The Writer’s Almanac for July 29, 2018

“Gauguin’s Grandson” by Paul Hostovsky from The Bad Guys. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

was named Paul Gauguin,
too. He was an artist,
too. He lived in Denmark
in his grandfather’s shadow
all his life. And he chafed
against that shadow.
Like living under a rock—
a rock as big as the biggest
island in French Polynesia.
He painted only insects.
Insects that live under rocks—
beetles, ants, centipedes,
pill bugs. In a later period,
he painted only his wife Marta
in only her long black hair
and horn-rimmed glasses.
Toward the end of his life
he made hundreds of collages
of orthopterous insects—
katydids, mantids, cicadas,
crickets and grasshoppers
with long hind legs for jumping
or, you could say, flying;
and for making a rasping, chafing
sound or, you could say, song.


It’s the birthday of writer Alexis de Tocqueville (books by this author), born in Paris (1805). He was 25 years old when the French government sent him to America to study the prison system. He spent nine months touring towns and cities and taking notes. A few years later, he published his famous book, Democracy in America (1835).

During his tour, the aristocratic Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American Democracy actually worked. He wrote: “There is one thing which America demonstrates invincibly, and of which I had been in doubt up till now: it is that the middle classes can govern a state. I do not know if they would come out with credit from thoroughly difficult political situations. But they are adequate for the ordinary run of society. In spite of their petty passions, their incomplete education and their vulgar manners, they clearly can provide practical intelligence, and that is found to be enough.”


It’s the birthday of poet Stanley Kunitz (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1905). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father committed suicide in a public park before Kunitz was born, and his mother, Yetta, erased all traces of Stanley’s father from the house, and refused to speak about him. She opened up a dry-goods store and sewed clothes in the back room, working overtime to pay off the debts that her husband had left behind, even though legally she was not obligated to pay them.

One thing his mother did not destroy were the books his father had left behind, books by Tolstoy and Dickens. One of Kunitz’s favorite books was the dictionary. He said: “I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like eleemosynary or phantasmagoria — some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly my thought in the beginning was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn’t consider living without it.”

His first job as a boy was riding his horse down the streets of Worcester and lighting the gas lamps at night. He became a reporter for the Worcester Telegram, went to Harvard, and stayed for his master’s degree. He wanted to pursue his Ph.D., but the head of the English department at Harvard told him that Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught by a Jew.

So he moved to a big farm in Connecticut, and worked as a reporter and farmer. He sold fresh herbs to markets in Hartford. Kunitz was drafted into World War II, and when he came back, he was offered a teaching position at Bennington College. In 1949, the college tried to expel one of his students — Groucho Marx’s daughter Miriam — right before her graduation because she had violated a curfew. Kunitz helped organize a protest of the decision, and the president of Bennington showed up at his house and told him to stop immediately. Kunitz took the plant that he was potting and threw it in the president’s face, then quit.

He published a second book, but it was barely noticed. He was so unknown that his third book, Selected Poems (1958), was rejected by eight publishers — three of them refused to even read it. When it was finally published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. When someone asked W.H. Auden why nobody knew about Stanley Kunitz, Auden said: “It’s strange, but give him time. A hundred years or so. He’s a patient man.”

It was more than 10 years before he published his next book, The Testing Tree (1971), and slowly but surely, people began to take notice. He was appointed the poet laureate when he was 95 years old. He died at the age of 100.

He said: “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”


It’s the birthday of novelist and dramatist Newton Booth Tarkington (1869) (books by this author). He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he usually took as his subject the American Midwest and its people. He was sometimes satirical, sometimes melodramatic, and he was one of the most popular novelists of the early 20th century. Literary Digest named him “America’s Greatest Living Writer” in 1922. He’s best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), which Orson Welles turned into a film in 1942; Tarkington also won the Pulitzer for Alice Adams(1921), and he is one of only three novelists to win the prize more than once.

He wrote, “There are two things that will be believed of any man whatsoever, and one of them is that he has taken to drink.”

And, “Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

And, “There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without.”


Vincent van Gogh died on this date in 1890. He had shot himself in the chest in a wheat field two days before, and managed to make it home to his own bed. When he was found, he allegedly said, “I shot myself … I only hope I haven’t botched it,” and all he would tell police was, “What I have done is nobody else’s business. I am free to do what I like with my own body.” The doctor decided not to remove the bullet, and his brother Theo was sent for. He rushed from Paris to his brother’s bedside and reported van Gogh’s last words were “The sadness will go on forever.” Van Gogh’s friend and fellow painter Emile Bernard wrote about the funeral:

“The sun was terribly hot outside. We climbed the hill outside Auvers talking about him, about the daring impulse he had given to art, of the great projects he was always thinking about, and about the good he had done to all of us. We reached the cemetery, a small new cemetery strewn with new tombstones. It is on the little hill above the fields that were ripe for harvest under the wide blue sky that he would still have loved … perhaps.
Then he was lowered into the grave. … Anyone would have started crying at that moment … the day was too much made for him for one not to imagine that he was still alive and enjoying it …”

Experts have argued over the exact nature of his mental illness for nearly a century, variously blaming schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, paint poisoning, and syphilis. His condition, whatever it was, was probably made worse by insomnia, overwork, malnutrition, and drink. He was virtually unknown at the time of his death, and is now one of the most recognized artists of any period. His art is so bound up with the public perception of him as a struggling, tormented, even tragic artist that it’s nearly impossible to separate his work from his myth.


On this day in 1907Sir Robert Baden-Powell set up the first “scout camp” in England and launched the scouting movement. Baden-Powell was a British cavalry officer who had been stationed in India and fought in the Boer War in South Africa; while there, he became friends with the American-born Chief of Scouts, Frederick Russell Burnham. Burnham taught Baden-Powell woodcraft and frontiersman skills, which were relatively unknown in Britain but well-known techniques of the American West. The skill-set formed the basis of scoutcraft.

Baden-Powell and Burnham had been dismayed to learn how few soldiers knew basic first aid and survival skills, so Baden-Powell wrote a small handbook called Aids to Scouting. On his return to England, he discovered that the handbook had become very popular among English schoolboys. He thought he might be able to kill two birds with one stone: provide stimulating activities for young people, and teach them the basic skills that they were lacking, all at one go. He decided to test his theory, and gathered a group of about 20 boys, taking them to Brownsea Island off England’s southern coast. For 12 days, the boys learned tracking, orienteering, and outdoor cooking without utensils. They played games and went on exploratory hikes and patrols. In short, they had a marvelous time.

Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys (1908) the next year, and 10,000 boys showed up at a rally at London’s Crystal Palace. Though Baden-Powell had intended it only for British boys, it spread to other countries, and to girls, and now the scouting movement boasts 41 million members in 216 countries.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

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Read More

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