Monday Feb. 6, 2017

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Holy Ghost

The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.

A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,

but it didn’t look like reality.

The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.

Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost

Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,

but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home ?

“Holy Ghost” by June Robertson Beisch from Fatherless Women. © Cape Cod Literary Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of British paleoanthropologist Mary Douglas Leakey (books by this author), born Mary Douglas Nicol in London (1913). Her father was an artist, and she spent her childhood traveling with her parents as he searched for new landscapes to paint. Nicol also took on his daughter’s education — reading, math, and natural science — and encouraged her interest in archaeology. Mary demonstrated a precocious gift for drawing, even at a very young age. Rather than following her father’s career path, however, she used her talent to break into the field of archaeology — literally. She was hired as an illustrator on a dig site in England when she was 17.

Her drawing skills eventually led to a job illustrating a book called Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The book’s author was an archaeologist and anthropologist named Louis Leakey. The two married in 1937, forming a personal — as well as professional — partnership. Soon after their marriage, they moved to Tanzania, where Louis was scheduled to begin work on the Olduvai Gorge. Mary Leakey worked in East Africa for most of the rest of her life. She was particularly interested in primitive art and artifacts, but she had a real knack for finding fossils. She led the digs that resulted in two of the most important hominid discoveries in Africa: Australopithecus boisei and homo habilis.

Louis Leakey died in 1972, but Mary continued their work without him for over two more decades: excavating and cataloging, but also lecturing and fundraising. She published two books after her husband’s death: Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979); and her autobiography, Disclosing the Past (1984). She retired to Nairobi in 1983, and died in 1996.

It was on this day in 1937 that John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men was published (books by this author). Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s fifth novel (he had also published an excerpt from a novel and a book of short stories). His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was a total flop — it didn’t even earn back the $250 that Steinbeck received as an advance. That year, he wrote to a friend: “The book was an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting all the wise cracks (known by sophomores as epigrams) and all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system. [...] I think I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won’t be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above the average.”

He began work on Of Mice and Men in 1935. He and his wife, Carol, were living in his family’s three-room vacation cottage near Monterey Bay. It wasn’t meant for year-round living, but Steinbeck built a fireplace and closed off the porch, and they made do. Carol worked as a secretary, and Steinbeck’s parents gave him an allowance of $25 a month. Steinbeck’s new book was titled Something That Happened, but then he read the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, and was struck by the lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” So he retitled his work Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wanted to write in a new style, more like a play than a novel. He considered his audience for the story to be poor working-class people, and he thought they would be more likely to see a play than read a book.

Steinbeck had worked in California as a farm laborer, and he wanted to write about the terrible conditions he witnessed. Of Mice and Men tells the story of two laborers who are best friends: Lennie, who is big and strong with limited mental capabilities, and George, who is small and smart and looks out for Lennie. The story ends tragically after Lennie, unaware of his own strength, kills a woman. Steinbeck based the character of Lennie on a real farm laborer he knew, who killed a ranch foreman with a pitchfork after one of his friends was fired. Steinbeck made sure that the novel was tightly plotted and heavy on dialogue, ready to be adapted to the stage.

Steinbeck wrote in the spring of 1936: “My new work is really going and that makes me very happy — kind of an excitement like that you get near a dynamo from breathing pure oxygen [...] This work is going quickly and should get done quickly. I’m using a new set of techniques as far as I know but I am so illy read that it may have been done. Not that that matters at all.” Then his new puppy, Toby, chewed up half of the manuscript. Steinbeck was furious, but a couple of days later, he was able to write to a friend: “Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog on a ms. I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter.”

He was forced to start over, but work went quickly again, and he managed to get the work to his publisher a few months later. When Of Mice and Men was published, it had already been chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and got great reviews. The famous playwright and director George S. Kaufman offered to produce it as a play, and Steinbeck spent a week at Kaufman’s Pennsylvania estate, where the two men worked on adapting the work for the stage. About 85 percent of the novel’s original dialogue ended up in the final play. After his week with Kaufman, Steinbeck left the East Coast. When a reporter asked him if he would stick around, he replied: “Hell no. I’ve got work to do out in California.” He refused to come back either for rehearsals or to see the final product. He did ask his publisher to call and give him a full report on the play’s opening night, but he had to go to a friend’s house to use the telephone since he didn’t have one of his own. The play was a huge hit.

It’s the birthday of lexicographer Eric Partridge (books by this author), born on a farm near Gisborne, New Zealand (1894). He was a good student, and he started teaching school at the age of 16. He fought in World War I, finished college, and went to graduate school at Oxford. He became a professor, and taught in England for a few years. Then he founded a publishing house. After all that, he said, “Finally I did what I should have done long before: became a professional writer, mostly on the subject of English — usage, composition, grammar; slang and cant; clichés, jargon, punctuation, etc.”

