Sunday Nov. 27, 2016

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The day I learned my wife was dying
I told myself if anyone said, Well, she had
a good life, I’d punch him in the nose.
How much life represents a good life?

Maybe a hundred years, which would
give us nearly forty more to visit Oslo
and take the train to Vladivostok,
learn German to read Thomas Mann

in the original. Even more baseball games,
more days at the beach and the baking
of more walnut cakes for family birthdays.
How much time is enough time? How much

is needed for all those unspent kisses,
those slow walks along cobbled streets?

“Prague” by Stephen Dobyns from The Day’s Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns (books by this author) borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh.

The fall of 1786 had been an eventful one for Burns. He wasn't making any money farming, and after he got his girlfriend Jean Armour pregnant, he decided he needed to find a way to support his new family — not to mention his illegitimate one-year-old daughter, whose mother was a servant in the Burns household and wanted money. Burns accepted a friend's offer to work as a clerk in Jamaica, and was set to leave in September.

A few weeks before his departure date, he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), hoping to raise enough money to pay his fare to Jamaica. Instead, the book was so successful that Burns began to doubt if he should leave Scotland. Then Jean gave birth to twins. At the same time, he received word that Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock liked his book and encouraged him to come to Edinburgh. Burns wrote: "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland — 'The Gloomy night is gathering fast' — when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." He borrowed a pony from a friend, and off he went.

The story goes that during his two-day trip to Edinburgh, he was entertained lavishly by farmers eager to meet the poet. A friend of his had arranged for a farmhouse where he could stay for the night. There were so many people excited to see Burns that when he arrived, one farmer raised a makeshift flag — a white sheet tied to a pitchfork — and on cue all the neighboring farmers arrived to host Burns for a huge meal. He rode on to another farmhouse for a large breakfast the next morning, and yet another farm for lunch. By evening of the second day, he finally arrived in Edinburgh.

He was delighted by his reception there, and everyone's enthusiasm about publishing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. About a week after his arrival, he wrote in a letter: "For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday, and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr. H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and by all probability, I shall soon be the tenth worthy, and the eight wise man of the world. Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt, that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second edition."

William Shakespeare (books by this author) married Anne Hathaway on this date in 1582. We don’t know too much about Anne Hathaway, nor much about any aspect of Shakespeare’s private life. We do know that she was eight years older than the playwright, and that she lived in Shottery, a small hamlet a mile up the road from Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford. She was the oldest of eight children; both her parents were dead, and she lived with her brother. At 26, she was an old maid by 16th-century standards. We don’t know how the 18-year-old Shakespeare wooed this older woman, or even how they met, but we can infer a few juicy details about their courtship, based on the fact that their first child, Susanna, was born just six months after the wedding. Their wedding was hastily planned, and because Shakespeare was still under the age of consent, his father would have to have given his permission. The newlyweds then lived together with Shakespeare’s parents. Young William probably helped his father, John, with his business dealings, and Anne would have helped her mother-in-law with the housework. Anne gave birth to twins two years later: a boy and girl, named Hamnet and Judith, named after close friends of William and Anne.

Sometime after the twins were born, Shakespeare moved to London to pursue an acting career, and by 1582 he was well established. He came back to Stratford occasionally, but Anne never visited him in London. The couple spent most of the rest of their marriage apart, but Shakespeare moved back to Stratford when he retired from the stage, and they spent the last six years of his life together. In his will, Shakespeare bequeathed his “second-best bed” to Anne. Much has been made of this line in his will, but it probably was not intended to be insulting, as the “best bed” was generally reserved for guests and was passed down as a family heirloom. Shakespeare died in 1616, and Anne followed in 1623. She is buried next to him in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford.

It’s the birthday of the writer who said: “A little bit of too much is just enough for me.” That’s James Agee (books by this author), born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). His father died when he was six, and he was sent to an Episcopal boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains. His history teacher Father Flye became a lifelong mentor and friend. Flye helped Agee get into Phillips Exeter Academy and from there to Harvard. Agee served as president of Harvard’s literary magazine, the Advocate, and he helped publish the Advocate’s parody of Time, the relatively new magazine run by Henry Luce. After Agee graduated, he got a job at Luce’s new venture, Fortune magazine, partly on the strength of his Time parody. Agee felt confined by his assignments; he wrote to Father Flye: “I’m emotionally stupefied, and have very little and dull and unextensive imagination [...] If I am, as I seem to be, dying on my feet mentally and spiritually, and can do nothing about it, I’d prefer not to know I was dying.” In 1936, Agee and photographer Walker Evans spent two months living with sharecroppers in Alabama on assignment for Fortune. Fortune decided not to publish the resulting article, so Agee turned it into a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold just 600 copies, but is now considered a classic.

During his lifetime, Agee was best known for his film criticism, especially his weekly reviews for The Nation. W.H. Auden wrote the Nation’s editors to tell them that he spent all week looking forward to Agee’s column, and that it was “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” In 1955, Agee died of a heart attack in a taxicab at the age of 45. His autobiographical novel A Death in the Family (1957) was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the article that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee wrote: “A human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”

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