Monday Oct. 30, 2017

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Why There Will Always Be Thistle

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it’s been severed
by breadknife or shovel
—two popular methods
employed by the desperate—
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons’ teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.

“Why There Will Always Be Thistle” by Maxine Kumin from The Long Marriage. © W.W. Norton, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility was first published on this date in 1811. Austen began writing the book in 1795, when she was about 19 years old. She called it Elinor and Marianne, after the Dashwood sisters who are the novel’s main characters. In its original incarnation, Elinor and Marianne was an epistolary novel, told entirely through letters. A couple of years later, Austen revised it into a narrative format, but then she set the book aside for more than a decade.

In 1809, Austen took up the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood again, putting it through another round of revisions. Finally, a London publisher named Thomas Egerton agreed to publish her “novel in three volumes, By a Lady.” She wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in April 1811, while she was in the middle of correcting proofs of the novel: “I am never too busy to think of S & S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her suckling child.”

Austen paid for the novel’s printing and advertising, and agreed to pay Egerton a commission. It was a financially risky arrangement for the author, but Sense and Sensibility turned a profit. Austen wrote to her brother: “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S. & S. is sold & that it has brought me £140 — besides the Copyright, if that [should] ever be of any value. — I have now therefore written myself into £250 — which only makes me long for more.” Egerton agreed to publish her second novel — a book that had begun as First Impressions in 1796 but ended up being called Pride and Prejudice — in 1813.

Eudora Welty called Sense and Sensibility “as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”

Today is the birthday of American writer Robert Caro (books by this author), born in New York City (1935), and best known for his five-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which he began in 1976. About writing biography, he once said, “The power of the historian is the power of the truth, a very basic thing.”

Caro got his start as an investigative reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday. He wrote a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay would be a bad idea and found himself fascinated by Robert Moses, the urban planner behind the bridge.

Moses had been instrumental in the construction of the Staten Island Expressway, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Lincoln Center, and the placement of the United Nations headquarters in New York City instead of Philadelphia. Caro had been convinced his articles would sway the decision to build the bridge, but the state’s Assembly voted to begin construction. Caro was stunned. He said: “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’”

It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker (1974), a 1,300-page biography of Robert Moses. He was so broke while he was writing the book that his wife sold their Long Island house without telling him. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

To write biography well, Robert Caro believes it must read like fiction. He says: “Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to ­accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.”

Caro keeps a strict routine when writing, like wearing a suit and a tie and keeping the same hours every day. He tends to do obsessive research, particularly for the biographical volumes of Lyndon B. Johnson. One reviewer even remarked that Caro’s research was so detailed that he described the average annual rainfall in the Texas Hill Country in the years before Johnson was even born. He interviewed Lyndon B. Johnson’s speechwriter 22 times and lived in Texas for several years while doing research. He wrote for a long time on a typewriter, even when taking notes in the Johnson Library, until the noise of the typewriter became so distracting that the library forbade him to use it. Now he uses a computer.

Robert Caro writes with a note taped to his lampshade. It reads, “The only thing that matters is on the page.”

Today is the birthday of Irish playwright and Whig politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (books by this author), born in Dublin (1751). His family moved to England when he was seven years old. His mother was a playwright and his father was an actor who wrote books about teaching English.

Sheridan wrote plays satirizing English manners and the aristocracy. His first play, The Rivals (1775), was about a wealthy man who pretends to be a poor officer to woo a rich woman obsessed with romance novels. The opening night of the show was a disaster and an audience member threw an apple at the main actor. Sheridan shut down the performance for a couple of weeks to rewrite the play, then recast the leading role with the new script — it was a huge hit and the term “malapropism” was coined after the character Mrs. Malaprop, who makes the mistake of using words that sound like the words she means to say. Mrs. Malaprop was fond of saying, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.” The Rivals was George Washington’s favorite play.

Sheridan’s comedy The School for Scandal (1777) premiered two years later. The play centers on an aristocrat who disguises himself to judge the characters of his two nephews, one of whom he will choose as his heir. The story is full of backbiting, false rumors, and people behind the scenes trying to play puppeteer in others’ lives. One critic wrote: “Sheridan’s satirical bite […] comes not from epigrammatic flourishes, but from the subtle undermining of Georgian social mores […] In this realm, gossip is a form of social control, wielded by the essentially impotent elite to force conformity among their peers.”

In 1780, Sheridan entered Parliament and sided with Charles James Fox, a radical parliamentarian who supported the American Revolution. They couldn’t convince other members of Parliament to oppose King George III’s declaration of war.

While he was giving a speech in Parliament, Edmund Burke once threw a knife onto the floor to make a dramatic point. Sheridan asked, “Where’s the fork?” and the assembly broke down laughing.

Sheridan served as the Treasurer of the Navy toward the end of his career. But after 32 years in Parliament, he lost his run for reelection and spent the last years of his life in poverty. The American Congress offered him £20,000 in gratitude for his efforts to avoid the Revolutionary War, but he refused the money. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey along with Chaucer and Spenser.

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