The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

The Last Rose of Summer by Thomas Moore. Public Domain.

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone:
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie wither’ d,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?


On this day in 1897, the world’s most famous, most reprinted newspaper editorial was published. Commonly known as the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” column, the 416-word article replied to a letter from an eight-year-old New York City girl whose father deferred her question — “Is there a Santa Claus?” — by suggesting she ask the New York Sun. She did so, and on September 20 an editor at the paper handed it to reporter Francis Pharcellus Church with the request that he respond in the following day’s paper.

Church was a veteran newspaperman, having served as a war correspondent for The New York Times during the Civil War, and the son of the founder of the New York Chronicle. He dashed off his answer to little Virginia O’Hanlon anonymously, saying, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS.”

Today, a small private school is housed in the former home of the O’Hanlon family — with all our modern fears of technology and privacy, Virginia’s address, 115 W. 95th Street, was printed in the paper with her letter. Virginia herself grew up to be a New York City schoolteacher, principal, and activist for children’s rights. As for Francis Church, the author of the editorial that has been translated into 20 languages in hundreds of other papers, books, movies, even postage stamps, because traditions holds that editorials are the “official” voice of the newspaper as a whole and not one singular opinion, he never received any recognition, let alone royalties, for his inspirational editorial. It was only after his death seven years later that Church was credited with its authorship.


On this day in 1970The New York Times premiered a new section called the “Op. Ed. Page,” a section opposite the traditional editorial page that was to be devoted to the columns of outside writers and to illustrations and political cartoons. As the Times wrote on that day, “The purpose of the Op. Ed. Page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times‘s own editorial position, which will continue to be presented as usual in these columns. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from out own.”

The invention of the “op-ed,” or, to put it another way, the willingness of a newspaper to include the perspective of non-newspaper writers, as well as its endorsement of visual art, shifted the way newspapers did business — and the way readers interacted with them. No longer a faceless arbiter of fact and opinion, truth and lies, worthy and unworthy, newspapers acknowledged, in this small way, the existence of their own subjectivity and the possibility that their coverage might be enhanced by allowing for more complexity. Including an op-ed page was the first step, perhaps, in the modern dynamism of journalism; for the 40th anniversary celebrating the op-ed, The Times commissioned a documentary video about op-ed artwork, premiered a new Web page design for the section, published selections from online commentary in the newsprint edition, and, yes, printed some op-eds.


It’s the birthday of the creator of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams Lane in Bristol, England (1902). Apprenticed to his publisher uncle when he was 17, Allen became the managing editor of the London publishing house The Bodley Head just six years later.

In 1935, waiting for a train after a visit to one of his writers, Agatha Christie, Lane was irritated to realize that the only reading available for sale on the platform was magazines or Victorian novel reprints. How would he occupy himself on the trip back to the city, he wondered … and then, the question broadened: Might not the average train rider wish to read something else too? Might the public buy quality literature if it were only available to them in a form and price more palatable than a hardbound in a bookstore?

Lane was determined that paperbacks, then mostly low-quality products of low-quality writing, could be the vehicles of great, contemporary fiction. At the suggestion of his secretary, he said, he took the penguin as his new company’s “dignified but flippant” name and symbol. Of course, the German publisher Albatross, which had already begun producing similar paperbacks a few years earlier, might have been an additional inspiration. Whatever the origin of Lane’s idea or company name, he was right: Within a year the house had sold 3 million paperbacks, each at the price of a pack of cigarettes.

Like most innovations, Lane’s idea — and his success — was initially regarded as a cause for concern by many other publishers and writers. It lowered the aesthetic value of great works of literature — a book like The Grapes of Wrath, for example, needn’t be a beautifully bound hardcover to last a lifetime, but could instead exist as a nearly disposable pocket-sized tome in bright orange, adorned with a funny little bird in mid-waddle. But Lane claimed paperbacks would effectively democratize literature, converting frequent library users to book buyers and readers of crummy pap into readers of classic prose.


It’s the birthday of horror writer Stephen King (books by this author), born in Portland, Maine (1947). King learned to write, he’s said, after a satirical newspaper article he wrote lampooning his high school teachers got him into trouble. The guidance counselor arranged for him to work at a local paper as a way to put his creativity to more productive use; it was there that he wrote a sports feature and realized, watching the editor mark up his copy with a big black pen, that he could really write … and that he could learn to make his writing better. When he assured the editor that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes again, the editor laughed, saying, “If that’s true, you’ll never have to work again. You can do this for a living.”

King nearly proved the editor right. After graduating from college, he worked in an industrial laundry for a year, then got a job teaching high school English. It was only two years later that he learned that the sale of the paperback rights for his first novel, Carrie, was so big he could afford to write full-time.

King said, “Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”

And he said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”


Today is the birthday of H.G. Wells (books by this author), born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England (1866). He failed at a series of apprenticeships, but then he won a scholarship to a science college, where he learned about biology and Darwinism from Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of the writer Aldous Huxley. But he failed his geology exam and had to leave school. Wells had a series of medical problems and he often thought he was dying, but this only prompted him to write more and faster. Over a period of three years, he produced his three most famous books: The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). He lived until he was 79—much longer than he expected to—and he continued to produce books at a rate of two or three a year for the rest of his life; in the end, he’d published more than a hundred books.

H.G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”


It was on this night in 1823 that Joseph Smith Jr. (books by this author) claimed to have been visited by an angel named Moroni, who told him how to find golden plates that contained the text of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was visited five separate times during the night and early morning, in his family’s log cabin home near Palmyra, New York. He wrote later: “While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness.”

Moroni explained to Smith that there were golden plates located near his cabin that contained the true Gospel, which had been told “by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.” The angel himself was one of these ancient inhabitants, who had been brought by God to the Americas from Jerusalem, about 600 years before the birth of Jesus.

Four years after he was first visited by Moroni, in 1827, Joseph Smith was allowed to take the golden plates and translate them for the world. He called the language that they were written in “reformed Egyptian,” which he claimed was the language that had evolved from Hebrew among those people whom God had brought to America.

In order to translate from this “reformed Egyptian,” Smith used stones he called “seer stones.” He finished his translation by 1829, then according to Smith, Moroni took the plates back. From the translation he published The Book of Mormon in March of 1830, at which point Joseph Smith Jr. was just 24 years old. A month later, Smith was starting up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

 


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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

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.

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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