As a professional writer, he went to the same desk in the British Library every single day for about 50 years, and there he wrote books like A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), and You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and its Allies (1978). Some scholars disliked Partridge because he himself wasn’t all that scholarly — he preferred to make his books readable, even when he was writing about the language of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift.

He said, “Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them.”

It's the birthday of the man nicknamed "the Sultan of Swat," "the Bambino," and, most famously, "Babe" Ruth, born George Herman Ruth Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland (1895). His mother gave birth to eight children, but only George — called "Little George" to distinguish him from his father, "Big George" — and one sister survived. He said later: "My earliest recollections center about the dirty, traffic-crowded streets of Baltimore's riverfront. Crowded streets they were, too, noisy with the roar of heavy trucks whose drivers cursed and swore and aimed blows with their driving whips, at the legs of kids who made the streets their playground. And the youngsters, running wild, struck back and echoed the curses. Truck-drivers were our enemies: so were the coppers patrolling their beats, and so too were the shopkeepers who took bruising payment from our skins for the apples and the fruit we 'snitched' from their stands and counters. A rough, tough neighborhood, but I liked it."

Young George ran wild while his parents devoted all their time to operating a seedy tavern; he almost never saw them. When he was seven, his father decided he couldn't take care of his son, so he took him to an orphanage and reformatory called St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. He signed over custody of George to the priests who ran the school. He was a terrible student; he drank and smoked and got into all sorts of trouble. But one of the priests, Brother Matthias, took George under his wing. He was in charge of disciplinary action for the school, so he saw quite a lot of George. Brother Matthias was 6 feet 6 inches, and 250 pounds. He taught George how to play baseball, and the boy was naturally talented at it. It was his one solace in a life of prayer, classes, and disgusting food.

He spent 12 years of his life at St. Mary's. Somehow, when he was 19 years old, the recruiter for the minor league Baltimore Orioles saw Ruth play and signed him on for a $600 contract, an amount that seemed incredible to him at the time. And so he went straight from Catholic school to the world of baseball. When he got to training camp, the other players were amused at how young Ruth was, and called him one of the recruiter's "babes," and the nickname stuck.

Ruth only stayed with the Orioles for five months, and then got sold to the major league Boston Red Sox in 1914. He spent most of the first year with the Red Sox optioned off to a minor league team, but by the next year he was playing regularly. By 1918, he was a star pitcher, and he helped the Red Sox win another World Series by pitching a record 29 scoreless innings. The Red Sox had been in five World Series and won them all, and they were having an especially good few years — they won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916, and now again in 1918. The next year, 1919, Babe Ruth decided to focus more on hitting than on pitching, and hit a record 29 home runs.

But in January of 1920, the owner of the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. One reporter wrote: "Boston's greatest baseball player has been cast adrift. George H. Ruth, the middle initial apparently standing for 'Hercules', maker of home runs and the most colorful star in the game today, became the property of the New York Yankees." Another journalist complained that the team had "lost the greatest drawing card the game has ever known, and the esteem of many of thousands of supporters." After the sale of Babe Ruth, the Red Sox failed over and over to win the World Series, and people started referring to their failure as the "curse of the Bambino," their punishment for having sold Babe Ruth. It took them 86 years, until 2004, to win another World Series.

The New York Yankees, on the other hand, were thrilled to acquire Ruth, and he started the team on its path to success. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs, more than the next three most successful hitters combined. In 1921, the Yankees won their first American League pennant, and in 1923 they won their first World Series. As of now, they have won the World Series 27 times, more than any other baseball team — in fact, more than any other team has even appeared in the World Series, much less won it.

Babe Ruth's legend continued to grow. In 1921, he hit 59 home runs. From 1923 until 1931, he led the league in home runs every year but one. He seemed larger-than-life at everything he did. The sportswriter H.G. Salsinger wrote: "He could eat more, drink more, smoke more, swear more, and enjoy himself more than any contemporary." Another sportswriter, Heywood Broun, called Ruth "a liberator who endeavored by personal example to show that no fun could ever hurt you." He was famous for not sleeping and still hitting home runs. His colleague Paul Derringer, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, said he once saw Ruth eat breakfast: he started out with a quart of bourbon and ginger ale, then moved on to a porterhouse steak, four fried eggs, a mound of potatoes, toast, and a pot of coffee.

In 1929, Ruth signed a contract for $80,000 a year, an unheard-of amount. A journalist asked Ruth if he thought it seemed right that he was making more than the president — Herbert Hoover earned just $75,000 a year. It was the year of the stock market crash, and Ruth replied: "Why not? I had a better year than he did."

The sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a poem called "Son of Swat — Babe Ruth." In it, he wrote: "I've seen a few I thought could hit, / Who fed the crowd on four-base rations; / But you, Babe, are the only it — / The rest are merely imitations. / I've seen them swing with all they've got / And tear into it for a mop-up; / But what they deem a lusty swat / To you is but a futile pop-up."

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