Friday Apr. 24, 2015

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From the Garden

Come, my beloved,
consider the lilies.
We are of little faith.
We talk too much.
Put your mouthful of words away
and come with me to watch
the lilies open in such a field,
growing there like yachts,
slowly steering their petals
without nurses or clocks.
Let us consider the view:
a house where white clouds
decorate the muddy halls.
Oh, put away your good words
and your bad words. Spit out
your words like stones!
Come here! Come here!
Come eat my pleasant fruits.

“From the Garden” by Anne Sexton from The Complete Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1800 that Congress established its own legislative library: the Library of Congress. As part of a legislative measure to move the government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved spending $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress [...] and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.”

Congress ordered 740 books and three maps from London, and in just over a decade, the library had more than 3,000 items. During the War of 1812, the British attacked the Capitol and burned everything to the ground, including all the contents of the library. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote from his home in Virginia: “I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited.” As a replacement, he offered to sell his personal library, which was considered the best in the country. Not everyone in Congress thought it was a good idea — Jefferson’s tastes were eclectic, and some legislators thought it was unnecessary to have books on art and science, or in foreign languages. Jefferson replied: “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” In the end, they paid him $23,950 for 6,487 books.

Beginning in 1870, copyright law required that the Library of Congress receive copies of all new materials. After that, the library quickly outgrew its space at the Capitol, and in 1873 the government announced a contest to design plans for a new space. The resulting library, built in Italian Renaissance style, is now called the Thomas Jefferson building. The Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, declared it “the book palace of the American people,” and it was called “the largest, the costliest, and the safest” library in the world. Today, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelves, and 150 million items, including more than 35 million books.

It’s the 200th birthday of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London in 1815. His father, Thomas, was a hot-tempered barrister who had trouble keeping a job, and the family frequently had money troubles as a result. Anthony went to a prestigious public school, but it was readily apparent that, unlike most of his classmates, he wasn’t rich, and he was bullied by students and teachers alike.

As a young man, he got a job as a postal clerk, but earned a reputation for insubordination and tardiness. He resolved to turn his life around when he was offered a transfer to Ireland in 1841, and his fortunes did indeed change: the cost of living was lower there, so he was able to enjoy a sense of prosperity, traveling more and taking up fox hunting, which he loved. His job took him all over the country, and he enjoyed the working-class Irish people, finding them more clever and hospitable than their English counterparts. And he began writing novels on his long train rides, occasionally raiding the “lost letter” box for ideas. In 1859, he transferred back to England, wanting to be within easy reach of London now that he was an established author. He remained with the Post Office for 33 years, rising to a fairly senior position, and he is credited with developing the pillar-style post box, which has since become a British classic.

He was most disciplined as a writer, getting up at 5:30 every day to write for three hours before he went to the office, and wrote in his autobiography: “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.” Trollope wrote 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few travel books. He created the fictional county of Bartsetshire, and set several novels there. His most famous book, The Way We Live Now (1875), is a scathing 100-chapter satire of English greed. He was, and remains, one of England’s most popular authors.

He said: “The habit of reading is the only one I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (books by this author), born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). Growing up, he had no interest in writing or literature. He wanted to become a naval officer, but his plans came to an abrupt end as a teenager when his brother accidentally hit him in the eye with a rock and he lost his sight in one eye. He felt ashamed, ugly, and angry — not with his brother, but at life in general. He had been admitted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, but now he couldn’t go. He enrolled at Vanderbilt, intending to study chemical engineering. Instead, he fell in love with writing. He said, “I found the English courses so much more interesting [...] chemistry was taught without imagination.”

Warren was particularly charmed by one professor, John Crowe Ransom, whom he described as “a real, live poet, in pants and vest, who had published a book and also fought in the war.” Ransom encouraged Warren to join the Fugitives, an informal group of professors and students who got together to discuss philosophy and literature. Warren said that it was this group, more than anything, that provided his education.

Warren went on to write fiction, poetry, and criticism. He is the only person to have received Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry (for which he won it twice), and he served in the position that is now called the poet laureate. His books include Understanding Poetry (1938), At Heaven’s Gate (1943), All the King’s Men (1947), Promises (1957), and Now and Then (1978).

It’s the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). Grafton went to college at the University of Louisville. She thought about becoming a lawyer, but her father was an attorney, and he told her not to go to law school — that it was too boring. She was married at age 18, divorced, and married again a few years later. She started her career by writing screenplays, until her agent told her that she was good at writing character but not at plot. So she decided to focus all her energy on writing plots, and mystery novels seemed like a good outlet for that.

One day, she was reading through Edward Gorey’s illustrated book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, about children dying in bizarre ways. It begins: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.” Grafton decided that this was her hook, and in 1982 she published “A” is for Alibi. She followed it up with “B” is for Burglar (1985), “C” is for Corpse (1986), “D” is for Deadbeat (1987), and on down the line. The star of her novels is a tough-talking private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, who loves fast food, always carries a gun, and distrusts intimate relationships. Grafton said: “I am Kinsey Millhone. But she is my unlived life. I got married for the first time when I was 18 [...] so, she is the adventures I’ve never had.” Her most recent Kinsey Millhone mystery is “W” is for Wasted (2013).

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