Wednesday Nov. 8, 2017

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You Could Never Take a Car to Greenland

my daughter says. Unless the car could float.
Unless by car you mean boat. Unless the ocean
turned to ice and promised not to crack.
Unless Greenland floated over here,
having lifted its anchor. Unless we could row
our country there. Our whole continent
would have to come along, wouldn’t it? Unless
we cut ourselves free. What kind of saw
could we use for that? What kind of oars
could deliver one country to another?
She asks, Why is Greenland called Greenland
if it’s not green? Why is Iceland called
Iceland if it’s greener than Greenland?
Unless it’s a trick, a lie: the name Greenland
is an ad for Greenland. Who would go
promised nothing but ice? Who would cut
her home to pieces and row away for that?

“You Could Never Take a Car to Greenland” by Maggie Smith from Good Bones. © Tupelo Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (1954) (books by this author), best known for haunting, elegiac novels like Remains of the Day (1989), about an English butler working in a big house in the years before World War II, which won the Booker Prize.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five (1960). He didn’t go back for 29 years. Ishiguro says: “I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie. In England, I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan.” As a child in England, he pored over comic books and was obsessed with movies about cowboys and the American West, which influenced his later writing.

Ishiguro spent a gap year after university hitchhiking through America and working for the Queen Mother as a grouse beater in Balmoral, all the while hauling around his portable typewriter and guitar. He says, “I tried to be a songwriter, but the door never opened.” He decided to write a 30-minute radio play called Potatoes and Lovers, about two young people working in a fish-and-chips joint. They are both cross-eyed, and they fall in love. It was an odd plot, but he used it to apply to graduate school in creative writing, and he got in. His first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), was published to international acclaim.

Ishiguro’s novels include An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Buried Giant (2015), and The Unconsoled (1995), a 500-page book narrated by a pianist — a book that one critic said “invented its own category of badness.” It’s now considered a classic.

On his writing, Kazuo Ishiguro says: “You can think of me like an early aviator before airplanes were properly invented. I’m building some sort of flying machine in my back garden. I just need it to fly. And you know how odd some of those early flying machines looked? Well, my novels are a bit like that. I put them together out of anything I can think of according to my thinking to make the thing fly.”

Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature this year.

It’s the birthday of novelist Margaret Mitchell (books by this author), born in Atlanta (1900), author of Gone With the Wind, which won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize. Her father was president of the Atlanta Historical Society, and she grew up hearing tales of the Confederacy. Before writing her one novel, she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal for six years, then spent 10 years researching and writing her panoramic tale of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a Southern point of view.

For many years, Gone with the Wind remained the greatest publishing success ever, selling a record 1,383,000 copies its first year (50,000 in a single day). The movie came out in 1939, won the Best Picture Academy Award the next spring, and went on to make more money than any other film for more than two decades. By the time Mitchell died at 48, after being hit by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street, 8 million copies of her novel had been sold in 40 countries.

She was stunned by her book’s phenomenal success. In a thank-you note to a reviewer, she wrote: “I haven’t any literary style, and I know it, but have never been able to do anything about it. I am very conscious of my lack in this particular, and I was expecting more brickbats about it than any other thing.”

Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary on this date in 1837. The seminary later changed its name to Mount Holyoke College, and it was the first of the “Seven Sisters” — seven women’s liberal arts colleges in the northeastern United States.

Mount Holyoke wasn’t the first women’s college. Others had come and gone — usually because they didn’t have the benefit of a financial endowment that would keep them open past the retirement or death of their founders. Their tuition was usually more than women of modest means could afford. Mary Lyon had come from modest means herself: she was born on a farm in Buckland, Massachusetts, and took over the running of the household when she was 13 years old, after her widowed mother remarried and moved away. She started teaching when she was 17, and met many progressive and passionate educators.

