The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

I Will Make You Brooches by Robert Louis Stevenson. Public domain. (buy now)

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.


Today is the birthday of the creator of Curious George, H.A. Rey (books by this author), born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany (1898). As a kid, he spent a lot of time at the zoo, drawing the animals. In 1939, he and his wife, Margret, both German Jews, were living in Paris when World War II began. They were at work on a new book featuring one of Hans’ animal drawings: a mischievous monkey named Fifi. “It seems ridiculous to be thinking about children’s books,” Rey wrote to a friend. “[But] life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime.” By June 1940, the Nazi invasion was imminent, so Hans built two bicycles out of spare parts, and the Reys gathered whatever they could carry, including the collection of monkey sketches for the book manuscript. They fled Paris two days before the Nazis invaded, and rode 75 miles in three days, which turned into a four-month journey that took them to Lisbon, then Rio de Janeiro, and finally New York.

The first book, Curious George, as the monkey was now called, was published in the United States in 1941. George went on to become an international sensation. Margret Rey explained the little monkey’s success this way: “George can do what kids can’t do. He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do.” H.A. Rey’s explanation was even simpler: “I know what I liked as a child, and I don’t do any book that I, as a child, wouldn’t have liked.”


On this date in 1966the Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York City. It replaced the old building at 39th and Broadway. The new building is the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and it seats 3,800 people. An additional 195 operagoers may stand, if they’re willing. Marc Chagall painted two 30-by-36-foot murals for the lobby, which also boasts 11 crystal chandeliers in the shape of starbursts. There are 21 matching chandeliers in the auditorium; they retract up to the ceiling during performances.

The official opening of the new opera house also marked the debut of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Opening night of the opera was, by most accounts, a giant fiasco. The production was overwrought and the stage was so overloaded with props and people that the brand-new turntable was broken. Star Leontyne Price was trapped inside a pyramid at one point. But the opera house survived its inauspicious beginnings. When the opera season is over, it also houses the American Ballet Theatre.


It’s the birthday of the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., (books by this authorborn in Keyser, West Virginia (1950). He said, “When I was a kid growing up, my friends wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar.”

He went to junior college for a year and then to Yale, and he was the first African-American ever to win a Mellon Fellowship to study at Cambridge, where he earned his Ph.D.

He moved back to the United States, and he was hanging out in a bookstore in New York and found the novel Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Published in 1859, it’s the story of a biracial girl named Frado who is abandoned by her white mother and becomes an indentured servant to a Massachusetts family. Our Nig was attributed to Harriet E. Wilson, and for a long time the book had been dismissed as a sentimental novel written by a white man under a pseudonym. But Gates did some research and he was able to prove that Harriet Wilson was in fact a black woman, whose own life was similar to that of her main character. Gates’ unearthing of Our Nig made his name as a scholar, and he has been a prominent academic and writer ever since. Some of his books include Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Colored People: A Memoir (1994), The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003), and Black in Latin America (2011).


It was on this day in 1620 that the Mayflower set sail from England. There were 102 passengers on board. Although we usually think of the Mayflower as being filled with a persecuted religious group called the Pilgrims, in fact they made up less than half of the passengers, and they called themselves “Saints” — it wasn’t until later that they were called Pilgrims.

The “Saints” were religious separatists who had broken away from the Church of England. In 1607, many of them left for Leiden in Holland, which was much more tolerant of their religious ideas, but they were still excluded from jobs and land ownership, and they struggled to make a living.

Only 35 passengers on the Mayflower were the Leiden Separatists, or “Saints.” The rest of the 102 passengers were recruits from England. They were mostly families who were going as entrepreneurs, to be planters. The “Saints” referred to these people as “Strangers.”

They had 65 miserable days at sea, most of it below deck because the weather was so awful. And the Mayflower didn’t make it to Virginia, but instead was blown off course and ended up on Cape Cod. The passengers decided to settle there, but they were forced to remain on board for more than a month just off the coast of Massachusetts, while leaders went ashore to explore, trying to find a good spot for a settlement. In the meantime, the “Saints” and the “Strangers,” despite a lot of friction, agreed to jointly sign the Mayflower Compact, a governing document that was more or less a social contract, in which everyone agreed to follow certain rules and laws so that they could all coexist.

It was only many years later, in 1840, that someone dug up a description that William Bradford had written about the original “Saints,” who had left Leiden, a place that he called “that goodly & pleasante citie which had been their resting place for near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.” And so the Leiden separatists came to be called Pilgrims in retrospect, and that term came to be applied to everyone who was on board the Mayflower, both “Saints” and “Strangers.”

 


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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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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.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

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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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