Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

Hoffnung ist das Wesen mit Federn

Das sich in der Seele niederläßt,

Und die Melodie wortlos singt,

Und niemals damit aufhört,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

Und am lieblichsten hört es sich im Sturm an;

Wahrhaft wild muß das Unwetter sein

Das das kleine Vögelchen verstummen ließe

Das die Herzen so vieler erwärmt hat.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

Ich habe es in den kältesten Gefilden vernommen,

Und auf den fremdartigsten Ozeanen;

Jedoch hat es selbst in äußerster Not,

Nie etwas von mir verlangt.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was arguably one of, if not the most introvert of American writers. She spent the majority of her adult life as a recluse in her room in the family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she composed nearly 2,000 poems. A mere seven were published—anonymously—during her lifetime, but not to great acclaim. Today she is considered one of America’s greatest poets and exemplifies that artists are often misunderstood or underappreciated in their own era.

I recall neither place nor time of my first encounter with the verses above, but in recent years they have often fluttered into my head and started to build a nest. While I will not attempt to interpret them, the association between feathered beings and hope resonates strongly with me. Ever since birds have given wings to my imagination—if not soul—their presence and well-being set my heart singing and strike a hopeful note for Planet Earth. As we know and mourn, their numbers have been declining globally, but some species formerly on the brink of the abyss have experienced a resurgence, thanks to concerted efforts from the human community, which proves what is possible if we act together.

While there are many, many reasons for concern, if not resignation, at the beginning of this new year, I choose hope over despair. May each of us work in our own little circle toward the preservation of this one-in-a-universe, wonder-filled sphere we call our home.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) dürfte eine der introvertiertesten amerikanischen Schriftsteller gewesen sein. Sie verbrachten den größten Teil des Erwachsenenalters in ihrem Zimmer im familiären Heim in Amherst, Massachusetts, wo sie fast 2.000 Gedichte verfaßte. Lediglich sieben davon wurden anonym während ihres Lebens veröffentlicht, ohne großen Erfolg. Heute wird sie als eine der besten amerikanischen Dichter angesehen, was veranschaulicht, daß viele Künstler in ihrer eigenen Zeit unverstanden waren, und nicht ausreichend gewürdigt wurden.

Ich kann mich weder an den Moment noch an den Ort erinnern, als ich meine erste Begegnung mit den obigen Versen hatte (bitte verzeiht meine dilettantische, sich nicht reimende Übersetzung), aber in den letzten Jahren sind sie mir öfter durch den Kopf geflattert und haben begonnen, dort ein Nest zu bauen. Ich werde nicht versuchen, sie zu interpretieren, aber die Assoziation zwischen gefiederten Wesen und Hoffnung findet bei mir großen Widerhall. Seitdem Vögel nicht nur meine Phantasie. sondern auch meine Seele beflügeln, bringen ihre Präsenz und Wohlergehen mein Herz zum Singen, und schlagen einen hoffnungsvollen Ton für unsere Erde an. Wie wir wissen und betrauern. sind ihre Zahlen weltweit rückläufig, doch sind einige Arten, die einst am Abgrund standen, vom fast-Tod wiederauferstanden, dank vereinter menschlicher Anstrengungen, die beweisen, was möglich ist, wenn wir unsere Kräfte vereinen.

Auch wenn es unendlich viele Gründe zur Besorgnis, wenn nicht sogar zur Resignation gibt, entscheide ich mich zu Beginn dieses neuen Jahres für Hoffnung anstatt Verzweiflung. Möge jede(r) von uns in unsererem kleinen Kreis tätig werden, um diese im Universum einmalige, mit Wundern gefüllte Sphäre zu erhalten, die unser einziges Zuhause ist.

