The Writer’s Almanac for August 5, 2018

“Birds of Passage” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;

And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.

But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
And distant sounds seem near,

And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.

I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.

I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.

Oh, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.

They are the throngs
Of the poet’s songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.

This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,

From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.


It’s the birthday of Guy de Maupassant, (books by this author) born in Normandy (1850), one of the great French short-story writers. He became an apprentice of Gustave Flaubert, who used to invite him to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his early work. In just 10 years, between 1880 and 1890, he wrote most of the work for which he is remembered, including 300 stories and five novels.


The New York Daily News debuted the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” on this day in 1924. Cancelled in 2010 after a run of nearly 86 years, the street-smart redhead inspired a radio show, a Broadway musical, three film adaptations, mass-marketed books, and merchandise that included everything from lunchboxes to curly wigs. Although only a fraction of this happened before the strip’s creator, Harold Gray, died in 1968, it was enough to make him a millionaire.

Gray’s wealth drew criticism during the Great Depression, when he used the strip to voice his populist political beliefs: namely, that the poor ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps without government intervention or assistance. This is how his character Daddy Warbucks, the tuxedoed war profiteer, had succeeded, transforming his modest machine shop into a World War I munitions factory. Gray expressed his distaste for FDR and his New Deal in the strip’s storylines, prompting one left-leaning writer to label it “Hooverism in the funnies.” The public didn’t seem to care — in 1937, “Little Orphan Annie” was the most popular comic in the country.

Forty years later, when the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted the strip for the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, he subverted Gray’s original politics. The updated Annie stumbles upon a “Hooverville” of homeless people who sing the ironic “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” and she is later saved from greedy imposter parents and the evil orphanage supervisor by FDR himself. The play — and the 1982 film — ends with a rousing chorus of the song “A New Deal for Christmas,” celebrating the economic plan that the strip’s creator had so despised.

Politics aside, both Gray and Meehan had hard-knock lives, at least as teenagers. Meehan’s father died when he was 15, and Gray was orphaned just before finishing high school.

Although Gray credited a girl he’d met on the streets of Chicago as his inspiration for the character of Annie, he took the strip’s title from that of a popular poem by James Whitcomb Riley, originally published in 1885. That Annie was based on a real orphan girl who lived in the poet’s home during his childhood, earning her room and board by helping Riley’s mother with the housework. The child was called Allie, short for Alice, and the poem based on her was supposed to be called “Little Orphant Allie.” A simple typo changed her name to Annie, and by the time Riley requested that it be corrected, the poem was gaining popularity and he let the misprint stand.
From the first stanza that started it all:
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep. 


Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.” That’s writer Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Henry County, Kentucky (1934), the son of a lawyer and tobacco farmer. His ancestors on both sides farmed the county for five generations. After going off to college and teaching creative writing in the Bronx for a couple of years, Berry joined that lineage, purchasing a 125-acre homestead near the birthplace of his parents, where he still farms and writes poetry, novels, and essays. From his outpost, Berry tackles the intersection of civic life and the natural world, writing that “essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the land.”

His eight novels, including Jayber Crow (2000) and Hannah Coulter (2004), together with his many short stories, form a saga of a small fictional Kentucky town called Port William. Through the lives of the townspeople, Berry explores the costs of war, the effects of farm policy, and the challenges and pleasures of community.

Berry wrote: “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

And: “Every day do something that won’t compute […] Give your approval to all you cannot understand […] Ask the questions which have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years […] Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts […] Practice resurrection.”


It’s the birthday of Conrad Aiken (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). His parents were wealthy New Englanders who had moved south for his father’s medical practice. When he was 12, with no warning or explanation, his father became increasingly emotionally unstable and violent. He woke one morning to the sound of gunshots and discovered the bodies of his parents — his father had shot his mother before turning the gun on himself. Aiken went to live with an aunt in Massachusetts where he attended private New England schools before entering Harvard. He started writing a poem a day, always changing the form, paying little attention to the content. He met T.S. Eliot through the literary magazine and the two developed a lifelong friendship, bonding over literature, drinking, and Krazy Kat comics.

In 1952, Aiken published his autobiography Ushant, all about the trauma of his childhood, and his own attempt at suicide, his affairs, and many literary friendships. Towards the end of his life, he returned to his hometown Savannah to live until his death in 1973 at the age of 84.

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

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This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

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