Saturday July 11, 2015

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Things to Watch While You Drive

The trees, slipping
across the fields, changing places with
barns and silos,

the hills, rolling over
on command, their bellies
green and leafy,

the sun-tiger, riding
on your rooftop, its shadow racing
up and down the ditches,

a flock of birds,
carrying the sky by the corners,
a giant sheet of blue,

the road, always
twisting towards or away from you —
both, at the same time.

“Things to Watch While You Drive” by Joyce Sutphen from Modern Love & Other Myths. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the literary critic Harold Bloom (books by this author), born in New York City (1930). His parents were Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish, but he fell in love with English poetry and read it before he had ever heard English spoken aloud. He started reading Walt Whitman and Hart Crane when he was eight years old. He went on to become one of the most influential literary critics in the country. He is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn’t read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition.

It’s the birthday of Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White (books by this author), born in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). He wrote for The New Yorker for nearly 60 years, and married its first fiction editor, Katharine Angell, in 1929. The couple left New York City for a farmhouse in Maine, but White kept writing essays, including a series on farming for Harper’s; these were collected in the book One Man’s Meat (1942). He wrote a piece called “Death of a Pig” for Atlantic Monthly, about his unsuccessful attempt to save a dying pig. “I discovered […] that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.” Four years later, White published his best-known book, Charlotte’s Web (1952). Beloved by young and old alike, it’s the story of Wilbur the pig and his friend Charlotte, a clever spider who helps save him from slaughter.

White also gave his name to the standard English-language style manual, The Elements of Style. William Strunk Jr. wrote the first edition of the book in 1918. White revived, revised, and expanded the style guide in 1959; with his significant input, The Elements of Style became known informally as “Strunk and White.” In 2011, Time named the manual one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. White himself once said: “It’s a funny little book, and it keeps going on. Occasionally I get irate letters from people who find a boo-boo in it, but many more from people who find it useful.” White includes a wealth of writing advice, including: “Do not affect a breezy style; use orthodox spelling; do not explain too much; avoid fancy words; do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity; prefer the standard to the offbeat; make sure the reader knows who is speaking; do not use dialect; revise and rewrite.”

It’s the birthday of Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri (books by this author), born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri in London (1967). Her father, a librarian, moved the family to Kingston, Rhode Island, when Lahiri was two. Growing up, Lahiri often felt conflicted between two worlds: that of her parents, who still listened to traditional Bengali songs on a reel-to-reel tape player, and that of her American friends, who watched television and went to the movies. A nervous child who was afraid of sports and public speaking, she found solace in reading. She says: “Books, and the stories they contained, were the only things I felt I was able to possess as a child.” She began writing stories at age seven with a school friend, stealing blank notebooks from the teacher’s supply closet. They wrote stories about orphaned girls, prairies, and girls with magical powers.

She moved to Boston after graduating from Barnard College and worked the cash register at a bookstore. She rented a room in a house and pecked out stories at night on her typewriter. It took eight years and several rejections until her first collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, was published (1999). It became an instant best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize (2000).

It’s the birthday of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). In 1885, Whistler gave his famous “Ten O’clock Lecture” to general acclaim. One reviewer wrote: “[T]he Prince’s Hall was crowded [...] There were lords and ladies, beauties and their attendant ‘beasts,’ painters and poets, all who know about Art, and all who thought that they did [...] all seemed delighted with ‘Jimmy.’” In the hour long lecture, Whistler talked about his philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” Unlike most Victorians, he didn’t believe art or artists had a responsibility to convey a moral message. His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it’s more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” It’s a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler’s scheduled model didn’t show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead.

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