Friday Oct. 13, 2017

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Summer of Lemons

It was the summer of lemons
being replaced by oranges. Lemons,
they said, had lost something
that lemons sometimes lose. Painters
piled Navels and Valencias, mixed red
into yellow for Still Life with Oranges;
the wooden bowl beautiful with lonely
cracks, organic with time and handling.
Evening, men and women squeezed
wedges from the larger fruit, a squall
over flounder. Mothers whisked sweeter
juice into oil, sherry vinegar, crush
of garlic. Seaside, we sprayed oysters
then peppered as usual. In the absence
of lemons, there was a thirsting to taste
water kindled with novelty, set ablaze by
unplumbed citrus. Slices like thin suns
were cut to fit the rim line, to spin
the circumference of goblets and jam
jars. It was then, drinking
what was more July than June,
that we returned to each other.

“Summer of Lemons” by Marjorie Thomsen from Pretty Things Please. © Turning Point Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father was a Lutheran preacher, and the family moved from one coal-mining town to another. Richter said: "My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these."

Richter's wife, Harvena, was not in the best of health, and in 1928 the Richters uprooted and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the drier air would help her. There, Richter was charmed by stories of pioneer life in the Southwest and its land and folklore. He started writing longer fiction, and published his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), a story of cowboys and farmers in New Mexico at the turn of the century.

A neighbor in New Mexico, a longtime resident of Ohio, was fascinated by history, and the two men spent a lot of time talking about Ohio's pioneer days. One day, his neighbor brought Richter a couple of books. Richter said later: "They were heavy, well used, more than 1900 pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me so I asked him if he would trade these two volumes for two of my own." These stories inspired him to write a trilogy of novels set in Ohio, The Awakening Land trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The books tell the story of Sayward Luckett, a young woman whose family strikes out for the wilderness of Ohio from Pennsylvania. When The Trees begins, Sayward is a 15-year-old girl who takes on the responsibility of her younger siblings after her mother dies; by the end of The Town, she is a wife and mother of seven children.

Richter never achieved the level of popular success he desired. After the disappointing sales figures of The Trees, his friend and editor Alfred A. Knopf offered an explanation: "I think you must reckon the archaic language which you deliberately adopted a commercial handicap. I don't question its artistic advisability mind you, but I think you must reckon on the sacrifice involved. I think also that The Trees suffered rather from lack of action and story, and gave the reader not enough narrative to bite into and something of the impression of being an overture rather than the main show." Also, Richter's brand of slow-moving historical fiction had some tough competition from more relevant contemporary novels — the best-sellers of the year 1940 included For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Richter, always anxious about money, was disappointed over and over again by the sales of his novels. These days, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) is probably his most read book, because it is required reading in many middle or high schools.

In The Trees, Richter wrote: "Everywhere she went the trees stood around her like a great herd of dark beasts. Up and up shot the heavy butts of the live ones. Down and down every which way on the forest floor lay the thick rotting butts of the dead ones. Alive or dead, they were mostly grown over with moss. The light that came down here was dim and green. All day even in the cabin you lived in a green light."

It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud "Arna" Wendell Bontemps (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother's death when he was 12, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.

His second novel Black Thunder (1936) was about an actual slave uprising, and many people consider it his masterpiece. After Bontemps's third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African-American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African-American literature, editing such books as The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.

On this day in 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda held the first-known conversation in modern Hebrew. Hebrew had not been spoken in a mother tongue since the second century CE. It had endured for more than a millennium until 135 CE and was then only used in literature or prayer.

Ben-Yehuda (born 1858) grew up in Belarus, in the former Russian Empire. He began learning ancient Hebrew at three in a cheder, a yeshiva for young children. As an adult, he became convinced that reviving the Hebrew language in Israel would bring Jews around the world together. He said, "The Hebrew language can only live if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland," and he made the decision to move to Palestine.
Ben-Yehuda raised his son to speak only Hebrew. When friends visited, he banished his son to his room so he would not hear another language. He even reprimanded his wife for singing Russian lullabies to his son. His son became the first native speaker of modern Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda planned to reintroduce Hebrew in three ways: through "Hebrew in the School," "Hebrew in the Home," and "Words, Words, Words." He compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary and coined new Hebrew words for doll, bicycle, ice cream, jelly, and omelet. Originally, his dictionary was just a way for him to translate words for himself. He wrote them on the back of a small notebook he used for his grocery shopping. Eventually, this list of words grew to be the 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.

He said, "The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and … become a living language."

It was in Paris that Ben-Yehuda met a Jew from Jerusalem and who agreed to speak Hebrew with him. On October 13, 1881, Ben-Yehuda and his friends made the agreement to speak exclusively in Hebrew.

It is said of Ben-Yehuda that, "Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did."

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