Because of the menace
your father opened
like a black umbrella
and held high
over your childhood
blocking the light,
your life now seems
to you exceptional
in its simplicities.
You speak of this,
throwing the window open
on a plain spring day,
after such a winter.
“Weather” by Linda Pastan from The Last Uncle. © W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of a man who described himself as “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc.” That’s John Muir (books by this author), born in Dunbar, Scotland (1838). He was raised on a farm in rural Wisconsin, where his strict father discouraged his interest in science, believing that it was inappropriate to study anything other than the Bible. But when his father finally gave him permission to get up early to read, Muir woke up five hours before everyone else in his family and sneaked down to the cellar to work on mechanical inventions. By the time he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, he had invented countless things, including a bed that set him on his feet every morning and simultaneously lighted a lamp, then opened each of his textbooks for a set length of time. It was at Madison that Muir first became interested in botany, and he began taking whatever courses interested him, whether or not they were meeting his requirements. He attended college for two years but never met enough prerequisites to advance beyond freshman status; and since he never focused on one field of study, his official status in the university records was “irregular gent.”
Muir left school, spent some time wandering around the Upper Midwest and Ontario, and then moved to Indianapolis to work in a wagon wheel factory. His mechanical genius helped the factory, and he was promoted to supervisor, but one day he was working on a piece of equipment when the tool slipped and temporarily blinded him in one eye. He spent six weeks lying in a dark room without knowing whether he would ever regain his sight. When he finally could see again, Muir decided that he would never go back to factory work, although he wasn’t sure exactly what his future would hold. He wrote to a friend: “I wish I knew where I was going. Doomed to be ‘carried of the spirit into the wilderness,’ I suppose. I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest.” Soon he set out on a 1,000-mile walk from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He brought just one rubber bag with a change of underwear, his plant press, and four books: Paradise Lost, the New Testament, the poems of Robert Burns, and a blank journal in which he wrote his address: “John-Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.” His intention was to continue from Florida to Cuba to South America, but he contracted malaria and had to delay his trip. He eventually arrived in Cuba, but couldn’t find any ships bound for South America; however, he did see an advertisement for cheap tickets to California, so there he went.
When he arrived in San Francisco, he stopped a man on the street and asked the quickest way to somewhere wild. He headed inland, walking south though the Santa Clara Valley, over the Pacheco Pass, through the San Joaquin Valley, and across the mountains. The trip took a month, during which time Muir turned 30 years old. He was astonished by the scenery. He wrote in a letter: “This valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea.” He stopped and counted 7,260 flowers in one square yard.
When Muir finally arrived in Yosemite, he only stayed for a week, but he was inspired — and determined to return. He spent the next year herding sheep in the mountains, and eventually he became the nation’s most famous defender and spokesperson of Yosemite and the High Sierras, through his writings and conservation initiatives.
His books include My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), and Steep Trails (1919).
He wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
Today is the birthday of Charlotte Brontë (books by this author), born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England in 1816, the third of six children. The family moved to nearby Haworth in 1820, when Charlotte was four, because her father had been appointed the town’s minister, and there she grew up on the Yorkshire moors. Her mother died of cancer the following year, and Charlotte and her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to boarding school. Conditions at the school were deplorable; the two older girls both contracted tuberculosis and were sent home, where they died in 1825.
Her younger brother, Branwell, received a box of wooden soldiers from their father when Charlotte was 10, and soon the four remaining Brontë children — including Anne and Emily — began using them to populate imaginary kingdoms known as Angria and Gondal, about which they wrote and acted out detailed narratives.
As a young woman, Charlotte worked as a governess for a series of Yorkshire families, and even entertained the idea of opening a school with her sisters. She and Emily studied in Brussels with this goal in mind, but the school proved a non-starter: their advertisements failed to raise a single response.
She and her sisters published a volume of poetry in 1846, under the masculine-sounding pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. She wrote, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847, and in it she drew heavily upon her boarding school experiences and her early career to tell the story of a plain and penniless orphan governess who falls in love with her troubled — and married — employer. It was a best-seller, but critics called it “coarse” and “un-Christian,” and the criticism only increased when it was revealed that Currer Bell was really a woman.
Within a year of the novel’s publication, Charlotte’s three remaining siblings died: Anne and Emily of tuberculosis, and Branwell of alcohol and laudanum abuse. Charlotte remained close to home, caring for their father, and in 1854 she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She became pregnant soon after, but died of complications of pregnancy in 1855.
In 1909, Mark Twain is reported to have said: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year and I expect to go out with it [...] The Almighty has said, no doubt: Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” And he was true to his word: Mark Twain died on this day in 1910 (books by this author), a day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.
It’s the birthday of writer Nell Freudenberger (books by this author), born in New York City (1975). She said: “I think George Eliot is the writer who made me want to be a writer. I have a very vivid memory of lying on a carpet and drinking a blueberry milkshake and reading Silas Marner. It’s not like I thought, now I know I’ll be a writer, I just remember being so happy. It’s one of the happiest moments I have from that age.”
After graduating from Harvard, she turned down a job offer from Random House and instead spent a year teaching English to teenagers in Thailand. She said, “I didn’t really have anything to say about being an American until I went and lived in that high school.” After Thailand, she traveled in India, then came home and got a job at The New Yorker. She wrote every morning before work, and one day she started a story about an American woman in Delhi coping with the death of her married Indian lover. She said, “I liked working on that story because it wasn’t work; it was simply an hour and fifteen minutes of nostalgia every morning, before I got on the train to go to my real job.” A year later, that story, “Lucky Girls,” was published in The New Yorker, and it sparked a bidding war for a book. Lucky Girls, a collection of five stories, was published in 2003, followed by two novels, The Dissident (2006) and, most recently The Newlyweds (2012).
Today is the birthday of screenwriter, director, comedian, and actor Elaine May (books by this author), born Elaine Berlin in Philadelphia in 1932. Her father, Jack, ran a Yiddish theater company, and she occasionally performed there as a child, often playing a boy. The family moved to Los Angeles when Elaine was 10.
She’s most famous for her improv comedy partnership with Mike Nichols, whom she met at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. The duo had a deadpan, understated style and they became wildly popular on stage, radio, and television. They went their separate ways in 1961, but reunited in 1996 to produce the movie The Birdcage, based on the French film La Cage aux Folles. May wrote the screenplay, and Nichols directed.
She has also written several plays, and wrote and directed the notoriously unsuccessful film Ishtar in 1987. She received Oscar nominations for her adapted screenplays Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Primary Colors (1998).
May received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement at the Writers Guild of America award ceremony this past February.