Wednesday Feb. 8, 2017

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Of my ancestors I know little, and to try
tracing them now would be absurd,

their surnames reinvented, mangled
at every gate. Was there, among their number,

a hero? Were there heliographs,
a silhouette, daguerreotypes, lost

in the wolverine dark as they fled
where they were unwanted for where

they were unwanted? To me,
it doesn’t matter—like William James,

they believed in free will. Summer nights,
I stroll Broadway or Pennsylvania

or Massachusetts Avenue, haloed
in the night lamps’ sodium vapors,

and they are my marveling entourage,
small, bent, dogged, homely,

though I turned out tall—oh, generations
of nutrition—and when I sleep,

they toss beside me, blacksmiths,
dentists, deliverers of ice, of knives,

of artificial flowers, of a posterity
bred heartlessly to lose them.

“Genealogy” by Gail Mazur from Forbidden City. © The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Reprinted by permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). She went to Vassar, where she really began her career as a poet. Her mentor was the poet Marianne Moore, who taught Bishop that she could write poems that weren't about big ideas like love or death, but just about the observation of ordinary things.

Elizabeth Bishop was a slow, meticulous writer — she published just 101 poems during her lifetime.

It's the birthday of the best-selling novelist John Grisham (books by this author), born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). He became a successful lawyer and then decided to write a novel based on one of his court cases. He spent three years writing A Time to Kill (1989), but only a few thousand copies were printed, and it didn't sell out on the first run. So he read Writer's Digest magazine and found an article about the rules of suspense, and he used that formula to write a thriller about a law student who realizes that the firm he works for is connected to the mafia. That was The Firm (1991). It was a huge best-seller, and John Grisham went on to write The Pelican Brief (1992), The Rainmaker (1995), and many more best-sellers.

It's the birthday of Kate Chopin (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. She came from a wealthy family — her father was a successful businessman and her mother was a beautiful socialite from one of the city's oldest Creole families. Kate was a Southern belle, a devoted wife, and the mother of six children.

But then her husband died, and soon after that her mother died. Chopin was depressed. Her family doctor thought she was a very good letter-writer, so he encouraged her to try writing fiction as a way to stay occupied. Over the next 15 years, Kate Chopin wrote almost 100 short stories and sketches, and two novels, At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899). The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, who gives up her roles as wife and mother, has an affair, and eventually walks into the sea, perhaps committing suicide. And when it was published, Kate Chopin was censored and criticized. But now she is considered an important early feminist author, and The Awakening is considered a classic of American fiction.

It's the birthday of Neal Cassady (books by this author), born in 1926 in Salt Lake City. He was a con man, in and out of jail, and finally moved to New York City, where he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The Beats idolized Cassady. He embodied everything they embraced in theory — he was a self-made man, he had been educated on the streets by bums and crooks, he was smart and free and charming.

Neal Cassady appears in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. In "Howl," Allen Ginsberg refers to him as "N.C., secret hero of these poems." But Neal Cassady is most famous as the inspiration for Dean Moriarty, the hero of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957).

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