The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel by George Bilgere from Haywire. © Utah State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Instead, we sit together beside the fountain,
the important novel and I.

We are having coffee together
in that quiet first hour of the morning,
respecting each other’s silences
in the shadow of an important old building
in this small but significant European city.

All the characters can relax.
I’m giving them the day off.
For once they can forget about their problems—
desire, betrayal, the fatal denouement—
and just sit peacefully beside me.

In the afternoon,
at lunch near the cathedral,
and in the evening, after my lonely,
historical walk along the promenade,

the men and women, the children
and even the dogs
in the important, complicated novel
have nothing to fear from me.

We will sit quietly at the table
with a glass of cool red wine
and listen to the pigeons
questioning each other in the ancient corridors.


It’s the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself, since his father’s alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair’s extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the “blood and guts,” which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers’ food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Although they denounced his Socialist preaching, both Winston Churchill and President Teddy Roosevelt praised the book.

Sinclair went on to publish more than 90 books in his lifetime. He also very nearly won the governorship of California after his publication of a booklet titled “I, Governor of California And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.” His radical plan to end poverty met with enough support to land him on the Democratic Party’s ticket, which caused an absolute uproar. His candidacy proved to do very well, but when he ultimately lost to the Republican candidate in 1934, he published a follow-up booklet: “I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked.”


It’s the birthday of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1885. He grew up in New Orleans, and by the age of 17, he was playing piano in bordellos there. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first jazz piece that was published.


It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald, much to the objection of other editors. It was This Side of Paradise, and when the novel came out in 1920, it sold more than 50,000 copies. It was the beginning of Scribner’s becoming one of the most important publishers of new fiction.


It was on this day in 1848 that the American Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its stated purpose was to “procure for the labors of scientific men, increased facilities and a wider usefulness.”

The term “scientist” had been coined just 15 years earlier, and all over the world scientists were making important new discoveries and formulating new ideas. Europe tended to be the center for the great theorists of science — in the year 1848, Léon Foucault set up his first rudimentary pendulum to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation, Darwin was at work on his theory of evolution, Michael Faraday was at the height of his work on electromagnetism. But America was cut off from Europe, and it was hard to compete with the scientific community there. Instead, there was an interest in invention and science that supported industry. Just four years earlier, the first telegraph line was installed, stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Trains were popping up all over the country, and in the year 1848 four times as many train tracks were laid as in 1847. In 1845, Elias Howe had invented the mechanical sewing machine. The inventor Cyrus McCormick had sold the patent for his McCormick Reaper in the 1830s.

Earlier in the century, Lewis and Clark’s journey was the first to make science an exciting and visible aspect of discovering new territory. They observed the weather, the topography, and the geography. They described 182 plant species and 120 animals in their travels; they sent back specimens to the East Coast, a few of them live, including a prairie dog that lived in the White House. By the 1840s, the botanists Asa Gray and George Engelmann were actively cataloguing the plants of the American West. At the same time, anthropology was starting to emerge as its own field, separate from natural history.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, established on this day in 1848, grew to a membership of more than 2,000 by 1860. It kept an emphasis on being inclusive, reaching out to anyone interested in science, and in the 1850s its members included the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore; the astronomer Maria Mitchell; as well as Henry David Thoreau. But Thoreau had mixed feelings about science — on the one hand, he kept meticulous notes and observations on plants, animals, and the weather; but he was wary of technology and new inventions. When he published Walden in 1854, Thoreau complained, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

In 1883, the AAAS began publishing the magazine Science, which is still around and a respected part of the scientific community.

 


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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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