There is so very little we can do,
Friends, for these beautiful children of ours,
They will come to grief and suffer and you
And I bow to darkness and evil powers.
The gentle boy who wrote poems goes
For a walk in January and does not return.
His mother and father search the woods. The snow
Is deep. All night their hearts burn
For him. He is found, hanging from a limb,
And the father carries the body of his son
Into the yard and tenderly lays him
On the step. Stephen, O darling one,
See how your parents’ hearts break for you.
There is so very little we can do.
“The Lost Son” by Gary Johnson. Reprinted with the permission of the poet.
Today is the 60th birthday of author Michael Pollan (books by this author), born on Long Island, New York (1955). He’s the author of several books on food and the food industry, notably The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), which The New York Times named one of the 10 best books of the year. His most recent book is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013), and last year, he wrote the introduction to Pollan Family Table (2014), a cookbook written by his mother and sisters.
Pollan first became interested in the subject of food through his interest in gardening. “I got interested in gardens,” he says, “because I was interested in nature and wilderness and Thoreau and Emerson. I brought all their intellectual baggage to my garden here in New England and found that it didn’t work out very well, because ultimately Thoreau and Emerson’s love for nature was confined to the wild. They didn’t conceive of a role for us in nature other than as admirer and spectator ... which is a problem when a woodchuck eats all your seedlings.”
Pollan is a big advocate of the family meal. Convenience foods and fast food found their way into the American diet in a big way in the 20th century: first, during World War II, with new technology that processed food and made it more shelf-stable; and then later, when women began entering the work force in greater numbers, but were still solely responsible for putting meals on the table. Pollan argues that today’s working couples need to figure out ways to divide household duties in such a way that makes having home-cooked, family dinners possible. “[T]here’s something magical that happens when people eat from the same pot,” Pollan says. “The family meal is really the nursery of democracy. It’s where we learn to share; it’s where we learn to argue without offending. It’s just too critical to let go, as we’ve been so blithely doing.”
It’s the birthday of British paleoanthropologist Mary Douglas Leakey (books by this author), born Mary Douglas Nicol in London (1913). Her father was an artist, and she spent her childhood traveling with her parents as he searched for new landscapes to paint. Nicol also took on his daughter’s education — reading, math, and natural science — and encouraged her interest in archaeology. Mary demonstrated a precocious gift for drawing, even at a very young age. Rather than following her father’s career path, however, she used her talent to break into the field of archaeology — literally. She was hired as an illustrator on a dig site in England when she was 17.
Her drawing skills eventually led to a job illustrating a book called Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The book’s author was an archaeologist and anthropologist named Louis Leakey. The two married in 1937, forming a personal — as well as professional — partnership. Soon after their marriage, they moved to Tanzania, where Louis was scheduled to begin work on the Olduvai Gorge. Mary Leakey worked in East Africa for most of the rest of her life. She was particularly interested in primitive art and artifacts, but she had a real knack for finding fossils. She led the digs that resulted in two of the most important hominid discoveries in Africa: Australopithecus boisei and homo habilis.
Louis Leakey died in 1972, but Mary continued their work without him for over two more decades: excavating and cataloging, but also lecturing and fundraising. She published two books after her husband’s death: Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979); and her autobiography, Disclosing the Past (1984). She retired to Nairobi in 1983, and died in 1996.
It was on this day in 1937 that John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men was published (books by this author). Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s fifth novel (he had also published an excerpt from a novel and a book of short stories). His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was a total flop — it didn’t even earn back the $250 that Steinbeck received as an advance. That year, he wrote to a friend: “The book was an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting all the wise cracks (known by sophomores as epigrams) and all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system. [...] I think I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won’t be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above the average.”
He began work on Of Mice and Men in 1935. He and his wife, Carol, were living in his family’s three-room vacation cottage near Monterey Bay. It wasn’t meant for year-round living, but Steinbeck built a fireplace and closed off the porch, and they made do. Carol worked as a secretary, and Steinbeck’s parents gave him an allowance of $25 a month. Steinbeck’s new book was titled Something That Happened, but then he read the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, and was struck by the lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” So he retitled his work Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wanted to write in a new style, more like a play than a novel. He considered his audience for the story to be poor working-class people, and he thought they would be more likely to see a play than read a book.
Steinbeck had worked in California as a farm laborer, and he wanted to write about the terrible conditions he witnessed. Of Mice and Men tells the story of two laborers who are best friends: Lennie, who is big and strong with limited mental capabilities, and George, who is small and smart and looks out for Lennie. The story ends tragically after Lennie, unaware of his own strength, kills a woman. Steinbeck based the character of Lennie on a real farm laborer he knew, who killed a ranch foreman with a pitchfork after one of his friends was fired. Steinbeck made sure that the novel was tightly plotted and heavy on dialogue, ready to be adapted to the stage.
Steinbeck wrote in the spring of 1936: “My new work is really going and that makes me very happy — kind of an excitement like that you get near a dynamo from breathing pure oxygen [...] This work is going quickly and should get done quickly. I’m using a new set of techniques as far as I know but I am so illy read that it may have been done. Not that that matters at all.” Then his new puppy, Toby, chewed up half of the manuscript. Steinbeck was furious, but a couple of days later, he was able to write to a friend: “Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog on a ms. I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter.”
He was forced to start over, but work went quickly again, and he managed to get the work to his publisher a few months later. When Of Mice and Men was published, it had already been chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and got great reviews. The famous playwright and director George S. Kaufman offered to produce it as a play, and Steinbeck spent a week at Kaufman’s Pennsylvania estate, where the two men worked on adapting the work for the stage. About 85 percent of the novel’s original dialogue ended up in the final play. After his week with Kaufman, Steinbeck left the East Coast. When a reporter asked him if he would stick around, he replied: “Hell no. I’ve got work to do out in California.” He refused to come back either for rehearsals or to see the final product. He did ask his publisher to call and give him a full report on the play’s opening night, but he had to go to a friend’s house to use the telephone since he didn’t have one of his own. The play was a huge hit.
It’s the birthday of lexicographer Eric Partridge (books by this author), born on a farm near Gisborne, New Zealand (1894). He was a good student, and he started teaching school at the age of 16. He fought in World War I, finished college, and went to graduate school at Oxford. He became a professor, and taught in England for a few years. Then he founded a publishing house. After all that, he said, “Finally I did what I should have done long before: became a professional writer, mostly on the subject of English — usage, composition, grammar; slang and cant; clichés, jargon, punctuation, etc.”
As a professional writer, he went to the same desk in the British Library every single day for about 50 years, and there he wrote books like A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), and You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and its Allies (1978). Some scholars disliked Partridge because he himself wasn’t all that scholarly — he preferred to make his books readable, even when he was writing about the language of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift.
He said, “Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them.”
And it’s the birthday of television journalist Tom Brokaw (books by this author), who anchored the NBC Nightly News for more than two decades — from 1982 to 2004 — born in Webster, South Dakota (1940).
He wrote a book called The Greatest Generation (1998) — a term that he coined — about the men and women who “came of age in the Great Depression,” served in World War II, and laid the foundation to rebuild the economy.