Saturday Mar. 25, 2017

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The rhododendron in Monroe
         from the picture window of my childhood home,

that gave us, every year, its first bloom on the fourth
         of June. Lilacs every April,

a constant hedge of baby’s breath. These things
         still happen in my absence.

And, at the edge of the yard, where all my efforts cease,
         the wild tiger lilies are opening,

tangled in the forsythia,
         just where the woods begin.

“Perennial” by Kendra Tanacea from A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees. © Lost Horse Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem (books by this author), born in Toledo, Ohio (1934).

Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

It’s the birthday of the great Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, and teacher Béla Bartók, born in Sânnicolau Mare, Romania (1881).

Bartók displayed signs of his musical talent almost from birth. He could distinguish between different musical rhythms before he learned to speak in full sentences, and by the age of four he had taught himself to play 40 songs on the piano.

While on vacation in 1904, Bartók overheard a nanny from Transylvania singing folk songs to her children and he became enamored of folk music and its study. He dedicated his life to collecting over 6,000 folk songs from Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Algeria, and Turkey, recording them on a gramophone. Bartók’s own work was influenced by the music he encountered throughout the regions he visited.

Bartók was a vocal anti-fascist who refused concerts to Germany after the Nazi regime rose to power. He fled Europe shortly after the outbreak of World War II, eventually settling in New York City until his death in 1945.

It’s the birthday of American short-story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). O’Connor had a short life, dying of lupus at the age of 39, but she profoundly influenced literature in the 20th century with dark stories about religion, redemption, sin, and guilt in the American South, like the novels Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She once said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.” O’Connor’s father died of lupus when she was 15.

O’Connor was a beloved only child. Her childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, still stands adjacent to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Lafayette Square. O’Connor once said she was a Catholic “not like someone else would be a Baptist, or a Methodist, but like someone else would be an atheist.” When she was six, she was filmed by a British news service while a chicken that she’d personally trained walked backward. The newsreel was shown around the world, calling her “Little Mary O’Connor.” She said, “Everything since has been an anticlimax.”

In college she became a bit famous for her funny, wry cartoons for the newspaper, like the one in which a bespectacled wallflower at a school dance thinks, “Well, I can always be a Ph.D.” In another, a frumpy girl asks a school librarian, “Do you have any books the faculty doesn’t particularly recommend?” She sent some of her cartoons to The New Yorker, but they were rejected.

She hit her stride at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she began working on what would become the novel Wise Blood, about a returning World War II veteran named Hazel Motes who is haunted by a crisis of faith. It was at Iowa that she began to call herself “Flannery” instead of “Mary.” She said, “Who would want to buy these stories of an Irish washerwoman named Mary O’Connor?” When Wise Blood was published, it didn’t sell very well, but it’s now considered a classic of Southern literature. Her fiction was considered somewhat grotesque and gothic, with its reliance on religion and sin, but O’Connor could not care less. She said, “To the hard of hearing shout, and for the almost blind, draw large and startling figures.”

Flannery O’Connor lived for two years in the garage apartment of poet Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally, in Connecticut. Fitzgerald later translated The Iliad and The Odyssey. O’Connor felt so at home that she would spend the morning writing, then taking care of the Fitzgerald kids, and then help Sally was the dinner dishes. O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, though, and had to return home to Milledgeville, Georgia, to a 544-acre farm called Andalusia, where she lived with her mother. The doctors told her she would only live for five more years, but she lived for 12.

At Andalusia, O’Connor raised peafowl. They snacked on the fig trees out back and pecked at the roses. No matter how much pain she was in, even when she’d just had blood transfusions, she wrote for three hours every single morning. She painted portraits of herself with her peafowl and sent their discarded feathers in letters to friends and sometimes gave them to the ladies of Milledgeville for their hats. She became a voracious letter writer, keeping up a correspondence with poet Elizabeth Bishop for eight years, even though they never met in person. Once, on a trip to Brazil, Bishop mailed O’Connor a cross in a bottle, with a little rooster on top of the cross.

Though she was on crutches for most of the last years of her life, O’Connor traveled frequently to give lectures and readings as her reputation grew. She told a friend: “When Harcourt sent my book to Evelyn Waugh, his comment was: ‘If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.’ My mother was vastly insulted. She put the emphasis on ‘if’ and ‘lady.’ ‘Does he suppose you’re not a lady?’ she says.”

Sally Fitzgerald later edited O’Connor’s letters in the book The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1979). Flannery O’Connor’s other books include A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965).

About writing, she said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down on this date in 1911. One hundred and forty-six workers — most of them immigrant women and girls — died in the fire or shortly afterward. It remained the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The owners of the factory were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, known as New York’s “Shirtwaist Kings.” They employed seamstresses to work 13 hours a day, seven days a week, at a rate of 13 cents per hour. Blanck and Harris already had a history of suspicious factory fires, because they would torch their buildings in the middle of the night to collect the insurance money. This isn’t what happened in the Triangle fire, but they had never installed fire sprinklers in the building in case they decided to burn it down as well. The building was horribly unsafe: the factory floors were cramped and overcrowded, the hallways and fire escape were extremely narrow, and only one of the four elevators worked. Of the two stairways that led to the street, one was locked to prevent the workers from sneaking out with stolen goods. The other opened inward, making it almost impossible to open when a panicked mob was trying to escape. The fire hose was rotted and the valve was rusted so badly it couldn’t be opened.

Six hundred workers were in the shop when the fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. Workers rushed to the elevator, but it only held 12 people at a time, and broke down after only a few trips. The lone fire escape collapsed. Some of the girls, desperate to escape the blaze, jumped down the elevator shaft or out the windows to their deaths. Blanck and Harris happened to be on a floor above the fire; they were able to make it to the roof, where they escaped to the building next door. They were later brought before a grand jury on manslaughter charges, but not indicted. Frances Perkins, who would later go on to be named Labor Secretary under FDR, witnessed the fire. She knew something had to be done about workplace conditions. “We’ve got to turn this into some kind of victory, some kind of constructive action,” she said. Perkins and New York governor Al Smith did finally bring about some safety reforms in New York City, including the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law.

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