Let My People Go

Passover begins at sunset today. In celebration I post here a page of my daughter’s Main Lesson book from our Stories of the Hebrew People block.

And after the sun goes down, in Jewish households all over the world a child will ask the first of the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all other nights?

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Loveliest of Trees

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Every year about now I start muttering this poem to myself. And I ponder how suitable it was that its author, Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), was born on this day, in the season of the lovely, evanescent, and melancholy cherry blossom.

Housman was one of seven children of a rather depressed solicitor in Fockburg, England who had a tendency to invest heavily in failed inventions. No wonder he was depressed. Housman’s health was frail, and in school he was subject to bullying. As many were, in pretty much any fine olde boys’ public school. His beloved mother’s death when he was twelve was a severe blow. However, as a student he showed great promise, and he won a scholarship to Oxford, where he took up classics.

Although he was brilliant, Housman was unwilling to expend much energy on what didn’t interest him, and he much preferred his studies of the Latin poets to philosophy and ancient history. He failed to pass his final exams, and there is speculation that the cause was not only neglect of his studies but also the disappointing (and lifelong) attachment he had developed to his school roommate, Moses Jackson, which never went beyond friendship (Jackson being heterosexual).

Housman’s failure to pass his studies made it impossible to enter a position in academia, but Jackson, who couldn’t give him True Love, obtained for Housman through his connections the next best thing—a Steady Government Job. (And that sounds really attractive in the current economy.) So for the next ten years Housman was a London Patent Office Clerk by day and classical scholar by night, studying Greek and Roman classics independently and writing articles for learned journals, gradually gaining an impressive reputation that led to a professorship in Latin, first at University College, London, and then Cambridge University, where he eventually published several volumes of his meticulous textual analysis and translation.

But do we remember Housman for his brilliant Latin scholarship? No, we do not. Unless we are brilliant Latin scholars ourselves. No, this clerk by day and scholar by night was somehow finding the time to write evocative lyrical poetry. In 1896 he assembled a collection of 63 of his poems and went looking for a publisher. After being rejected by several, he decided to publish the collection, titled A Shropshire Lad, at his own expense, surprising his colleagues, who evidently had had no idea of Housman’s other interest. The book sold slowly at first, but as musicians set some of his ballad-like poems to music, its reputation grew, and with the advent of the First World War, his themes of death and loss struck a chord in the public. It became one of the most popular volumes of serious poetry ever published.

Apparently an aloof, intimidating professor with a sarcastic wit, Housman was not an easy companion, and when Jackson married, he did not even send Housman word. Housman gradually became increasingly reclusive. But when Jackson was gravely ill in Canada, Housman decided to assemble his unpublished poems so that his old friend could read them before he died. These were published as Last Poems in 1922, 36 years after A Shropshire Lad. One more collection was published posthumously.

And that’s it. What Housman created as a sideline (“I am not a poet by trade; I am a professor of Latin”) has become an inextricable and unforgettable component of the body of English poetry. Housman said once, “The emotional part of my life was over when I was thirty-five years old.” Yet his poetry, at once spare and vivid, is imbued with feeling, without being sentimental. What he did not permit himself in life he has given us on the page.

So go for a walk under the pink and drifting petals, and wish Alfred Housman a Happy Birthday.

A Love Story

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How is this for a romantic tale. Intellectual semi-invalid is still living at home in seclusion in her mid-thirties, quietly writing poetry and essays. Her published, widely read poems catch the attention of a handsome fellow-poet, six years her junior, who writes her a lengthy letter that says, among other things:

I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett… so into me it has gone, and part of me it has become… and I love you too.

Thus began a correspondence—reluctant on her side, urgent on his, between Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), whose birthday it is today, and Robert Browning—that culminated in their growing mutual attachment and eventual secret elopement. Like many (all?) romantic tales, it had its dark underside, this one of slavery, paternal tyranny, multiple sad deaths, and mysterious illness.

