Saturday Dec. 10, 2016

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I’ll tell you how the Sun rose...

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

“I’ll tell you how the Sun rose...” by Emily Dickinson. Public Domain.  (buy now)

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published on this date in 1884. Twain had the idea to write a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one that would follow Tom’s friend Huck all the way into adulthood. He toyed with the idea for a long time, starting and stopping, and eventually setting it aside for years. When he took up the project again, Twain changed his approach, and instead of writing in a formal literary style, Huck narrated his story in a dialect. The book opens with the line, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

It’s the birthday of Melvil Dewey, born in Adams Center, New York (1851). He put himself through college by working in the library, and he felt it was appallingly organized. There was no consistent system across libraries. Some numbered shelves, some arranged books by size just to look nice, and some libraries tried to alphabetize the whole library, which meant that every time they got a new book they had to redo the entire system. He knew there had to be a better way, so he worked on a system of categories and sub-categories, assigning each a system of numbers. And he came up with the Dewey Decimal System, which is still used today in many libraries, a series of classifications divided and subdivided into subjects and a decimal number assigned to each book.

On this day in 1938, American writer Pearl S. Buck received the Nobel Prize in literature for The Good Earth (1931), a novel about the life of a farming family in a Chinese village on the eve of World War I. Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and she was chosen above writers like Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, which caused some derision. William Faulkner, in particular, was still snippy about the award a decade later, when he received his own Nobel Prize.

Pearl Buck spent a year in an attic in Nanjing writing the book. The child of missionaries, she’d spent more than four decades in China, mostly living in the highest house in Zhenjiang, on Cloud Scaling Hill. About her life as an American living in China, she said: “I grew up in a double world, the small white clean Presbyterian American world of my parents and the big, loving, merry, not too clean Chinese world, and there was no communication between them. When I was in the Chinese world, I was Chinese. I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese did, and I shared their thoughts and feelings. When I was in the American world, I shut the door between.”

It’s the birthday of Emily Dickinson (books by this author), born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She lived in a brick house known as the Homestead, and took great pleasure in tending the gardens and growing all kinds of plants in the glass greenhouse that her father built for her and her sister, Lavinia. Emily received a good early education, attending Amherst Academy for seven years, and then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. While there, she was terribly homesick for Amherst, and she rebelled against the school’s strict rules. She returned home to Amherst after her first year, never to go back to Mount Holyoke.

She started writing poetry in her teens, but most of her writing at that time was in the form of letters, many of which have survived. Her mother was stricken with a mysterious illness in 1855, and Emily and Lavinia were homebound for several years while they took care of her. And as her 20s wore on, Emily became more and more reclusive anyway, preferring to interact with people through letters and keep company with her family and her gardens.

Dickinson was a prodigious writer, and wrote nearly 2,000 poems, but she only published about 10 of these in her lifetime. She would send poems to friends, or include them with gifts of baked goods, and even her close family was unaware of her output. There’s one person who did know, and that was the Dickinsons’ Irish maid. Margaret Maher had been born in Tipperary and had immigrated to the United States in around 1855. The Dickinsons hired her in 1869. Maher originally intended it to be a temporary position, because she was planning to move to California to join her brother. Instead, she ended up working for the Dickinson family for 30 years, and she became part of the family. The two women got on very well, even though they were quite different in temperament; Emily described her as “good and noisy, the North Wind of the Family.” The poet would spend hours in the kitchen with Margaret, baking breads and cakes, and scribbling poems on chocolate wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Maher was literate and she even dabbled in poetry herself now and then; the two women wrote poems back and forth to each other. Some scholars believe that Maher’s Irish syntax made it into some of Dickinson’s work. In any case, Dickinson trusted Maher with her poems — literally. She stored them in the trunk that Maher had brought over from Ireland.

Dickinson left strict instructions for Maher to burn her poems after she died, but when the time came, Margaret couldn’t bring herself to do it. In a quandary, she brought the poems to Lavinia, Emily’s sister. Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters, but she agreed with Maher that the poems should be published. Maher also supplied the only daguerreotype that we have of Emily Dickinson. The family didn’t like the picture, but Maher kept it, and gave it to the publisher to include with the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.

When Emily Dickinson died, her surviving family honored one of her last requests: her coffin was carried not by Amherst’s leading citizens, but by six Irish farmworkers — all employees of the Dickinson family. Thomas Kelly, Maher’s brother in law, was the chief pallbearer, and they carried her coffin out through the servants’ door.

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

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