In 1834, U.S. Representative Laban Wheaton asked Lyon to help establish the Wheaton Female Seminary. Lyon developed the curriculum and began thinking about establishing another women’s college, one that would accept students from a wider range of economic backgrounds. She had studied chemistry and knew that — contrary to popular belief — women were just as capable as men of withstanding the rigors of a college education. She wanted her new seminary to be on par with any of the 120 men’s colleges in the United States, with no classes in the stereotypically feminine “domestic arts.”

Lyon needed to raise money, so she set off on in a stagecoach, armed with her convictions and a green velvet bag in which to collect donations. It was a daunting task; the country was in the middle of an economic depression, and not everyone could afford a cash donation. Some people just contributed a few pennies, and others donated fabric and feathers for student bedding. Lyon often despaired that her vision would ever become a reality; she wrote to a friend: “There are more than nine chances out of ten that the door of Providence will be closed against all future operations toward founding a permanent institution [for women].” But she didn’t give up, and eventually she raised enough money to open her seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

The school opened its doors to its first class of 80 young women on this day in 1837. The seminary was housed in a single building, and Lyon had to turn away some 400 applicants the following year because she didn’t have the space for them. Tuition was 60 dollars a year, about one-third the cost of nearby Ipswich Female Seminary, where Lyon had once taught. Students were expected to walk a mile after breakfast, and take calisthenics classes. They were required to take at least seven classes in science and mathematics. They also pitched in to help cook and clean. Emily Dickinson, a student at Mount Holyoke in the 1840s, cleaned knives. The founders of Vassar College and Wellesley College emulated the Mount Holyoke model. The seminary received its collegiate charter in 1888 and changed its name to Mount Holyoke College in 1895. In 1971, the board of trustees voted to remain a college for women, a definition that now includes transgender and nonbinary students.

Lyon served as the principal of Mount Holyoke for 12 years and oversaw the school’s expansion. She died in 1849 and was buried on the Mount Holyoke campus, in front of Porter Hall and behind the Amphitheater.

Today is the birthday of American activist Dorothy Day (1897) (books by this author). Day spent her life fighting for women’s rights, civil rights, and the poor. She was a lively and curious young woman when she landed in Greenwich Village after two years of college in Illinois. She quickly became part of the bohemian lifestyle, making friends with playwright Eugene O’Neill and writer John Reed, and working as a journalist for several socialist and progressive publications. She even interviewed Leon Trotsky. The New Yorker once referred to Dorothy Day as, “perhaps the most famous radical in the history of the American Catholic Church.”

Her days in the Village inspired her autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924). She said: “I was only eighteen, so I wavered between my allegiance to Socialism, Syndicalism (the I.W.W.’s), and Anarchism. When I read Tolstoy I was an Anarchist. My allegiance to The Call kept me a Socialist, although a left-wing one, and my Americanism inclined me to the I.W.W. movement.” In the epilogue to the novel, she wrote, “I thought I was a free and emancipated young woman and found out I wasn’t at all […] Freedom is just a modernity gown, a new trapping that we women affect to capture the man we want.” When the movie rights were sold for $2,500, she bought a beach house and began writing in earnest.

She also converted to Catholicism and, along with Peter Maurin, a French Catholic social activist, began a publication called The Catholic Worker, devoted to issues of poverty, social justice, and civil rights. The first issue was edited in the kitchen of a tenement on Fifteenth Street, and the writers received no salaries. Printing was made possible by donations by regular people, like priests and shift workers, and even a homeless woman who donated a dollar. The paper debuted in 1933 and cost one penny. It still does.

In the first issue, Dorothy Day declared that the paper was, “For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight. For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.” The paper led to the creation of “houses of hospitality” in New York City and across the U.S., where homeless people, especially women, could seek shelter and assistance.

Day became something of a counter-culture icon during the 1960s, with radical Abbie Hoffman calling her “the original hippie.” She was an ardent anti-war activist and was often arrested during protests. Her last jail stay was when she was 76 years old. She served 10 days for walking a picket line with Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist.

Dorothy Day died in one of the very same hospitality houses she helped create. An employee said she died of “a long and hard life.”

About her life’s work serving the poor, Dorothy Day once said: “What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute — the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words — we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

And she said, “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the Psalms.”

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