Friday Apr. 3, 2015

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The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.
                                      They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.

We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

“The Blue Bowl” by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise. © Graywolf Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American author, statesman, and short-story writer Washington Irving (books by this author), born in 1783 in New York City. That same week, the British cease-fire was brokered and the American Revolution ended, and William and Sarah Irving named their youngest child in honor of its most famous general, George Washington. Young Washington was somewhat sickly as a child, and was pampered and petted by his older siblings; as a schoolboy, he often snuck out of evening classes to attend the theater. He eventually became a lawyer, although he barely passed the Bar, and when his health continued to be poor, his family sent him on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1804, where he skipped the usual tourist destinations, but nevertheless made many friends and cultivated a lifelong love of travel.

He began publishing commentary and theater reviews at the age of 19, under the name Jonathan Oldstyle. His earliest major writings were satires, and he wrote under assorted humorous pen names, like William Wizard, Launcelot Langstaff, and Geoffrey Crayon. He concocted an elaborate prank in 1809: He posted several "missing person" notices in New York newspapers, searching for information on the whereabouts of historian Dietrich Knickerbocker (another Irving pen name). Once people's curiosity and concern were piqued, he then published a notice by Knickerbocker's fictional landlord, saying that if the missing man didn't show up to pay his rent, the landlord would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind and keep the proceeds. The manuscript, written by Irving, was called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, and was a satire on self-important historical and political writing. The public ate it up, and the book was followed by collections of short stories and essays, including The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819), which contained his two most famous stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Crayon was his most often-used persona, although he did write under his own name from time to time — chiefly nonfiction, such as biographies of Columbus, Mohammed, Oliver Goldsmith, and George Washington.

Washington Irving wrote a collection of "sketches" called "Old Christmas," which revived many old English Christmas traditions and restored the holiday's prominence in America. Charles Dickens credits Irving for much of the holiday's portrayal in A Christmas Carol, and Santa's flying sleigh traces back to a dream sequence in Irving's A History of New-York, in which Saint Nicholas arrives in a flying wagon.

And Irving is also responsible for that misconception, which is still found in history textbooks, that prior to Columbus's discovery of America, Europeans thought the world was flat. In reality, belief in a flat Earth had gone out of favor in the 1300s and the argument among scientists in 1492 was the size, rather than the shape, of the world. In his biography of Columbus, Irving wrote: "Such were the unlooked for prejudices which Columbus had to encounter at the very outset of his conference, and which certainly relish more of the convent than the university. To his simplest proposition, the spherical form of the earth, were opposed figurative texts of Scripture." The problem is that Galileo, not Columbus, was the man who argued with the church on this point.

Irving was the first American author to gain acclaim and respect in Europe, and during his lifetime his home in Tarrytown, New York, known as "Sunnyside," was the most famous residence in America after George Washington's Mount Vernon. His legacy is much more a part of American life than most of us are aware of: He's the one who first used the phrase "the almighty dollar," and he coined one of New York's most enduring nicknames, "Gotham," which is Anglo-Saxon for "Goat Town," and which comes from a town called Gotham in Lincolnshire, England, which was famous for tales of its stupid residents. The residents of New Goat Town are sometimes known as "Knickerbockers," after one of his pseudonyms, and that's also where the New York Knicks basketball team got its name.

The Pony Express began mail delivery on this date in 1860. The first mail pouch contained 49 letters, five telegrams, and a variety of papers. A rider would switch to a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles; each rider rode a leg of 75 to 100 miles. Seventy-five horses were needed to make a one-way trip between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, a distance of 1,800 miles. At an average speed of 10 miles an hour, the Pony Express could cover the distance in 10 days.

The Pony Express, as it came to be known, had only been in operation for about 10 weeks when Congress authorized construction of a telegraph line to stretch between the Missouri River and the California coast. Once the telegraph connection was completed, the Pony Express became obsolete, and it folded in October 1861.

It's the birthday of San Francisco columnist Herb Caen (books by this author), born in Sacramento (1916) whose column in the San Francisco Chronicle began in 1938, when he was 22, the year after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. He continued writing 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for almost 60 years — it was the longest-running column in American history. He coined the term "beatnik" in 1958, and he made the word "hippie" popular in the 1960s. He said: "I'm going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to Heaven. I'll look around and say, 'It's not bad, but it ain't San Francisco.'"

It's the birthday of a writer whose children's books have sold more than 20 million copies, Sandra Keith Boynton (books by this author), born to Quaker parents in Orange, New Jersey (1953), one of whom was an English teacher. She went to Yale where she majored in English. She became a designer of humorous greeting cards. It was she who designed a Happy Birthday card with a hippopotamus, a bird, and two sheep on it that said: "Hippo Birdie Two Ewes" which sold 10 million copies.

Her children's books include Hippos Go Berserk, Chocolate: The Consuming Passion and Philadelphia Chickens (2002).

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