralph Ellison called it “calculated burlesque” and Richard Wright sniffed, “Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction.” She wrote an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), but she never made much money; the largest royalty Hurston ever received was $943.75. Her books include Mules and Men (1935), Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti (1938), and Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939).

Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960, penniless. Her neighbors had to take up a collection for her funeral, but they didn’t have enough money for a headstone. Her papers were ordered to be burned, but a friend saved them and gave them to the University of Florida.

In 1973, a young writer named Alice Walker went looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in a weedy graveyard in Florida. She posed as Hurston’s niece in order to learn more about her from old friends and distant relatives. Walker’s essay about her journey, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” was published in Ms. magazine in 1975 and revived interest in Hurston’s work, which was republished and continues to sell steadily to this day. Alice Walker went on to write The Color Purple (1982), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Walker said: “We are a people. People do not throw their geniuses away.” Alice Walker paid for a headstone for Hurston. It reads, “Genius of the South.”

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston wrote: “I used to climb to the top of one of the huge chinaberry trees, which guarded our front gate, and look out over the world. The most interesting thing that I saw was the horizon. It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like.”

Zora Neale Hurston said, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and nonfiction author Nicholson Baker (1957) (books by this author), born in New York City. He grew up in Rochester, and went to an experimental “School Without Walls,” where students studied only what interested them, didn’t receive grades, and typed up their own transcripts. “At the time I thought: Give me structure!” he told the New York Times. “I yearned for a more traditional school. But now I think it was the best thing. I learned what it was like to be incredibly bored.”

As a writer, he spends a lot of time alone, and he’s developed a fascination with workplaces as a result. “I sometimes think I’d be happier doing restaurant work or manual labor,” he once said. “I remember one of my temp jobs was working for a part of Gillette that was selling blister packs of shampoo to Bolivia. I was part of this team. I love all that.” His first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), is a nod to this fascination: it’s an account of one man’s random thoughts as he rides an escalator up to the mezzanine level of his office building on his lunch hour.

Baker has earned a reputation as a writer of literary and humorous smut, having written three books of that nature (Vox [1992], The Fermata [1994], and House of Holes [2011]). He’s also published a book about World War II (Human Smoke [2008]), a collection of essays (The Size of Thoughts [1996]), a memoir about his admiration for John Updike (U and I [1991]), and an impassioned critique of the use of technology in libraries (Double Fold [2001]). His latest book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids (2016), is a daily account of modern life in American public schools.

Nicholson Bakers said: “Most writers are secretly worried that they’re not really writers. That it’s all been happenstance, something came together randomly, the letters came together, and they won’t coalesce ever again.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®