Sunday Jan. 24, 2016

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The Elm City

The hard, yellow, reversible, wicker seats
Sit in my mind’s warm eye, varnished row on row,
In the old yellow childhood trolley
At the end of the line at Cliff Street, where the conductor
Swings the big wooden knob on the tall control box,
Clangs the dishpan bell, and we wander off

To tiptoe on stones and look up at bones in cases
In the cold old stone and bone of the Peabody Museum,
Where the dinosaur and the mastodon stare us down,
And the Esquimaux and the Indians stare us down

In New Haven,
The Elm City.

I left that town long ago for war and folly.
Phylogeny rolled to a stop at the old Peabody.
I still hear the dishpan bell of the yellow trolley.

“The Elm City” by Reed Whittemore from The Past, The Future, The Present. © University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Edith Wharton (books by this author), born in New York City (1862). She came from the upper echelon of New York society, and although she was a gifted writer as a young girl and wrote her first novel at age 11, her family and friends actively discouraged her writing. She wrote: “In the eyes of our provincial society, authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.”

She was finally married at the age of 23 — which was considered late in those days — to a man named Teddy Wharton. The two were a poor match; Teddy did not share his wife’s interest in art or literature. For many years, Wharton wrote little and published almost nothing. By 1899, she wrote that she had “almost continuous ill-health and mental lassitude.” Despite her health, that same year Wharton managed to publish her first book of short stories, The Greater Inclination (1899). She was elated, and wrote later: “At last I had groped my way through to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned that storytelling was my job. [...] I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship.” She said that she felt as though she had broken through the chains that held her in the 12 years since her marriage.

From the beginning, Wharton was no pushover. A week after the publication of The Greater Inclination, she wrote a letter to Scribner’s that began: “Gentlemen, Am I not to receive any copies of my book? I have had no notice of its publication, but I see from the New York papers that it appeared last week.” A month later, she wrote to protest their lack of marketing: “Certainly in these days of energetic and emphatic advertising, Mr. Scribner’s methods do not tempt one to offer him one’s wares a second time.”

Wharton sent a copy of The Greater Inclination to Henry James, a writer she greatly admired, and who eventually became her lifelong friend. He was not impressed by the book, and sent a mean-spirited letter about it to one of his friends. Undeterred, a year later she sent him a story she had just published in a magazine, and this time, he liked it enough to write her back. He praised her style, and he wrote: “I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it and at it — it’s an untouched field, really.”

Wharton and her husband traveled frequently during these years, especially in Europe, and it was there that she collected material for her first novel, a historical romance set in Italy. When The Valley of Decision was published in 1902, it was considered a success, selling 25,000 copies in six months. While she was contemplating a sequel, Henry James wrote to Wharton with his opinion: that she should stop writing books set in Europe, and instead focus on what he called “the American subject.” He wrote: “There it is round you. Don’t pass it by — the immediate, the real, the ours, the yours, the novelist’s, that it waits for. Take hold of it and keep hold, and let it pull you where it will [...] DO NEW YORK! The firsthand account is precious.” Wharton took his advice to heart and spent the next few years working on the novel that eventually became The House of Mirth (1905) and made her famous. Her other books include Ethan Frome (1911), The Age of Innocence (1920), and her memoir A Backward Glance (1934).

She wrote in her diary: “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”

It was on this day in 1848 that the California Gold Rush began. The carpenter and wheelwright James Marshall was leading a crew to build a sawmill for a man named John Sutter, who owned nearly 50,000 acres along the Sacramento River and wanted to log it. Marshall had come west from New Jersey, following the Oregon Trail.

It was a cold, clear morning. The night before, Marshall had diverted water, trying to even out the river that would run through the sawmill and power it. On this morning, he found gold flecks where the water had been. He showed it to his crew members, they performed several tests on it, and everyone agreed it must be gold. He took it to John Sutter, who asked Marshall and the workers to keep their discovery a secret so that he could continue with his plans for lumber — he didn’t want gold to get in the way. His plan failed, of course, and the truth was finally confirmed in the March 15th issue of The Californian out of San Francisco. It took five months for news to reach the East Coast, but on August 19th, the New York Herald reported that there was gold in California, which President James Polk confirmed by December. It didn’t take long for gold prospectors to flock to California. Before the discovery of gold, the population of California was about 150,000 Indians and about 14,000 non-Indians. Twelve years later, more than 300,000 people had migrated to California, and fewer than 30,000 Indians remained.

It’s the birthday of playwright and poet William Congreve (books by this author), born in West Yorkshire, England (1670), most famous for his Restoration comedy The Way of the World (1700). His characters are people of nobility and fashion, for whom manners are more important than morals; Mirabell and Millamant, the lovers in The Way of the World, establish an unconventional marriage arrangement. The play was controversial in its day, but famous for its sparkling dialogue:

“Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure; Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Vicki Baum (books by this author), born in Vienna (1888). She’s best known for her novel Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hotel, 1929), about a random group of people who stay in a fancy hotel in Berlin for a weekend. The characters include a stenographer, an aging ballet dancer, a dying man, and a thieving baron. The story goes that Vicki Baum got a six-week job as a chambermaid at a Berlin hotel in order to do research for her novel. Grand Hotel was adapted into a play in Germany and the United States, and made into a movie starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.

It’s the birthday of zoologist and writer Desmond Morris (books by this author), born in Purton, England (1928). He thought about pursuing a career in art, but he was also fascinated by animals, so he ended up studying zoology. He made films about animal behavior and he did a study of primates’ painting — he even curated a show of chimpanzee art, which inspired his book The Biology of Art (1962).

Morris is most famous for his book The Naked Ape (1967). It took him less than a month to write, and it became a huge best-seller. The Naked Ape was controversial because it treated human behavior as animal behavior.

He said, “I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape.”

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