Barrett was the first-born in a large prosperous family in Coxhoe, England, whose income derived partly from slave-worked plantations in Jamaica (perhaps this was related to Barrett’s later abolitionist stance). She was educated at home and demonstrated in childhood a gift for language: writing poetry, reading Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante, and learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (incorporated later into her poetry) sufficiently well to take up translation and analysis. To these she later added Italian, German, and Spanish.

But by age twenty she was already declining physically from some unknown, untreatable cause. The deaths of her mother and grandmother took their toll on her, and the accidental drowning of a favorite brother made her a recluse in her misery. In the meantime the abolition of slavery in England brought an end to the Jamaica income and obliged the family to live simply. Throughout all this she continued to write and publish essays and poetry, passionate, deeply felt, finely crafted, expressive of political and social as well as personal themes. And despite her seclusion, she corresponded widely with other writers and scholars.

Thus Browning was smitten. When he finally whisked Barrett off secretly to tie the knot and honeymoon in Italy, her father disinherited her—as he did each of his children who chose to marry. Yikes! Some family therapy would not have been amiss here.

After their marriage Barrett showed Browning the sonnets she had been writing, the most famous of which (not the one above, but number XLIII) has been widely reproduced and even (gasp) parodied. The couple stayed in Italy and, despite their late start, Barrett/Browning gave birth to a little Robert when she was 43. So their tale concludes probably as happily as any—with the two of them madly in love, raising their babe, writing poetry together, respected, reasonably comfortable, and in ITALY besides. Happy Birthday (and apologies), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with gratitude not only for the poetry but for the love story.


Literary Washington

Here is the inside of the Washington DC Literary Map for which I posted the cover on 2/21. (The size in real life is 26 inches x 19 inches.)

The following is the description given on the Woman’s National Book Association website:

“The literary map identifies and celebrates locations in Washington and surrounding areas that are associated with 44 authors who have lived or worked here, including Rachel Carson, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Clare Booth Luce, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. The map also contains biographical information about the authors, a list of authors born or buried in the Washington area, other places with literary connections, and a selective list of books set in Washington.”

I was surprised myself to see how many writers have Washington, DC connections.

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Washington’s Monument

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Today is the 125th anniversary of the dedication (in 1885) of the Washington Monument. It was certainly a long time a-building, considering Pierre Charles L’Enfant had included a location for a monument to George Washington in his 1791 drawings for the new capital city. What L’Enfant had in mind, though, was an equestrian statue.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress thought a tomb might be a better plan—hey, how about right inside the Capitol? But his wife Martha wasn’t too happy with that idea. Progress stalled until the 1830s, when a group of impatient citizens raised funds themselves and held a competition for a monument design. The other entries were far more complicated: designs for monuments rich in Gothic windows, enlivened by multicolored stonework, festooned with all manner of carving and statuary. It makes me wonder how much the final choice was driven by budget. Even the award-winning design by Robert Mills originally had a colonnade at the base.

Construction began at last in 1848 and continued in fits and starts, slowed by the Civil War, lack of money, and anti-Catholic fervor (don’t ask). Congress occasionally offered funds. Reading American history I am struck by how reluctant the U.S. government used to be to spend money on much of anything, no matter the generally acknowledged need or value. When Congress finally decided to fund the rest, the monument went up quickly and immediately began to draw crowds. According to the National Park Service, it has over 800,000 visitors a year and is still the TALLEST STONE STRUCTURE in the WORLD. How about that.

You may be asking, “What the heck does this have to do with a picture of a Monument-Pen?” Well, uh… this image is the cover of a Literary Map of Washington DC commissioned by the Women’s National Book Association and featuring writers who have lived and worked here. For February 21st, I searched my work for a Monument image. And thereby hangs the tale. (Later this month I will post the illustrated map inside, so you can see what it looks like. It’s available at DC bookshops or through the WNBA.)

There is a celebration of the anniversary at 1pm today at the foot of the Monument.

