The Writer’s Almanac for August 3, 2018

“Ode to the Potato” by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

“They eat a lot of French fries here,” my mother
announces after a week in Paris, and she’s right,
not only about les pommes frites but the celestial tuber
in all its forms: rotie, purée, not to mention
au gratin or boiled and oiled in la salade niçoise.
Batata edulis discovered by gold-mad conquistadors
in the West Indies, and only a 100 years later
in The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff cries,
“Let the skie raine Potatoes,” for what would we be
without you—lost in a sea of fried turnips,
mashed beets, roasted parsnips? Mi corazón, mon coeur,
my core is not the heart but the stomach, tuber
of the body, its hollow stem the throat and esophagus,
leafing out to the nose and eyes and mouth. Hail
the conquering spud, all its names marvelous: Solanum
tuberosum, Igname, Caribe, Russian Banana, Yukon Gold.
When you turned black, Ireland mourned. O Mr. Potato Head,
how many deals can a man make before he stops being
small potatoes? How many men can a woman drop
like a hot potato? Eat it cooked or raw like an apple
with salt of the earth, apple of the earth, pomme de terre.
Tuber, tuber burning bright in a kingdom without light,
deep within the earth where the Incan potato gods rule,
forging their golden orbs for the world’s ravening gorge.


Today, in 1527the first known letter from the New World to the Old was sent to King Henry VIII of England. Earlier that year, King Henry had chosen Master John Rut, a mariner from Sussex, to command an expedition to North America in search of what would eventually become known as the Northwest Passage, a northerly route to Asia through or around North America. Rut set sail a generation after King Henry’s father had sent the first unsuccessful explorers into the icy waters of subarctic Canada, the expeditions driven partly by scientific naïveté and by the mistaken belief that, no matter how far north, seawater and ocean passages could not freeze.

John Rut was given two ships — the Mary Guildford, which he captained, and the Samson — and headed into the Atlantic from Plymouth Harbor on June 10th of that year. The ships sailed for nearly a month before being separated during a storm at sea, and the Mary Guildford continued on alone, exploring the Labrador coast before coming into harbor at the port of St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland in early August. On August 3rd, Master Rut wrote to King Henry VIII, and here is a portion of what he had to say:

      Pleasing your honourable Grace to hear of your servant John Rut, with all his company here, in good health, thanks be to God, and your Grace’s ship the Mary Gilford. [We] ran in our course to the northward … and there we found many great islands of ice and deep water; we found no sounding, and then we durst not go further to the northward for fear of more ice.

[And] then we cast about to the southward and, within four days after, we had one-hundred-and-sixty fathom, and [then] fell with the mainland. We met with a great island of ice, and came hard by her, for it was standing in deep water; and so went with Cape de Bas, a good harbour and many small islands, and a great fresh river going far up into the main land, and the main land all wilderness and mountains and woods, and no natural ground but all moss, and no inhabitation nor no people in these parts. And in the woods we found footing of divers [diverse] great beasts, but we saw none, not in ten leagues.

And please your Grace, the Samson and we kept company all the way till within two days before we met with all the islands of ice, that was the first day of July at night, and there rose a great and marvelous great storm, and much foul weather. I trust in almighty Jesu to hear good news of her. And please your Grace, we were considering and a’writing of all our order, how we would wash us and what course we would draw, [and] so departed southward to seek our fellow.

The third day of August we entered into a good haven, called St. John, and there we found eleven sail of Normans, and one Brittaine, and two Portugall barks, and all a’fishing, and so we are ready to depart toward Cape de Bas [as] shortly as we have fished, and so along the coast till we may meet with our fellow, and [with] all the diligence that lies in me [as] we were commanded at our departing. And thus Jesu save and keep your honorable Grace, and all your honorable Rever(ences), in the Haven of Saint John, the third day of August, written in haste, 1527.

By your servant John Rut to his uttermost of his power.


On this day in 1841, prolific children’s author Juliana Horatia Ewing (books by this author) was born in the village of Ecclesfield in Yorkshire, England. She was the eldest daughter of the Reverend Alfred Gatty and his wife, Margaret Gatty, a scientist, science writer, and children’s author.

In a memoir of the writer, Juliana Horatia and Her Books, Juliana’s sister writes that Julie was “at once the projector and manager of all our nursery doings,” originating each fresh game and idea, keeping her siblings entertained with stories she would invent as she told them, taking inspiration from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, and even from the woodcuts in a German ABC in the children’s library. Juliana set her siblings to planting garden plots, wrote plays for them, made bowers under the lilac bushes, and gave fantastical names, like “The Mermaid’s Ford,” to the places they played.

