Friday Nov. 3, 2017

0:00/ 0:00

A November Sunrise

Wild geese are flocking and calling in pure golden air,
Glory like that which painters long ago
Spread as a background for some little hermit
Beside his cave, giving his cloak away,
Or for some martyr stretching out
On her expected rack.
A few black cedars grow nearby
And there’s a donkey grazing.

Small craftsmen, steeped in anonymity like bees,
Gilded their wooden panels, leaving fame to chance,
Like the maker of this wing-flooded golden sky,
Who forgives all our ignorance
Both of his nature and of his very name,
Freely accepting our one heedless glance.

"A November Sunrise" by Anne Porter, from Living Things. © Steerforth Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet, publisher, and lawyer William Cullen Bryant (books by this author), born in Cummington, Massachusetts (1794). Many of his early poems, including "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl," were among his best known and written before he was 30 years old. He then had a happy life as a lawyer and newspaper editor in New York City.

It's the birthday of novelist, orator, and social reformer Ignatius Donnelly (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1831). He served in congress and published Atlantis in 1882, which traced the origins of human civilization to the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis. He went on to publish two more novels, and two books, The Great Cryptogram and The Cipher in the Plays and on the Tombstone (1888 &1899), which attempted to prove that Francis Bacon had written the works of Shakespeare.

It's the birthday of Martin Cruz Smith (books by this author) born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1942). He is the author of the Arkady Renko series of detective novels, including Gorky Park, and other works such as Stallion Gate, about the first atom bomb. He also wrote the novel Rose. His latest book is The Girl from Venice (2016).

Today is the birthday of Walker Evans, the American photographer most well known for his work documenting poverty in during the Great Depression. Evans was born in 1903 in Missouri and had a wealthy upbringing. He studied French at Williams College for one year and dropped out, went to France, came back, and became friends with writers John Cheever and Hart Crane. He would later go on to work alongside writers and said that one of his goals was to take “literate” pictures.

Walker Evans got his start taking pictures for ad campaigns for FDR’s New Deal Programs. He photographed the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia for the Resettlement Administration, which helped relocate struggling families to government-planned communities. The RA was later folded into the Farm Security Administration, and Evans worked for their campaign in the South. Unlike Dorothea Lange — whose photograph “Migrant Mother” is the most iconic image of the Dust Bowl — Evans avoided more emotionally evocative portraits, and preferred to photograph his subjects looking right into the camera. One critic wrote of his work: “The images, unveiled by sentimentality, are possessed by the photographer’s puritanical objectivity mixed with an edge of pessimism.”

In 1936, he and James Agee went to Hale County, Alabama, on a Fortune magazine assignment that was never published. But Agee’s writing about the area and the photographs Evans took were published in the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book told the stories of three tenant families as recounted by Agee, and it included 64 pages of Evans’ photos. The New York Public Library recognized it as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Evans said that the project was a success because of James Agee’s ability to connect with his subjects. He said: “[P]art of a photographer’s gift should be with people. You can do some wonderful work if you know how to make people understand what you’re doing and feel all right about it, and you can do terrible work if you put them on the defense, which they all are at the beginning. You’ve got to take them off their defensive attitude and make them participate.”

He objected to being seen as a political photographer and said that he was only ever driven to make interesting art. In an interview toward the end of his life, he said: “[A]lmost all good artists are being worked through with forces that they’re not quite aware of. They are transmitters of sensitivities that they’re not aware of having, of forces that are in the air at the time. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m surprised at now which show a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have or knew I had. I can now learn something from my own pictures.”

Today is the birthday of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879) (books by this author), the Canadian-born American explorer and ethnologist who spent years exploring vast tracts of the Arctic. Stefansson spent a year living with the Inuit (1906–07), coming to the conclusion that Europeans could easily “live off the land” of the Arctic if they adopted Inuit ways. About life in the Arctic, he wrote, “It is chiefly our unwillingness to change our minds which prevents the North from changing into a country to be used and lived in just like the rest of the world.”

He was born William Stephenson in Manitoba, Canada, to Icelandic immigrants. The family moved to North Dakota in 1880 after losing two children in a devastating flood that drowned cattle and submerged haystacks. He spent his early career as a cowboy, insurance agent, and schoolteacher before lighting out to live a life of dog sleds and adventure.

He discovered new lands like Brock, Mackenzie King, Borden, the Lougheed Islands, and the edge of the continental shelf, but he was also rather cavalier about supplies and planning. Many of the trips he coordinated ended with sinking ships and the deaths of his fellow explorers, like his Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1916, in which he traveled the Parry Archipelago. He enlisted three ships: the Karluk, the Mary Sachs, and the Alaska, but when the Karluk became trapped in the Arctic ice, Stefansson deserted 22 men and two children who were aboard. He simply walked away. Eleven of the men died before a rescue party could arrive.

A colleague said of Stefansson, “Stefansson is the outstanding humbug in the exploration world at the present time — a persistent, perennial, and congenital liar who for years has made his living by sheer mendacity and skill in handling words.”

In 1921, Stefansson financed and planned a trip that would forever taint his legacy. An expedition was set across the Chukchi Sea to Russia’s Wrangel Island, 85 miles off the coast of Siberia. The expedition wasn’t led by Stefansson, but by a Canadian named Allen Crawford. One of the participants was an Iñupiat woman named Delatuk, also known as Ada Blackjack.

There were five people in the team, including Blackjack. Their goal was to claim Wrangel Island for Canada or Great Britain. Blackjack was hired as a cook and seamstress. They lived first in a tent and then a snowhouse. The men killed more than 30 seals and 10 polar bears as well as geese and ducks, so food seemed plentiful, but rations ran out quickly. The team couldn’t kill enough game to survive on the island. Three of the men tried to make it across the 700-mile, freezing Chukchi Sea to Siberia for help and food. Blackjack cared for the remaining explorer, but he died of scurvy. The men were never seen again, and Ada lived alone on the island for two years with Vic, the expedition’s mascot cat.

She was rescued in 1923. Newspapers called her a “female Robinson Crusoe,” and she was invited to give talks and travel, telling her story. Ada used the money she saved to move to Seattle to cure her son’s tuberculosis. Eventually, she returned to the Arctic where she lived until the age of 85. She died in 1983. One of her sons said: “I consider my mother, Ada Blackjack, to be one of the most loving mothers in this world and one of the greatest heroines in the history of Arctic exploration. She survived against all odds. It’s a wonderful story that should not be lost of her self-discovery and cultural re-awakening. And it’s a story of a mother fighting to survive to live so she could carry on with her son Bennett and help him fight the illness that was consuming him. She succeeded, and I was born later. Her story of survival in the Arctic will be a great chapter in the history of the Arctic and Alaska.” When his mother died, he had a plaque mounted on her grave stating simply: “The heroine of Wrangel Island.”

Vilhjalmur Stefansson once said, “If you predict something six months ahead of your time you are a man of vision, but if you are six years ahead of your time, you are a visionary.”

His books include, My Life with the Eskimo (1913), The Friendly Arctic (1921), Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic (1939), and Discovery (completed just prior to his death in 1962 and published in 1964).

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