I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—
The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—
and then I could not see to see—
“I heard a Fly buzz...” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)
The American poet Emily Dickinson died in Amherst, Massachusetts, on this date in 1886 (books by this author). She had been in ill health for about two and a half years, and was confined to her bed for the last seven months of her life. Medical historians now believe that she was suffering from severe high blood pressure — she complained of headaches and nausea, and near the end of her life she struggled to breathe, eventually lapsing into a coma. She would not allow her doctor, Otis Bigelow, to come to her bedside, but would only consent to walk past the doorway. “Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!” he is said to have exclaimed. He listed her cause of death as “Bright’s disease,” which was a catchall diagnosis that included kidney disease as well as hypertension. Besides her physical ailments, she suffered greatly from the deaths of several close friends over the last years of her life; the most traumatic appears to have been that of her eight-year-old nephew in 1883.
Emily’s friend and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson wrote the poet’s obituary for The Springfield Republican: “A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see.” Dickinson had left specific instructions for her burial. Her casket was carried by the family’s six Irish hired men, on a route that wound its way past her flower garden, through the barn in back of the house, and through a field of buttercups.
Very few of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and what was published was done so anonymously. After her death, Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of poems that she had written over the years. The first volume, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in 1890.
It was on this date in 1869 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. The 15th Amendment was being considered, granting voting rights to African-American men, but not to women. The women’s suffrage movement was divided over whether to support the bill. One faction felt that any advancement in civil rights would eventually help women. But the other faction, led by Stanton and Anthony, opposed giving these rights to another group of men who, they felt, would then have no further interest in advancing the cause of women. They split from the American Equal Rights Association, forming their own national organization to be run by women.
Stanton and Anthony worked together for 50 years, and they made a good team. Anthony never married, so she was free to devote her life to the women’s movement. Stanton wasn’t free to travel for many years. She stayed home, raised the kids, did the research, and wrote the speeches that Anthony delivered.
Stanton once said, “I am the better writer, she the better critic [...] and together we have made arguments that have stood unshaken by the storms of thirty long years; arguments that no man has answered.”
Today is the birthday of Lyman Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York (1856). He moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, when he was 32, and opened up a general store called “Baum’s Bazaar.” He was popular with the neighborhood kids, telling them stories, all the while chomping on a cigar. He was also generous with his credit and the store went bankrupt. So he got a job as an editor for the local newspaper. He published his first book, Mother Goose in Prose, in 1897; it was a collection of stories based on traditional nursery rhymes. After that came Father Goose, His Book in 1899, but it was his 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that we remember him for today. It was a critical and commercial success, and he went on to write 13 more novels based on the Land of Oz.
It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Anne Porter (books by this author), born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She was brought up by her beloved grandmother, Catherine Anne, whose name she later took. Porter grew up surrounded by books. She said: “All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read.” She especially loved Dante and Henry James.
There wasn’t much money, or schooling, and Porter married at 16. Her husband was a drunk, and abusive, and she divorced him when she was 21. She moved to Chicago and got a job writing about movies, occasionally taking work as an extra. It was while writing for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver that she contracted the flu during the 1918 pandemic and spent months in the hospital recovering. When she was discharged, she was bald. When her hair started growing back, it came in white, and that’s the way she kept it for the rest of her life.
Her first book, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, was published in 1930. Her next was a trilogy of short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1935), which garnered her considerable acclaim. For the next 30 years, she subsisted on money she earned from teaching, grants, selling short stories, and advances, while she worked on a novel about a group of characters sailing on a ship from Mexico to Germany. It took her 22 years to finish the book, which she called Ship of Fools. Whenever her publisher would ask about it, Porter would snap: “Look here, this is my life and my work and you keep out of it. When I have a book I will be glad to have it published.”
Ship of Fools was finally published in 1962 and outsold every other book published that year. The film rights were sold for half a million dollars. Porter was able to live comfortably for the rest of her life. The film version (1965) was directed by Stanley Kramer and featured Vivien Leigh in her last film role.
Porter won the Pulitzer Prize (1966) for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.
Katherine Anne Porter said: “I have a very firm belief that the life of no man can be explained in terms of his experiences, of what has happened to him, because in spite of all the poetry, all the philosophy to the contrary, we are not really masters of our fate. We don’t really direct our lives unaided and unobstructed. Our being is subject to all the chances of life. There are so many things we are capable of, that we could be or do. The potentialities are so great that we never, any of us, are more than one-fourth fulfilled. Except that there may be one powerful motivating force that simply carries you along, and I think that was true of me.”
Today is the birthday of American writer Laura Hillenbrand (1967) (books by this author), the author of two best-selling books of nonfiction: Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001) and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010).
Hillenbrand grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, and spent her childhood riding horses on the family farm, a stone cottage on the banks of the Potomac River that was once used as a hospital during the battle of Antietam. She had to drop out of Kenyon College after suffering her first bout with chronic fatigue syndrome and was confined to bed for the next 18 months.
She first published an article about Seabiscuit, the legendary racehorse, in American Heritage magazine (2003). Seabiscuit was small, knobby-kneed, and lazy, and his rider was a half-blind failed prizefighter, but he became the winningest racehorse in history during the 1930s, a symbol of resilience and hope for millions of Americans during the Great Depression. Her agent shopped the proposal to an editor at Random House. The editor wasn’t interested, at first, since books about horses tended to be boring, and the main characters were all dead, but he signed Hillenbrand. She delivered the manuscript 17 months later. The editor read it and sent her an email, which read, “In terms of pure narrative, this is the most satisfying story I have every encountered in my eleven years as an editor. Reading it wasn’t even work; it was pleasure.”
Seabiscuit became a New York Times best-seller. The film version starred Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges (2003). Because of her chronic fatigue syndrome, Hillenbrand rarely leaves her house, so she’s had to adjust her research methods. She buys vintage newspapers on eBay and does interviews with her subjects by phone. She also listens to a lot of historical audio books, which she says makes her a better writer. “Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
It was while reading old articles about Seabiscuit that Hillenbrand came across a story about running phenomenon Louis Zamperini, whose bombardier plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943. He spent 47 days adrift on a raft, eating seabirds, until he and his companion were captured. He spent the next two years being tortured in three different Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
Hillenbrand’s book about Zamperini, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) has been on the New York Times best-seller list for over four years. Angelina Jolie directed the film version (2014).
About writing, Hillenbrand says: “I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story. I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do. This is what my mind is meant to do.”