Last days before first frost
we stroll out hand in hand
to see yellow sulfurs lift
over the fields
flittering in ecstatic pairs
and spangle the hay
trudging winter fields
in the morning sun
we see their million
rapturous spirits have risen
through layers of drift
on the snow crust
“Love Poem” by Paul Zimmer from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited. © The University of Georgia Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) (1896), best known for novels like The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934), which came to epitomize the Jazz Age and “The Lost Generation.” He was only 44 years old when died, and no longer writing. He’d fallen sway to alcoholism and despair, and in one of his final interviews, he lamented: “A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me. Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.”
He was born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, named after the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a distant relative of his mother’s. He was good-looking and stocky and by the time he went to Princeton (1913), he’d already decided on a career as a writer of musical comedies, spending most of his first year writing an operetta and neglecting his studies. He dropped out of Princeton after three years to join the Army, and while stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, he met a tempestuous young woman named Zelda Sayre and fell madly in love. She wouldn’t marry him if he wasn’t successful, though, so every Saturday he went to the Officer’s Club and, he said, “in a room full of smoke, conversation, and rattling newspapers,” pounded out a 120,000-word novel he called The Romantic Egoist. One publisher said it was the best thing he’d seen in years, but wouldn’t publish it.
In New York City, he worked for advertising agencies, coining slogans like “We keep you clean in Muscatine,” for a steam laundry in Iowa. His boss told him, “It’s perhaps a bit imaginative, but still it’s plain that there’s a future for you in this business. Pretty soon this office won’t be big enough to hold you.”
He begged editors of the seven city newspapers to give him a job, but he was turned down by every one. He fled back to his home in St. Paul, disgusted with himself, and quickly rewrote The Romantic Egoist for a third time. This time, retitled This Side of Paradise, it was published to great acclaim and sales. At 23 years old, he became the youngest person ever published by Scribner’s and he married Zelda a month after his book was published.
Fitzgerald was a constant reviser and fond of keeping notebooks, in which he separated ideas under three headings, “Feelings and emotions,” “Conversations and things overheard,” and “Descriptions of girls.” He liked using charts to keep track of his characters and timelines and abhorred talking about his books while he was writing them. He said: “I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do, you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.”
When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, Fitzgerald was 29 years old. The book received mixed reviews and suffered poor sales. By the time he was 44, and dying of alcoholism, the U.S. military, in an effort to raise morale among troops through reading, ordered 150,000 copies of the book. The soldiers loved the story of a young war veteran tragically achieving the American Dream. The Great Gatsby is now considered a masterpiece, selling a half million copies every year.
When an aspiring writer once wrote him a letter asking for advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald responded: “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn […] Literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.”
On this day in 1996, the United States, represented by President Clinton, and the world’s other major nuclear powers, like Russia, China, and Great Britain, signed a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to end all testing and development of nuclear weapons. President Clinton called the treaty “the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in arms control history.” He used the same pen with which John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. That treaty prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater, or in the atmosphere and was signed three months before John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on August 5, 1963, took place one day before the 18th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. It’s estimated that nearly 250,000 people may have died in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Exact numbers are difficult because in the aftermath of the bombings, fires consumed many bodies and because pre-attack census numbers were inaccurate. To date, these are the only two instances of nuclear weapons being used during warfare.
In 1999, the GOP-controlled United States Senate overwhelmingly rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
It’s the birthday of poet Eavan Boland (books by this author), born in Dublin in 1944. Her most recent book is A Woman Without A Country (2014). She says the book is “dedicated to those who lost a country, not by history or inheritance, but through a series of questions to which they could find no answer.”
Boland was only 18 when she published her first collection, despite feeling, she has often said, that there existed in Ireland “a magnetic distance between the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet.’” Having overcome that atmosphere, having succeeded in putting her own life, the life of an Irish woman and mother, into her poetry, Boland says she is now honored to be called a “woman poet.” A lucky thing, since she is often called the finest one in her native country.
She says: “I don’t think poetry is a particularly good form of expression. Photographs are more accurate. Theatre is more eloquent. But poetry is a superb, powerful and true form of experience. I don’t write a poem to express an experience. I write it to experience the experience. And the unforgettable poem I read, the one I remember, is the one that manages to convey the experience to me, which someone else once had — maybe hundreds of years ago — and, by a poise of music and language, convey it almost intact.”
Boland is the co-founder of Arlen House Press. She divides her time between Dublin and California, where she directs the creative writing program at Stanford University. She has published 10 volumes of poetry. In 2016, Boland was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Today is the birthday of British parliamentarian, art historian, and writer Horace Walpole (books by this author), born in London (1717). Walpole was a member of the Whig Party in Parliament, where he was very effective at the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and deal-making of politics. He was also one of the earliest critics of the British slave trade.
Walpole is also known for having written the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), which he first published saying it was “a translation from 1528 by the Italian, Onuphrio Muralto.” He was a 50-year-old politician and it was a bizarre book, so he didn’t want to ruin his reputation. (After readers loved it, Walpole revealed himself.)
Walpole’s own house looked like a Gothic castle, although it had the cheerful name “Strawberry Hill.” At the time, the Gothic style was considered tacky and out of date, but Walpole special-ordered couches and wallpaper to fill his house with a mix of warmth and gloom — he called it “gloomth.”
Today he’s mostly known for the more than 4,000 letters he wrote in his life. Although he was writing private letters to people he knew, he thought of his letters as a giant project that would be published after death — which ended up being true. The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (1937–1983) takes up 48 volumes. Historians value his letters because Walpole gave a good sense of how English people in general thought about cultural issues. He wrote in one letter, “Anything but history, for history must be false.”
It’s the birthday of “Blind” Lemon Jefferson, born on a farm in Coutchman, Texas, in about 1893. Jefferson began playing picnics and parties in the region, and eventually he made his way to Dallas. He performed every day on the corner of Central and Elm, near a train stop where the black workers would get off at the end of their day to visit the neighborhood bars and dance halls. Stories vary, but Dallas was probably the place where he first met fellow blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Lead Belly later wrote “Blind Lemon’s Blues” in tribute to his friend.
In the early 1920s, Jefferson began traveling: to the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, and maybe even farther than that. Late in 1925, he was “discovered” by a Texas talent scout, who took Jefferson to Paramount Records in Chicago; there he recorded two gospel songs under an alias. Over the next three years, he recorded nearly a hundred songs and became the first country blues musician to develop a national following. He was expected to produce one record a month, and in between recording sessions, he traveled around the South. Everybody had a story about seeing him at the local venue. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to “see” even through sightless eyes; musician Lance Lipscomb said later: “He had a tin cup, wired on the neck of his guitar. And when you pass to give him something, why he’d thank you. But he would never take no pennies. You could drop a penny in there and he’d know the sound. He’d take and throw it away.” Delta musician Ishman Bracey said: “He carried a pearl-handled .45, and he could shoot the head off a chicken. And he couldn’t see nary a lick. Just did it from the sound he heard.”
In 1929, Jefferson was buried in Wortham, Texas, in a grave that remained unmarked until 1967; in the 1990s, fans raised money to erect a granite marker engraved with Jefferson’s own lyrics: “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.”