Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017

0:00/ 0:00

Meditation on Ruin

It’s not the lost lover that brings us to ruin, or the barroom brawl,
         or the con game gone bad, or the beating
Taken in the alleyway. But the lost car keys,
The broken shoelace,
The overcharge at the gas pump
Which we broach without comment—these are the things that
         eat away at life, these constant vibrations
In the web of the unremarkable.

The death of a father—the death of the mother—
The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive! But the broken
         pair of glasses,
The tear in the trousers,
These begin an ache behind the eyes.
And it’s this ache to which we will ourselves
Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there’s a
         crack in the water glass
—we wake to find ourselves undone.

“Meditation on Ruin” by Jay Hopler from Green Squall. © Yale University Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), born in New York City (1862). She wrote about frustrated love in novels like The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She came from a rich New York family who lived off the inheritance of their real estate and banking tycoon ancestors, and she spent several years of her early childhood traveling around Europe. When she was 10, her parents resettled in New York, around 23rd and Park Avenue. She was a teenage bookworm, reading insatiably from her family's expansive library and feeling alienated and adrift in the New York high-society circles her family moved in. At 23, she married a family friend, a classy, good-looking sportsman named Edward "Teddy" Robbins Wharton, who wasn't particularly fond of books. He went on extravagant spending sprees and had numerous affairs. It was a long and miserable marriage.

She met Henry James in Europe and became good friends with him. He encouraged her to write about the New York City she knew so well and disliked. He said, "Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours." And it was Henry James who introduced her to his friend Morton Fullerton, a dashing, promiscuous, intellectual American expat journalist who reported for the London Times from Paris. Edith Wharton fell hard for him and filled her diary with passages about how their romance made her feel complete. She wrote him pleading letters, and about a year into their affair, when she was in her late 40s, moved full time to Paris, where he resided. The affair ended in 1911, the year she published Ethan Frome.

Wharton stayed married to Teddy for a couple more years, though the two lived apart from each other during the last part of their 28-year marriage. She loved living in Paris, and there she mingled with people like André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Theodore Roosevelt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once told: "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."

Modernist writers were among her contemporaries, but she didn't use modernist techniques like stream of consciousness in her own writing, and she wasn't a fan of it in others'. She once said about James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), "Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook's intervening."

She died in Paris at the age of 75. At the time of her death, she was working on a novel called The Buccaneers, about five rich American girls who set out to marry landed British men, so that they can have English feudal titles in their names, like "Duchess." In her last days, she lay in bed and worked on the novel, and each page that she completed she dropped onto the floor so that it could be collected later, when she was through.

Edith Wharton said, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it."

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 saw mill for a man named John Sutter, who owned nearly 50,000 acres along the American River and wanted to start a logging operation there. It was a cold, clear morning. The night before, Marshall had diverted the river so he could put in the sawmill, and on this morning, he found gold flecks where the water had been. John Sutter asked the workers to keep their discovery a secret so that he could continue with his sawmill — but the story came out in the March 15th issue of The Californian out of San Francisco. And on August 19th, The New York Herald reported that there was gold in California. And gold prospectors headed for California. The population of the state 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..

Mark Twain headed to California in 1861 and spent some time prospecting in Angels’ Camp, trying to make his fortune, but he didn’t find anything in the way of gold. He did, however, hear a man tell a story about a frog and how they filled him with buckshot so he couldn’t jump, and so he lost his owner a bet. That story became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the story that made Mark Twain famous.

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