Saturday Sep. 3, 2016

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Future Plans

When I am an old, old woman I may very well be
living all alone like many another before me
and I rather look forward to the day when I shall have
a tumbledown house on a hill top and behave
just as I wish to. No more need to be proud—
at the tag end of life one is at last allowed
to be answerable to no one. Then I shall wear
a shapeless felt hat clapped on over my white hair,
sneakers with holes for the toes, and a ragged dress.
My house shall be always in a deep-drifted mess,
my overgrown garden a jungle. I shall keep a crew
of cats and dogs, with perhaps a goat or two
for my agate-eyed familiars. And what delight
I shall take in the vagaries of day and night,
in the wind in the branches, in the rain on the roof!
I shall toss like an old leaf, weather-mad, without reproof.
I’ll wake when I please, and when I please I shall doze;
whatever I think, I shall say; and I suppose
that with such a habit of speech I’ll be let well alone
to mumble plain truth like an old dog with a bare bone.

“Future Plans” by Kate Barnes from Where the Deer Were. © David R. Godine, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago (1926). She is the author of The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989) and Foreign Affairs (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize (1985).

About her characters, Lurie said: “I want them all to have happy endings although I do realize this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don’t really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I’ve killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn’t.”

It’s the birthday of anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley (books by this author), born in Lincoln, Nebraska (1907). He spent most of his long academic career as a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1947 to 1977. He was interested in the dating of fossils and in extinctions during the Ice Age. But he’s remembered today as a writer of popular and poetic books about anthropology and evolution — books like The Immense Journey (1957), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), and The Star Thrower (1979). About the evolution of the brain and the development of consciousness in humans, he wrote: “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of wind in the night reeds.”

It’s the birthday of writer Sarah Orne Jewett (books by this author), born in South Berwick, Maine (1849). Her father was a country doctor, and she thought about becoming a doctor herself. Instead, she turned to writing and had her first story published in The Atlantic when she was just 20 years old. She wrote about the people of Maine and about the old country ways that were quickly dying out around her, and earned a reputation as one of the finest writers in the “local color” tradition. Her first collection of stories, Deephaven, came out in 1877. Her most famous work was the collection The Country of the Pointed Firs, which was published in 1896.

Jewett said, “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that.”

On this date in 1838, Frederick Douglass (books by this authorboarded a train to escape from slavery. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), he wrote, “On Monday, the third day of September, 1838, in accordance with my resolution, I bade farewell to the city of Baltimore, and to that slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood.”

He had been born Frederick Bailey to a slave woman on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Maryland, about 1817. He never knew when his actual birthday was, but he always celebrated it on Valentine’s Day, because his mother had given him a heart-shaped cake the last time he ever saw her. She died when he was very young; when he was eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore to work in the home of the Auld family. Mrs. Auld taught him to read, in defiance of Maryland law. He spent the rest of his childhood picking up an education any way he could. One bit of knowledge ended up being crucial to the sailor’s disguise he adopted in his escape: “My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt,’” he wrote. Dressed in a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf, and carrying forged documents, he boarded a train bound for Philadelphia.

Eventually, he settled in Massachusetts and changed his name. He let a friend named Mr. Johnson choose his new last name, stating only that he wished to keep “Frederick” as a link to his previous identity. Johnson, who had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, chose “Douglass” after characters in the poem.

Frederick Douglass went on to campaign tirelessly for the abolition of slavery. He was also an advocate of women’s suffrage, and was one of the original signers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” in 1848.

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