Thursday Aug. 27, 2015


Moon in the Window

I wish I could say I was the kind of child
who watched the moon from her window,
would turn toward it and wonder.
I never wondered. I read. Dark signs
that crawled toward the edge of the page.
It took me years to grow a heart
from paper and glue. All I had
was a flashlight, bright as the moon,
a white hole blazing beneath the sheets.

“Moon in the Window” by Dorianne Laux from Facts About the Moon. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1859, petroleum was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It's been called "the most important oil well ever drilled" because it marked the beginning of the modern petroleum age. Petroleum had been discovered elsewhere, of course, but this was the first well successfully drilled in search of the stuff. Locals had noticed oil seeping from the ground for years; evidence even suggests that Native Americans harvested the oil for medicinal purposes as early as 1410, and European settlers had long used it to fuel their lamps and lubricate their farm machinery. A New York lawyer, George Bissell, had the idea to somehow collect the oil, refine it, and sell it commercially, and he co-founded the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company to that end.

The Drake Well was named for railroad conductor Edwin Drake, who figured out a drilling system to access and collect the oil. Within a day of striking oil, other people were copying Drake's drilling system. The Drake Well only produced about 20 barrels a day, but it transformed the quiet farming community almost overnight, attracting would-be oil company executives and coopers to make the hundreds of barrels needed to collect the crude. Until the Texas oil boom of 1901, Pennsylvania was responsible for half of the world's production of oil, and it spawned the motor oil brands Pennzoil and Quaker State. Edwin Drake never patented his drilling process, and died in poverty in 1880.

Today is the birthday of novelist Theodore Dreiser (books by this author), born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. He was one of the early proponents of naturalism in fiction, a literary movement away from the moralizing and delicate sensibilities of the Victorian era. He’s the author of several novels, most notably Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).

He grew up in poverty, the ninth of 10 surviving children. His father was a German immigrant, piously and rigidly Catholic. The senior Dreiser worked as a millworker, but was often unemployed, and he moved his family around a lot in search of higher wages or a lower cost of living. Dreiser’s numerous brothers and sisters always seemed to be in trouble: adultery, unwanted pregnancies, jail, alcoholism. He was quiet and studious, though, and in high school, he had a teacher named Mildred Fielding. She had also grown up poor in a dysfunctional family, and she sympathized with Dreiser at the same time that she recognized his potential. She encouraged his studies and told him to ignore the gossip of his schoolmates.

Dreiser eventually got fed up with his family’s poverty and scandals; he dropped out of school when he was 16 and left for Chicago with little more than a change of underwear and a few dollars in his pocket. He ran into his old teacher, Mildred Fielding, a couple of years later, and she offered to pay his college tuition for him. He took her up on it, but only stayed in school for a year. He eventually found work as a reporter, and turned his hand to fiction for the first time in 1899, at the urging of a colleague. He often used his family as a source of inspiration for characters or stories.

Sister Carrie (1900) was based in part on a scandal involving his sister Emma, who once ran away with a man who had broken into his employer’s safe and robbed it. Dreiser’s novel is about an 18-year-old country girl from Wisconsin who moves to Chicago to live out her version of the American Dream. She uses her youth and beauty to become the mistress of wealthy men, which enables her to go from poverty to material comfort and a sophisticated lifestyle almost overnight. Because Dreiser didn’t condemn or judge his characters, and let Carrie’s moral failings go unpunished, his publisher had some misgivings about the story. They tried to back out of the contract. Dreiser held them to it, but they didn’t really publicize the book very much, and it sold fewer than 500 copies at the time. Dreiser took the novel’s apparent failure badly, and he spiraled down into a deep depression. He didn’t write another novel for almost 10 years. Sister Carrie is now considered an American classic.

So too is An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first book to sell well. It was published in 1925, the same year as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dreiser got the idea for An American Tragedy when he read a newspaper article about a man who had murdered his pregnant girlfriend to keep their relationship a secret. He followed the story of the trial and clipped articles from the paper when they were published. It was critical of the American legal system, and many social reformers praised it highly for that reason. The book became a best-seller, and was recently included on a Time magazine list of 100 best English-language novels. It was also the last novel Dreiser published in his lifetime. He became too busy with a variety of social causes throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and focused his writing on critiques of communism and capitalism. He also published a memoir of his childhood and teenage years, titled Dawn (1931).

It’s the birthday of the novelist who said: “A man who writes for a living does not have to go anywhere in particular, and he could rarely afford to if he wanted.” And, “When I die there may be a paragraph or two in the newspapers. My name will linger in the British Museum Reading Room catalogue for a space at the head of a long list of books for which no one will ever ask.” That’s C.S. Forester (books by this author), born Cecil Smith in Cairo, Egypt (1899). His first successful novel was The African Queen (1935), about an evangelical English spinster and a grizzled boat captain who fall in love while navigating a river through central Africa.

Forester went on to create the character Horatio Hornblower, one of the most popular characters in English literature, a Royal Navy man who suffers from seasickness, is full of self-doubt, is class-conscious, is a fanatic about discipline and efficiency, and is a hater of the poetry of Wordsworth.

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