In 1859, Juliana founded a lending library in Ecclesfield, and in 1861 began her publishing career with the short stories “A Bit of Green” and “The Blackbirds Nest.” In 1866, Juliana’s mother began Aunt Judy’s Magazine for Children, giving it the nickname her seven younger children had for Juliana in her role as their favorite storyteller, and eventually printing most of her daughter’s stories for children. Juliana’s stories were wildly popular and would also, during her lifetime, be published as many stand-alone volumes and collections.

In 1867, Juliana married Major Alexander Ewing of the British army and 1869 published her first book, Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances, a collection of stories from Aunt Judy’s Magazine, followed by the book The Brownies and Other Tales. Her stories were meant to entertain as well as promote Christian values. And as her sister remembers, they showed her universal sympathy for the interests and troubles of even those who appeared to the Victorian eye as “unworthy,” for, to Juliana, “the value of each soul [was] equal in God’s sight.”

There were new stories and poems every year. 1871 saw the first volume of her Verses for Children, and in 1879 she published one of her best-known books, Jackanapes, a wistful tale of heroic sacrifice. That same year, Major Ewing was ordered to Malta, but Juliana was forced to stay behind owing to ill health. When he returned in 1883, the couple moved to Devonshire, then to lodgings at Bath early in 1885, perhaps to take advantage of its spas and thermal springs. Juliana failed to improve and died in Bath the following month. Her poem “Gifts” is gentle reflection on separation:
You ask me what since we must part
You shall bring back to me.
Bring back a pure and faithful heart
As true as mine to thee.

You talk of gems from foreign lands,
Of treasure, spoil, and prize.
Ah love! I shall not search your hands
But look into your eyes.

Although practically unknown today, Juliana Horatia Ewing was immensely popular in her time and still has a dedicated following of readers today. She was also enormously influential on others: Edith Nesbit, author of The Five Children and It series, was an admirer; Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, is said to have known her novel Jan of the Windmill by heart; and the founders of the Girl Guide movement named their junior-level scouts in honor of her Brownies.


It’s the birthday of the poet Marvin Bell (books by this author), born in Center Moriches, a farming community on the south shore of Long Island (1937). After a stint in the Army, he returned home in 1966 and published his first book of poetry, Things We Dreamt We Died For,to critical acclaim. Ten years later, he published Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See,which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bell went on to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 40 years, and served as Iowa’s first poet laureate in 2000.

Marvin Bell said, “Much of our lives involves the word ‘no.’ In school we are mostly told, ‘Don’t do it this way. Do it that way.’ But art is the big yes. In art, you get a chance to make something where there was nothing.”


Today is the birthday of poet Hayden Carruth (books by this author), born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). He attended college in Chapel Hill before serving two years in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and later he went to graduate school on the GI Bill, fell in love with jazz, learned the clarinet, and began to write poetry. He worked as an editor in Chicago, but in 1953, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the next year and a half in treatment for alcoholism and anxiety. He underwent electroshock therapy and left by his own account “in worse shape than I went in.”

Carruth then decided to move to the rural communities of Vermont and New York State. He began to farm, worked as a mechanic, hired himself out as a field hand, and wrote nightly, sometimes not finishing with farm work until after midnight. He freelanced occasionally, but his income after several years was a scant $600, and at one point he had to steal corn meant for livestock to survive. He kept up this hardscrabble lifestyle for decades, and his poetry reflected those on the margins who live by their hands: field workers, farmers, jazz musicians, mental patients, war protesters, lonely fathers. The writer Wendell Berry credits Carruth’s poetry for showing him that there was beauty to be found in places others considered “nowhere” as he weighed his own return to rural life.

In 1996, at the age of 75, his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey won the National Book Award. Carruth died in 2008 after complications from a stroke.


Today is the birthday of the journalist and war correspondent Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (books by this author), born near Dana, Indiana (1900). He went to Indiana University, and with only a semester left, he quit school went to work on the Washington Daily News. He soon made editor, married, and worked nonstop for three years. But he was restless and didn’t like being behind a desk, so he and his wife packed up their Ford roadster and took off on a 9,000-mile trip around the U.S.

When World War II broke out, he became a war correspondent, writing stories from the front from the soldier’s perspective. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work and was instrumental in securing combat pay for troops. Congress named this legislation the Ernie Pyle Bill.

He said: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

Pyle was killed by machine-gun fire on an island just north of Okinawa on April 18, 1945. When control of the island was regained by the Japanese, the monument to Ernie Pyle there was one of just a few allowed to remain standing.

 


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