Sunday Nov. 8, 2015

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I watched my father’s friends
Roll cigarettes, when I was young
Leaning against our black tarpaper shack.
The wheatstraw grimy in their hands
Talking of cars and tools and jobs
Everybody out of work.
      the quick flip back
And thin lick stick of the tongue,
And a twist, and a fingernail flare of match.
I watched and wished my overalls
Had hammer-slings like theirs.

The war and after the war
With jobs and money came,
My father lives in a big suburban home.
It seems like since the thirties
I’m the only one stayed poor.
It’s good to sit in the
Window of my shack,
Roll tan wheatstraw and tobacco
Round and smoke.

“Makings” by Gary Snyder from No Nature. © Pantheon Books 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1837 that Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was founded in South Hadley, Massachusetts. At the time, there were 120 men’s colleges in America, but only a couple of institutions for women that included higher education, and none chartered with an expectation that they would be equivalent to men’s colleges, established as permanent institutions that would outlive their founders.

That expectation changed with Mount Holyoke’s founder, a teacher and chemist named Mary Lyon. Lyon was a passionate champion of women’s abilities, but also a savvy businesswoman, and she started with the theory that men should do the fundraising. She wrote to a friend: “It is desirable that the plans relating to the subject should not seem to originate with us but with but with benevolent gentlemen. If the object should excite attention, there is danger that many good men will fear the effect on society of so much female influence, and what they will call female greatness.”

America was in an economic depression, and the men she had enlisted weren’t very successful at raising money, so she gave up on them. She took on the fundraising job herself and spent years riding through the countryside in a carriage, placing all her donations in a green velvet bag. Many donations were just a dollar or two, sometimes not even that. But in the end, Lyon raised $27,000 from 1,800 donors — many of them poor, hardworking men and women whom she visited at their farms, at churches, at sewing circles or other social gatherings.

When Mount Holyoke opened on this day, 80 students arrived, some of them having traveled for days to get there. They each brought a dictionary, an atlas, a Bible, and two spoons.

Lyon said: “There is nothing in the universe that I fear, but that I shall not know all my duty, or shall fail to do it.”

Today is the birthday of Irish writer Abraham “Bram” Stoker (books by this author), born in Dublin (1847). He’s the author of a dozen novels, but of course he’s best known for Dracula (1897). He was a sickly child, bedridden until the age of seven, and he liked to entertain himself with scary Irish folktales.

Stoker’s health improved as he grew up, and he graduated from Trinity College with honors, earning a degree in mathematics. Like his father before him, he took a job as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. He also wrote theatre reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, although they didn’t pay him. He didn’t mind working for free, because he loved the arts. He reviewed a production of Hamlet starring a famous English actor named Sir Henry Irving. The two became good friends, and Irving eventually hired Stoker to manage London’s Lyceum Theatre. Stoker wrote letters for Irving, sometimes as many as 50 a day. He also traveled with him on his world tours.

Seeing the world inspired Stoker to write stories and novels, although he kept his job at the Lyceum for nearly 30 years. In 1890, Stoker took a holiday to the Yorkshire fishing village of Whitby. The village, with its picturesque ruined abbey, found its way into Dracula, which Stoker started writing that same year. Dracula, which is written in the form of letters and journal entries, was the result of seven years’ research into Eastern European folklore and vampire stories. Stoker originally called it The Un-Dead, but changed the title at the last minute. The book received generally good reviews, but it didn’t become a sensation until after Stoker’s death. In his lifetime, he was much more famous for his work as the manager of the Lyceum.

It’s the birthday of the woman whose novel about a headstrong, spoiled Southern belle named Scarlett O’Hara became an international sensation. Margaret Mitchell (books by this author) was born in Georgia (1900), the daughter of a prominent Atlanta family. She began writing Gone With the Wind in her early 30s after being homebound with a recurring ankle injury. Her husband was tired of toting armloads of books back and forth from the library and he finally said, “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”

Mitchell had grown up pampered, often sitting for hours on the knees of much older relatives and Confederate veterans who regaled her with stories of the Old South and the Civil War. She drew upon those memories as she wrote drafts of Gone With the Wind, in addition to researching old newspaper articles, diaries, and letters. Her husband’s name was John Marsh, and he brought home a Remington Portable No. 3 typewriter for her to use; he’d grown tired of finding her notes for the book on the backs of old laundry lists and in piles on the couch. Marsh was her second husband. He’d been the best man at her first wedding to a bootlegger named Red Upshaw.

Mitchell was 4 feet 11 inches tall and something of a flirt and a scandal. At her debutante ball, she shocked the crowd by doing a dance that required her to kiss her male companion. And at one point, before she married Marsh, she’d been dating five men at the same time. She was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, earning $25 a week, when she suffered the injury to her ankle and had to quit. It took her three years to write Gone With the Wind. Alternate titles for the book were Tomorrow Is Another Day, Not in Our Stars, and Bugles Rang True. Scarlett O’Hara was originally named Pansy O’Hara. As she wrote, Mitchell tried to heed the advice of her high school English teacher, who told her every sentence had to be “complete, concise, and coherent.” Mitchell said, “I sweat blood to make my style simple and stripped bare.”

Gone With the Wind was 1,037 pages when it was published in June of 1936 for the then-unheard of price of $3 per book. By December of that year, it had sold over a million copies and Mitchell was paid $50,000 for the movie rights. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, but she never wrote another novel. She was mainly pleased with the film version (1939), which starred Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, but she’d preferred Miriam Hopkins to Leigh for the role of Scarlett. She refused all offers to write the sequel. Her life had become inundated with press requests, money, and hangers-on.

When a reporter questioned Scarlett O’Hara’s shocking behavior, Mitchell became exasperated, exclaiming, “Wars have a way of changing women, whether the women are dressed in hoopskirts and pantalets or in knee-length skirts and bobbed hair.”

Mitchell was crossing the corners of Peachtree and 13th in Atlanta, on her way to see an afternoon movie, when she was hit by an off-duty cab. She never regained consciousness. She was 48 when she died and had left strict instructions to burn the original manuscript of Gone With the Wind, which the custodian of her building followed, though some pages remained, and are now archived. Today, Gone With the Wind has been translated into more than 30 languages worldwide and sells about 75,000 copies every year, making it a perennial best-seller.

Everywhere Mitchell went, people wanted to know what happened at the end of Gone With the Wind: did Rhett return to Scarlett? Mitchell had kept the ending purposefully vague, but finally told an interviewer, “For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less difficult.”

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