On the island where I was a child
nearly everyone was retired, their fortunes
already made. Death was around them
the way water was around our streets.
They taught me how to go fishing
without catching fish; the tide’s breath
was marked in notebooks they kept
beneath their pillows. One old lady
fed me chocolates from a tin
until my teeth were stained by greed.
The old do things slowly so I grew used
to grocery store lines
that did not move, cars that stopped
in the middle of the road. One man spent
a whole day helping me bury a squirrel;
we wrote odes and dirges
to the way it once hurried and planned.
“Retired” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It's the birthday of poet Paul Muldoon (books by this author), born in Portadown, Northern Ireland (1951). He said of his childhood: "The place was County Armagh, about halfway across northern Ireland, an apple growing district where some of the people who had been planted there in the Elizabethan era had come from Warwickshire and brought with them their apple plants, but also much of the language, which William Shakespeare was using and which was fossilized where I was brought up."
He published his first book, New Weather (1973), when he was 21 years old, and he has published more than 30 collections since then.
It's the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (books by this author), born on this day in Cleveland (1858). His parents were free mixed-race Southerners who left Fayetteville, North Carolina, for Ohio. One of his grandfathers had been a slaveholder, and Chesnutt looked white, but he always identified as black. His family moved back to Fayetteville when Charles was eight, and the boy went to a Freedmen's Bureau school for the children of freed slaves. He became a teacher, and then principal of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, which trained black teachers.
In 1880, when he was 22 years old, he wrote in his journal: "I think I must write a book. I am almost afraid to undertake a book so early and with so little experience in composition. But it has been a cherished dream, and I feel an influence that I cannot resist calling me to the task."
It took Chesnutt a few years to get there. He was an established and respected citizen in Fayetteville, but in 1883 he decided that he didn't have much of a future as a black writer in the hostile post-Civil War South. So he moved back to Cleveland with his wife and children. He passed the state bar exams and set up a stenography business, and in his spare time he wrote stories. In 1887, he published his first short story, "The Goophered Grapevine," in The Atlantic Monthly. He was the first black fiction writer to be published in The Atlantic — although the magazine assumed that he was white until he informed them several years, and many stories, later.
In 1891, Chesnutt sent a manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, who wrote back: "A writer must have acquired a good deal of vogue through magazine publication before the issue of a collection of his stories in book form is advisable." Apparently he had not acquired enough vogue, because his manuscript was rejected. He continued to publish stories, and in 1899 Houghton Mifflin finally released his first book, The Conjure Woman. Most of the Conjure Woman stories described clever slaves outwitting their cruel masters, and they were written in dialect, filled with supernatural events. The Conjure Woman was incredibly successful, and Chesnutt was welcomed as a major new voice in American fiction.
Chesnutt was trying to write a critique of racism, but it was easy to lose sight of that in the stories. William Dean Howells, one of his champions, wrote about The Conjure Woman: "As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins. In either case, the wonder of their beauty is the same; and whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader's heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in these enchanting tales."
Chesnutt switched gears for his next book, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), realistic stories of life in Ohio and North Carolina, featuring middle-class, light-skinned, mixed-race characters. The Wife of His Youth was also a big seller, and Chesnutt decided to quit his stenography business and become a full-time writer.
Chesnutt followed up these collections with three novels: The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel's Dream (1905). They sold poorly — readers considered them too angry and radical. So just six years after publishing his first book, Chesnutt's literary career was finished. He went back to his stenography business, worked as an activist, and published an occasional essay or short story.
It's the birthday of Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905). When she was 20, she married a writer and moved with him to Hollywood. She published a few stories in the magazine her husband edited. Then she read a Scottish book called Bad Companions (1930) by William Roughead. It contained a chapter about a court case in Edinburgh where a young girl accused her female teachers of having an affair, on no basis whatsoever. Hellman decided that the premise would make a good play. She said: "Anyone young ordinarily writes autobiographically. Yet I picked on a story that I could treat with complete impersonality. I hadn't even been to boarding school." She had a new lover, the detective writer Dashiell Hammett, whom she had met at a Hollywood restaurant, and he encouraged her to try her hand at writing drama. So at the age of 26 she wrote her first play, The Children's Hour, which debuted when she was 29. It is the story of two teachers, Karen and Martha, who teach at an elite all-girls New England boarding school. A malicious student spreads a rumor that Karen and Martha are lesbian lovers, and their lives fall apart. Parents pull their students out of school, Karen breaks up with her fiancé out of fear that she has damaged his reputation, and Martha commits suicide. The Children's Hour was a sensation. It was so controversial that it was banned in several cities, including Chicago, London, and Boston. But it opened to rave reviews on Broadway, and when it failed to win the Pulitzer Prize because of its content, critics objected so strongly that they formed the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as a way to honor it. That was the beginning of Lillian Hellman's celebrity.