The Tomes They Are A-Changin’

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This may be a little cryptic. It’s my response to a recent meeting held at the much-loved local library, in which unwelcome developments present and future were laid out before us. Despite its being held during a snowstorm, the meeting was well-attended by many unhappy patrons.

A Long Winter

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Then you may get a sense of the resilience and inner resources of the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), whose birthday it is today. Such was the winter they experienced in Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880-81.

Wilder, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, is well-known from her “Little House” books depicting 19th-century pioneer life through the eyes of a growing child. They are unique in combining a finely observed and personal yet unsentimental window into iconic aspects of American history: travel by covered wagon, homesteading, Indian migration, education in a one-room schoolhouse—with fascinating homely detail: cheesemaking, house construction, sugaring off—and a glimpse into the inner life of a bright, curious, imaginative girl struggling to adapt to the circumstances of her time and place.

The family’s joys are simple, their sorrows formidable. Crop devastation, malaria, prairie fires, and a sister’s blindness are described; the death of a baby brother is left unrecorded, probably still too painful to include. The books are a quiet testament to stubborn faith, determination, love, and courage, virtues frequently lauded but less often demonstrated. A bouquet of wildflowers on a clean checkered tablecloth and a family hymn accompanied by the paternal fiddle are the stuff of a boundary between hope and despair.

Although she had written magazine articles and newspaper columns, Wilder didn’t publish her first book until 1931, when she was 64, after having been asked for years by her daughter Rose to put her childhood memories on paper. Since then her books have been published in 40 languages and have informed, inspired, and enchanted many millions of readers. Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! You certainly were (and remain) a shining light of my growing-up.

Rivers

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Today is the birthday of [James] Langston Hughes (1902-1967), born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents’ divorce, Hughes spent his childhood with a number of relatives, including his grandmother, who was one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin College. She taught him Bible stories, hymns, and the history of African-American heroes, among them Hughes family members. We can here speculate that this probably had a long-term effect on a thoughtful child with an ear for language.

During his rather isolated early childhood, Hughes began writing his own stories and poems. Despite his father’s disapproval (his father wanted him to become an engineer), he persisted, developing a sensitive, passionate voice that was influenced by jazz, blues, and the speech and concerns of ordinary black Americans. Frustration led him to drop out of Columbia University and try something else. Before he achieved recognition for his writing, Hughes worked as a merchant seaman, busboy, cook, dishwasher, and Paris doorman(!). Wanderlust and perhaps a hopeful temperament made a traveler of him. Hughes said, “Most people are essentially good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”

In his life he spent time in Mexico, West Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union, as well as all over the States, but of all places he loved Harlem best. His first (and prize-winning) book of poems was about Harlem life. He went on to write many books of poetry, novels, essays, short stories, song lyrics, and plays. In the 1930s his work was attacked by critics as disturbingly dark; by the 1960s it was attacked as insufficiently radical. This may be the inevitable fate of many a creative person who lives long enough to endure it.

Man of Many Words

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Today is the birthday of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), scientific writer, lecturer, and author of the Thesaurus, a project that he did not even begin to pursue seriously until his 70s. That ought to encourage the rest of us slowpokes. Roget was a lifelong and compulsive list-maker, a practice that apparently comforted him and helped sustain him through the terrible depressions that plagued him and his extended family, although he suffered tragedy enough throughout his life to justify serious despair. I love my Thesaurus and was inspired by this birthday to get on the library waiting list (speaking of lists) for a recent biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists. Among Roget’s many other admirers is J.M. Barrie:

“The night nursery of the Darling family, which is the scene of our opening Act, is at the top of a rather depressed street in Bloomsbury. We have a right to place it where we will, and the reason Bloomsbury is chosen is that Mr. Roget once lived there. So did we in days when his Thesaurus was our only companion in London; and we whom he has helped to wend our way through life have always wanted to pay him a little compliment. The Darlings therefore lived in Bloomsbury.” —Introduction to Act I of Peter Pan

Natsukashii: A Japanese word used to express the feeling described above. It is not yet in the Thesaurus.

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