Lying here in the tall grass
Where it’s so soft
Is this what it is to go home?
Into the earth
Of worms and black smells
With a larch tree gathering sunlight
In the spring afternoon
And the gates of Paradise open just enough
To let out
A flock of geese.
"Spring Follows Winter Once More" by Tom Hennen from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of writer John Updike (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). His father was a high school teacher, and his mother aspired to be a writer; Updike said: “One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk. I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in — and come back in.” As a boy, Updike wanted to be a cartoonist, not a writer. He cut out comic strips and sent fan letters to cartoonists, drew caricatures of classmates, made posters, and tried to draw cartoons like the ones he saw in his family’s copy of The New Yorker. As a teenager, he sent his cartoons to major magazines, including The New Yorker, and although he didn’t publish any there, he did earn five dollars selling a cartoon to a dairy journal. He went to Harvard, where he joined the staff of The Harvard Lampoon as a cartoonist, but ended up writing too. By graduation, he was fairly certain that he would become a writer instead of an artist. He said of writing: “It took fewer ideas, and I seemed to be better at it. There is less danger of smearing the ink.”
Despite his intentions to become a writer, he got an art scholarship to study at Oxford. He was newly married, and he and his wife moved to England, where their first daughter was born. While he was at Oxford, he met E.B. and Katherine White, who were vacationing in England. They convinced him to apply for a job at The New Yorker, so after his time at Oxford, he moved to Manhattan to work as a staff writer for the magazine, writing the “Talk of the Town” column. He was not a big fan of life in the city — he said, “The place proved to be other than the Fred Astaire movies had led me to expect.” Two years later, the Updikes had a second child and decided to leave New York and move to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Updike had just turned 25 years old.
Soon after his move, he published his first books: a book of poems, The Carpentered Hen (1958); a novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); and a book of short stories, The Same Door (1959). Another son was born in 1959, and a daughter 19 months later. Despite the success of those early years — in 1960 he published Rabbit, Run, the first of his great books featuring Rabbit Angstrom — he underwent a spiritual crisis. He said, These remembered gray moments, in which my spirit could scarcely breathe, are scattered over a period of years; to give myself brightness and air I read Karl Barth and fell in love with other men’s wives.”
After the birth of his third child, he had rented an office above a restaurant in Ipswich, and spent several hours each morning writing there. Throughout his 50-year career, he remained devoted to that schedule, writing about three pages every morning after breakfast, sometimes more if things were going well. He said: “Back when I started, our best writers spent long periods brooding in silence. Then they’d publish a big book and go quiet again for another five years. I decided to run a different kind of shop.” He wanted to publish about one book a year, and took Sundays off for church, although later in his career he sometimes worked on Sundays too. In 2008, he said, “I’ve become a beast of the written word, a monster of a kind, in that it’s all I can do.”
Updike published more than 60 books in his lifetime, including 28 novels. His books include Couples (1968), Rabbit is Rich (1981), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and The Complete Henry Bech (2001).
He said: “At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.”
It’s the birthday of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (books by this author), born in Paris (1842). He supported himself — and, once he married, his wife and family — by working as a schoolteacher, though he didn’t enjoy the work. He began publishing his poems in magazines in 1862, when he was 20 years old. He regularly hosted salons at his home, where writers met to discuss literature and philosophy. Regular attendees included W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Verlaine, and Paul Valéry.
It’s the birthday of poet Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). When he was young, his family was well-off, living in a house owned by his grandfather, a prominent citizen. But then his grandpa died, and it turned out that the old man was broke, and the family had to leave and move into working-class lodgings in an industrial town.
He started writing poems as a boy, and he was good at literature and science, but he didn’t do well enough on his exams to get a scholarship at a university. He enlisted to fight in World War I, and he became a lieutenant. In 1917, he was wounded, diagnosed with shell shock, and sent to a hospital to recuperate. There he met another soldier diagnosed with shell shock, Siegfried Sassoon, who was an established poet and mentored Owen. At the hospital, Owen wrote many of his most famous poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” He was one of the first poets to depict the horrifying realities of war, instead of writing glorified, nationalistic poems.
But the next year, he went back to fight, and he was killed in battle at the age of 25. Two years later, Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920) was published.
It’s the birthday of George Plimpton (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). He was the original editor-in-chief of the literary journal The Paris Review and remained there for 50 years. He was also a writer of what he called “participatory journalism,” immersing himself in whatever his subject may be — usually sports — and recounting his experiences from his viewpoint as an amateur insider. Hemingway read Plimpton’s 1961 baseball adventure Out of My League, and declared it “beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare.”
Plimpton died in 2003. In 2008, his ex-wife and his widow approved the publication of George, Being George, an oral biography whose lengthy subtitle reads George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, and Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers. His son, Taylor, reviewed the biography and called it “an invasive, gossipy, judgmental book” that, in spite of itself, portrays Plimpton in a favorable light.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the “Gardner Heist”: the largest art theft in United States history (1990). A pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers, complete with fake mustaches, broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum shortly after one o’clock in the morning. They took advantage of Boston’s preoccupation with St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and told the young guards that they were responding to a disturbance. They spent 81 minutes inside the museum and they made off with 13 works of art: paintings and drawings by Vermeer, Manet, Degas, and Rembrandt — including the only known Rembrandt seascape in existence. The thieves manhandled the paintings, sometimes even carelessly ripping them out of their frames. The paintings have never been recovered, and the loss to the museum is estimated at more than $300 million USD. The statute of limitations for prosecution has now passed, though, and the museum hopes that the thieves will step forward and return the art.