Saturday Jan. 24, 2015

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Open the Blind

Nests in the eaves stir in the dawn
Ephemeral as our peace
Morning prayer
Grace before food
I understand
The endless sky the small earth
The shadow cone
Your shining
Lips and eyes
Your thighs drenched with the sea
A telescope full of fireflies
Innumerable nebulae all departing
Ten billion years before we ever met

“Open the Blind” by Kenneth Rexroth, from Sacramental Acts. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission of the author.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1848 that the California Gold Rush began. The carpenter and wheelwright James Marshall was leading a crew to build a saw mill for a man named John Sutter, who owned nearly 50,000 acres along the American River and wanted to start a logging operation there. It was a cold, clear morning. The night before, Marshall had diverted the river so he could put in the sawmill, and on this morning, he found gold flecks where the water had been. John Sutter asked the workers to keep their discovery a secret so that he could continue with his sawmill — but the story came out in the March 15th issue of The Californian out of San Francisco. And on August 19th, The New York Herald reported that there was gold in California. And gold prospectors headed for California. The population of the state was about 150,000 Indians and about 14,000 non-Indians. Twelve years later, more than 300,000 people had migrated to California, and fewer than 30,000 Indians remained.

Mark Twain headed to California in 1861 and spent some time prospecting in Angels’ Camp, trying to make his fortune, but he didn’t find anything in the way of gold. He did, however, hear a man tell a story about a frog and how they filled him with buckshot so he couldn’t jump, and so he lost his owner a bet. That story became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the story that made Mark Twain famous.

It’s the birthday of novelist Vicki Baum (books by this author), born in Vienna (1888). She’s best known for her novel Menschen im Hotel (1929, Grand Hotel), about a random group of people who stay in a fancy hotel in Berlin for a weekend. The characters include a stenographer, an aging ballet dancer, a dying man, and a thieving baron. The story goes that Vicki Baum got a six-week job as a chambermaid at a Berlin hotel in order to do research for her novel. Grand Hotel was adapted into a play in Germany and the United States, and made into a movie starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.

Vicki Baum said, “I felt and still feel that a writer should always have some profession which brings him into close contact with the realities of life.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She grew up in a rich, socially prominent family with old money — the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to be a reference to them. When one of her aunts asked young Edith what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “The best-dressed woman in New York.” In a family of beautiful women, she was not a beautiful girl, often teased about her big feet and hands, and her red hair. Her parents — especially her mother — strongly disapproved of her storytelling and writing. She said: “I was never free from the oppressive sense that I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please — God & my mother [...] and my mother was the most inscrutable of the two.” Her parents refused to give her writing paper, so she had to steal pieces of brown wrapping paper for her stories. She wrote her first novella at age 14, but her mother had only critical feedback; Wharton said, “This was so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction.”

It was many years before she returned to fiction. In the meantime, she was married, finally, at the age of 23 — her mother had brought her into society and had been trying to find her a husband since she was 17. Her husband, Teddy Wharton, was a friend of her brother’s, and they were a terrible match. Teddy Wharton was pleasant but completely uninterested in the intellectual world that his wife craved; and as their marriage progressed, he descended into mental illness. She had a stretch of difficult years, feeling constantly nauseated and exhausted.

During these years, she continued to write poetry and short stories, and published here and there. Despite her unsatisfying marriage, she enjoyed being in charge of her own home. In 1897, she published her first book, The Decoration of Houses, which she co-wrote with an architect friend. They disliked the opulent excess and trinkets of Victorian decorating, and instead suggested a return to more classical proportions and style. She wrote: “The vulgarity of current decoration has its source in the indifference of the wealthy to architectural fitness.”

In 1902, the Whartons built a 35-room mansion called The Mount in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Edith and Teddy each had a bedroom — his was smaller, as was his den — and it was in her bedroom that Edith did most of her writing. She would wake up early in the morning and write by hand in bed, dropping the pages on the floor as she completed them. Sometimes she had coffee and rolls while she wrote. By late morning, she would turn her attention to seeing to the grounds and attending to her guests. Her secretary would take the pages and type them up, and then Wharton would make changes and have them retyped; the process repeated until she was satisfied. At The Mount, she wrote her first major novel, The House of Mirth (1905), which was a best-seller and made Wharton famous. She wrote to her lover, Morton Fullerton, about her work on the house and property of The Mount: “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

By the end of her life, Wharton’s popularity had faded, but she was earning a huge amount for her work; in the year 1936, when a good salary was about $2,000, Wharton earned $130,000 from her writing. Her books include Ethan Frome (1911), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Gods Arrive (1937).

She wrote: “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; [...] and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

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