Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
Nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses, to straighten
Chrysanthemums; the stiff
Stems, jointed like corn,
They tied and tucked,—
These nurses of nobody else.
Quicker than birds, they dipped
Up and sifted the dirt;
They sprinkled and shook;
They stood astride pipes,
Their skirts billowing out wide into tents,
Their hands twinkling with wet;
Like witches they flew along rows
Keeping creation at ease;
With a tendril for needle
They sewed up the air with a stem;
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves.
I remember how they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.
“Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze” by Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor Books, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Hunter S. Thompson (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1937). When he was in high school, his father died of myasthenia gravis, leaving the family impoverished. Thompson’s mother had to take a job as a librarian to support the family, and she turned to the bottle to cope with the loss of her husband. Thompson rebelled and embarked on a brief criminal career during his senior year. He spent a month in jail as accessory to a robbery. As soon as he was released, he got into trouble again. This time, the judge gave him a choice between prison and the military, so he joined the Air Force. He began writing articles for the base’s newspaper, and when he was discharged, he took any newspaper jobs he could get.
His break came in 1964, when The Nation hired him to write about a dangerous new motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. The short investigative piece he wrote turned into a book deal, and he used his advance to buy a motorcycle. He rode around the country, and wrote about the bikers he met and the adventures he had. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was the end result; it was published in 1967, and it became a best-seller.
Thompson was a pioneer of a journalistic style that came to be known as “gonzo journalism.” The journalist becomes part of the story he’s researching, and the story is told through his eyes. There’s usually profanity, sarcasm, and exaggeration so that the line between journalism and fiction becomes blurred — mostly for the protection of the journalist and his subjects. As Thompson told Rolling Stone, “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” The style was born, Thompson said, when he was up against a deadline for a piece about the Kentucky Derby. He ended up writing a rambling account of watching the race. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970. People loved it, and Thompson started getting bags of fan mail.
His most famous book started as an assignment for Sports Illustrated. That book is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971). “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” the book begins. He published Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), a collection of his Rolling Stone articles about the 1972 presidential election. He considered Richard Nixon his nemesis, and after Nixon’s death, he wrote an obituary of sorts, titled “He Was a Crook,” for Rolling Stone. “I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him,” Thompson wrote. “I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it.” His final magazine feature article was “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004,” reporting on a campaign trip he took with Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Thompson eventually ended up in Aspen, Colorado, where he took great delight in playing pranks on his neighbors. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005, after a period of illness. Per his request, his ashes were shot from a cannon while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played.
It’s the birthday of author Elizabeth Gilbert (books by this author), whose memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2006), a combination of travelogue, mysticism, self-help, and self-improvement, has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
Intel was founded on this date in 1968, chiefly by Gordon E. Moore and Robert Noyce. The company was originally going to be named Moore Noyce, but since that sounded too much like “more noise” — something that electronics manufacturers try to avoid — they called themselves NM Electronics, and then settled on Integrated Electronics, or Intel.
It’s the birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1811). His best-known book is Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. It was published in monthly installments, in 1847 and 1848, and it’s about two women: the well-born but passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious adventuress Becky Sharp, who delivers one of the book’s most famous lines: “I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”