Friday Sep. 4, 2015

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Aunt Helen

Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,
And lived in a small house near a fashionable square
Cared for by servants to the number of four.
Now when she died there was silence in heaven
And silence at her end of the street.
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet—
He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.
The dogs were handsomely provided for,
But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,
And the footman sat upon the dining-table
Holding the second housemaid on his knees—
Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.

“Aunt Helen” by T.S. Eliot from Prufrock and Other Observations. © Faber and Faber, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1886 that Geronimo, the last major Native American warrior, surrendered after 30 years of fighting in Arizona. The Apaches had largely been defeated by American troops. Their chief, Cochise, was dead, and the U.S. government forced them to live on a barren reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. But Geronimo organized a group of warriors to fight one last war of resistance. He fought for five years, and many military historians believe he was one of the most brilliant guerilla warfare strategists in history. He started out with a group of about 700 men, women, and children. He surrendered his forces twice, but each time he managed to escape.

For the last five months of the campaign, Geronimo led a band of only 37 warriors, pursued by 5,000 U.S. soldiers for five months without being captured. But Geronimo and his men finally got tired of living in the mountains, and so they surrendered on this day in 1886 in a place called Skeleton Canyon. He was essentially a prisoner of war for the rest of his life, but he was allowed to travel around the country, and he made a living by selling the buttons off his jacket and autographed photos of himself. He appeared at an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, but he never saw Arizona again.

It’s the birthday of historical novelist Mary Renault (1905) (books by this author), born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England, and best known for her novels of Ancient Greece. Renault studied at Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien was one of her tutors. She used her extensive knowledge of medieval history as the backdrop for her first novel, which she burned after it was rejected by several publishers. She said the rejections meant “that my experience of life was derived largely from other people’s books, which were good because their writers had got at it firsthand.” She vowed to travel and learn about life by living it.

Renault was working as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary during World War II when she fell in love with another nurse, Julie Mullard, with whom she would have a lifelong relationship. Renault wrote fiendishly during her off-hours. Her first novel, Purposes of Love (1939), about a young nurse’s love affairs, was a best-seller in the United States. It was the only book she would write that focused solely on heterosexual love; all her remaining books would address, subtly or overtly, themes of homosexual love, which outraged some readers. After Renault won a prestigious award in 1946 from MGM for one of her novels, she and Mullard moved to South Africa, where they joined a welcoming community of expatriates. Renault never went back to England.

Renault turned her attention to history, traveling extensively in Greece and teaching herself its history and customs. Her novel The King Must Die (1958) and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea (1962), explored the myth of Theseus from a historically accurate point of view and became international best-sellers. When President Kennedy was asked who his favorite author was, he replied, “Mary Renault.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist Richard Wright (1908) (books by this author), author of the novel Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), a seminal memoir of the African-American experience. Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi, a town he described as “swarming with rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors, and children.”

Wright dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help his family. Blacks weren’t allowed to take out library books in the 1920s, so he forged a letter from an Irish co-worker asking a librarian to “let the colored boy use my card.” Wright read voraciously, studying the styles of different writers. He told a friend, “I want my life to count for something.”

He was in New York by 1937, working on a guidebook of Harlem for the Federal Writers’ Project when his first collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, was published (1938). The collection won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to keep working on the novel that became Native Son, the story of 20-year-old African-American Bigger Thomas, whose utterly bleak life on the South Side of Chicago leads him to commit murder. The first draft was written in four months. The book is a searing examination of the consequences of systemic racism. About the book, Wright said: “I was guided by but one criterion: to tell the truth as I saw it and felt it. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” The novel was an instant sensation, selling more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks.

Wright said: “All literature is protest. You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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