They float, these white trees—
a few petals, fallen
to the street, not stars fading,
The trees have blossomed
in a freezing east wind.
None, I think, has any regrets
If the night frost
comes too thick,
too fast, they’ll give
what they have to,
as if it were nothing—
held not by black branches,
but their own buoyancy.
“Pear Trees on Irving Street” by Richard Widerkehr from In the Presence of Absence. © Moon Path Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1851 that Moby-Dick was published in New York, as one long, 635-page book. About a month earlier, a censored version of the novel had been published in three separate volumes in London. It was called The Whale.
Moby-Dick begins with the famous lines:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
And Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: “Meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
It’s the birthday of Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren (1907) (books by this author), who unleashed a nine-year-old fictional free spirit named Pippi Longstocking on the world. Pippi had sagging leggings, messy carrot-colored hair, and a pet monkey named Mr. Nilsson. She claimed that her father was a South Sea cannibal king, lived by herself, threw wild parties, and generally shocked and annoyed grown-ups, which endeared her to children worldwide. Her full name was Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking. One grumpy adult reader sent Lindgren a letter saying, “No normal child sleeps with her feet on the pillow or eats up a whole cake at a coffee party.”
Lindgren was a farmer’s daughter just outside the small town of Vimmerby in southern Sweden when she became pregnant out of wedlock at 19. She hightailed it to Stockholm, where she had a son, became a secretary, got an office job, married, and had a daughter named Karin. Once when Karin was ill, she asked her mother to tell her a fairy tale about a girl named Pippi Longstocking. Lindgren didn’t ask questions; she just did as she was told. She said, “I just began the story, and since it was a strange name it turned out to be a strange girl as well.” She was already writing, inventing characters in books like Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter; Mischievous Meg; The Lionheart Brothers; and The Children of Troublemaker Street. Lindgren’s books have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.
When she finally decided to write down Pippi’s stories for her daughter’s 10th birthday, she decided to send them to a publisher, too, and included a note that read, “In the hope that you won’t notify the Child Welfare Committee.” She said, “I had two children of my own, and what kind of mother had they who wrote such books!”
Astrid Lindgren died at 94 in 2002. She became something of a political activist in Sweden, campaigning for environmental causes, and for children and animal rights; the Lex Lindgren animal protection law was named after her. In 1976, she took on a tax system that legally charged some taxpayers more than 100 percent of their income by writing an adult fairy tale called Pomperipossa in the World of Money. It became so popular that it led to the downfall of the Social Democratic government later that year.
Pippi Longstocking begins: “She had no mother and no father, and that was of course very nice because there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun, and no one who could make her take cod liver oil when she much preferred caramel candy.”
It’s the birthday of journalist P.J. O’Rourke (books by this author), born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1947. He’s the author of Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government (1991), Give War a Chance (1992), and recently, How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 (2017).
He said: “The source of the word ‘humorist’ is one who regards human beings in terms of their humors — you know, whether they’re sanguine or full of yellow bile, or whatever the four classical humors are. You stand back from people and regard them as types. And one finds, especially by the time one reaches one’s fifties, that there are a limited number of types of people in the world, and you went to high school with every single one of them. You can visit the Eskimos, you can visit the Bushmen in the Kalahari, you can go to Israel, you can go to Egypt, but everybody you meet is going to be somebody you went to high school with.”
It’s the birthday of the artist who said, “I would like to paint the way a bird sings”: Claude Monet, born in Paris in 1840. His father ran a grocery store and had hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. The boy had other ideas and vowed to become an artist, much to his father’s dismay. Monet began his studies at the age of 10 in Le Havre, working first in charcoal. He drew caricatures, which he would sell to the locals for 10 or 20 francs apiece. About five years later, he befriended artist Eugène Boudin, who became his mentor and taught him oil painting. Boudin also encouraged him to paint en plein air [in the open air], or outside. “One day, Boudin said to me, ‘Learn to draw well and appreciate the sea, the light, the blue sky,’” Monet later said. “I took his advice.”
In 1861, he joined the cavalry in Algeria, intending to serve for seven years. Two years later, he contracted typhoid, and his aunt arranged for him to be discharged; he returned to France to study art, rejecting the traditional École des Beaux-Arts in favor of the private Académie Suisse. It was there that Monet met Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille; the four young artists became disillusioned with the meticulous detail that was fashionable in academic circles, and they began experimenting with a new style of landscape painting, producing rapid “sketches” using short, broken brushstrokes and trying to capture, above all, the fleeting quality of the light. Monet produced many paintings in the late 1860s, and although he hadn’t fully adopted the technique that he became known for, he did break from tradition by painting scenes from everyday, middle-class life. He received positive notice for his painting The Woman in the Green Dress in 1866; his model, Camille Doncieux, became his lover and, later, his wife.
His painting Impression, Sunrise, which he painted in 1872, was exhibited for the first time at an independent art show in 1874, and it was his first public showing of the sketch-like style he had been trying out. “I had sent a thing done in Le Havre, from my window, sun in the mist and a few masts of boats sticking up in the foreground,” he later wrote. “They asked me for a title for the catalog, it couldn’t really be taken for a view of Le Havre, and I said: ‘Put Impression.’” The painting and the show were poorly received by the critics, including Louis Leroy, who dubbed the style “Impressionism.” Leroy was being derogatory, and wrote, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” but Monet and his contemporaries adopted the name anyway. For his part, Monet felt he had finally come home. “I didn’t become an impressionist. As long as I can remember I have always been one.”
Camille died of tuberculosis in 1879, shortly after the birth of their second son. Monet painted a portrait of her on her deathbed, as a last tribute. He told his friend Georges Clemenceau: “Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment. To such an extent indeed that one day, finding myself at the deathbed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself in the act of focusing on her temples and automatically analyzing the succession of appropriately graded colors which death was imposing on her motionless face.” He grieved her loss deeply, for several months, but felt a renewed passion for his art, and moved with his children to the home of his patron, Ernest Hoshedé. The patronage fell apart when Hoshedé ran into financial difficulties, but Hoshedé’s wife Alice provided patronage of a different sort; they began an affair, she paid Monet’s debts with her dowry, and eventually moved with him to Giverny, where the artist bought a small farmhouse surrounded by an orchard. They eventually married after the death of her husband in 1892; the following year, Monet bought a strip of marshland across the road from his house, and found great pleasure in designing a water-garden. “I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting,” he wrote. He spent nearly 30 years in his gardens, planting and painting irises and tulips, wisteria and bamboo.
Later in his career, he became interested in painting the same subject at different times of day, and produced several series: water lilies, haystacks, poplars, the cathedral in Rouen, and the Houses of Parliament in London. As he grew older, he developed cataracts, which left him nearly blind and had a profound effect on his perception of colors. His tones became muddy and muted, and his paintings had a reddish or yellowish cast. He had to rely on the labels of his paint tubes to tell him what color they contained, but he was determined to carry on. In 1921, he told a journalist, “I will paint almost blind, as Beethoven composed completely deaf.” In a letter to a friend in 1922, he complained: “To think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey. All in all, I am very unhappy.” He finally agreed to have surgery performed on his right eye in 1923, but he was disappointed with the results and refused to have the procedure repeated on his left eye. He was never again able to use both eyes together effectively, and was only able to read and write with the aid of special glasses. He died of lung cancer in 1926; his home and gardens in Giverny are now the property of the French Academy of Fine Arts, and host visitors from all over the world.