This Day in Literary History

I am a huge fan of Garrison Keillor, something for which I sometimes feel the need to apologize. I’m not sure why. Too white, middle-class, mid-Western? Not hip enough? Hey, if Robert Altman makes a film based on your long-running radio show, that’s about as cool as it gets.

I’m also a huge fan of The Writer’s Almanac. Here’s a bit of today’s edition (14 October 2006):

It’s the birthday of poet E. E. Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings), born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894). He was a man who wrote joyful, almost childlike poems about the beauty of nature and love, even though he was actually a conservative, irritable man who hated noisy modern inventions like vacuum cleaners and radios. He spent most of his life unhappy, struggling to pay the bills, ostracized for his unpopular political views.

He had published several books of poetry, including Tulips and Chimneys (1923), when he traveled to Russia in 1931, hoping to write about the superior society under the rule of communism. He was horrified at what he found. He saw no lovers, no one laughing, no one enjoying themselves. The theaters and museums were full of propaganda, and the people were scared to talk to each other in the street. Everyone was miserable.

When he got home, he wrote about the experience, comparing Russia to Dante’s Inferno. Most of the publishers at the time were communists themselves, and they turned their backs on Cummings for criticizing communist Russia. Many magazines refused to publish his poetry or review his books. But the attacks only made him more stubborn. He said, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

He tried to write a script for a ballet, but it was never performed. He tried writing for the movies in Hollywood, but found that he spent all his time painting humming birds and sunsets instead of working on screenplays. He had to borrow money from his parents and his friends. He said, “I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.” A few years later, he decided to make some extra money by giving a series of lectures at Harvard University. Most lecturers spoke from behind a lectern, but he sat on the stage, read his poetry aloud, and talked about what it meant to him.

The faculty members were embarrassed by his earnestness, but the undergraduates adored him and came to his lectures in droves. Even though he suffered from terrible back pains, and had to wear a metal brace that he called an “iron maiden,” he began traveling and giving readings at universities across the country. By the end of the 1950s he had become the most popular poet in America. He loved performing and loved the applause, and the last few years of his life were the happiest. He died on September 2, 1962.
In the first edition of his Collected Poems, he wrote in the preface, “The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for most people—it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. … You and I are human beings; most people are snobs.”
—–
It’s the birthday of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). She’s the author of short-story collections such as Bliss and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922); and she is known as one of the originators of the modern short story in English.

Her father was an incredibly successful businessman in the growing economy of New Zealand, and he sent her away to school in England. After her 18 birthday, when her parents came to pick her up from her English school and bring her back to New Zealand, she found that she no longer had anything in common with them or their values. She wrote in her journal on the boat ride home, “They are worse than I had even expected. They are prying and curious, they are watchful and they discuss only the food. … For more than a quarter of an hour they are quite unbearable, and so absolutely my mental inferiors.”

As soon as she got back to New Zealand, she became one of the wildest members of the small artistic community there. She had affairs with men and women; she traveled deep into the countryside and lived with the indigenous people; and she published a series of occasionally scandalous stories under a variety of pseudonyms. In a letter to an editor, asking for money, she wrote, “[I have] a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse.” Eventually, her parents gave her an allowance so she could move to London, and she never returned to New Zealand.

Mansfield lived so freely in the London bohemian scene that she eventually had to destroy her own diaries for fear of incriminating evidence. At one point, she married a man she barely knew, but left him before the wedding night was over, because she couldn’t stand the pink bedspread and the lampshade with pink tassels in the hotel room. She had to settle down a bit when her mother came to London and threatened to put her in a convent. She said, “How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?”

She wrote sketches and essays for various newspapers and journals, but she didn’t begin to write the stories that made her famous until her younger brother came to visit her in 1915. They had long talks over the course of the summer, reminiscing about growing up in New Zealand. She hadn’t seen him in years and found that she had more in common with him than any other member of the family. He left that fall to start military duty as a soldier in World War I. She learned two months later that he had been killed while demonstrating how to throw a grenade. She was devastated, and she dealt with her grief by writing a series of short stories about her childhood, including “The Garden Party,” which many consider her masterpiece. She died of tuberculosis a few years later in January 1923, at the age of 34. She wrote, “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you—you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences—little rags and shreds of your very life.”

Rock on, all you writers out there.

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