A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”

My 2017 Pulitzer Reading List

The caption might be misleading, but as I intend to make this post an annual tradition, and last year’s bore the identical title, I will keep it, despite measly progress with my Pulitzer for Fiction reading list – one lone work. In response to my request for suggestions in January 2017, I heeded M. Miles’s enthusiastic recommendation and chose the “Pulitzer of Pulitzers”, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1921 Pulitzer). I am glad about my long-overdue acquaintance with the author and hope to deepen it over time.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is considered literary heir to Henry James (1843-1916). Their writing focused on American “aristocracy”. Even though both are claimed by America as some of her greatest literati, both left their native country to take up residence in Europe where they lived out their years. Edith Wharton is buried at Versailles Cemetery in France (she was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for services rendered to her adopted country during WWI). The novelist was the first woman in a (slowly) growing line of female Pulitzer recipients (30 to this point, out of 90). She knew the settings of her prolific output (15 novels, 7 novellas, 85 short stories) well, having grown up in a “blue blood” New York family. Her words frequently assume an ironic tone not unlike Jane Austen’s, who might be considered a second literary role model. It is helpful to read this novel with the bemused air the author herself assumed when delineating human foibles from the safe distance of time and space.

The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, but is set in “Old New York” of the 1870s, the waning era of new-world nobility, arranged marriages, suffocating societal strictures, crumbling morality under a thin veneer of respectability. Newland Archer, the novel’s hero (if he deserves this designation) grew up within the narrow confines of this society’s expectations. While he prides himself to be a free thinker and more broad-minded than his contemporaries, whenever the opportunity presents itself to turn onto the path less trodden, he follows the well-worn tracks of his peers, while deluding himself with his supposed independent state of mind. Upon meeting the “love of his life”, an unconventional, free-spirited woman, instead of breaking up his betrothal to an attractive yet orthodox bride, he resigns himself to the conventional life, to a liaison condoned by their mutual family circles. He pursues a reasonable profession, fathers successful children, and plays the societal games, all the while compromising his ideals. Even after the death of his wife, when the opportunity to reconnect with his muse presents itself, he does not have the courage – but clings to the safety and comfort of the known over the unknown.

Overall, a tone of resignation pervades Archer’s life. Despite his shortcomings and compromises, his life is accomplished in the eyes of a superficial society that keeps up appearances, at the cost of individualism. I am not sure if Edith Wharton supported Archer’s safe choices, or simply portrayed the pointlessness of personal choice for those who wish to remain part of the world she had chosen to leave herself.

With 12 Pulitzer novels down, and 79 (soon 80 – the 2018 recipient will be announced on April 16) to go, I am again open to suggestions. Even though I fell foul of my goal to make a significant dent, I read much – both fiction and non-fiction. I am blaming (or crediting) my favorite literature bloggers for leading me astray (or for broadening my reading horizon), as I encountered literary genres not routinely on my radar. These blogs are written in German but have the world as their theme.

I thank Ira for presenting mouth-watering global recipes on her blog Frankfurter Kochbuchrezensentin, and for introducing me to Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mysteries on her second blog Frankfurter Buchrezensentin.

Anna’s reviews and literary quotes at the well-organized Buchpost with lists of authors, countries and major book awards are always stimulating and thought-provoking and have added to my ever-growing reading roster.

Last, but not least, is Ulrike’s blog Leselebenszeichen, teeming with inspiring works and reviews. Thanks to her, I have visited London with Ben Aaronovitch’s modern-day wizard police apprentice who fights ghosts and other non-human life forms, am still stuck in the labyrinthine world of Walter Moers’s “Zamonia” where indescribable books reign supreme, and have reveled in lovely, heart-warming children’s literature reviews too numerous to count, all written in words that constantly remind me how rusty my own German language skills have become.

I hope my favorite literature bloggers will take up some Pulitzers, so I can make progress on my list in 2018.

Solstice

My body is in line.

It is at its darkest point,

but only for a short time.

Not enough time for madness or temporary depression to

     set in.

The darkest point is only a brief window of opportunity.

Opportunity for sadness, loneliness, falling out of love

     and other states associated with the lack of light.

But before the opportunity can be taken, the shadows

     turn.

The light becomes stronger,

pulling me toward it.

The warmth, the promise it holds.

And so I begin another cycle,

along with the animals, the plants, the oceans and winds

and all that feel this same pull.

 

I come into balance.

I begin again.

It is only December twenty-second and it is already

     starting to feel like summer.

 

Ofelia Zepeda (born 1952), “The South Corner“, from the anthology Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose & Poetry about Nature. Lorraine Anderson, ed., 2nd edition, 2003.

 

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/12/22/sonnenwende/

A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak

To be called a “Bloomer Girl” was not a compliment in polite society. According to Victorian mores, proper clothing for proper women equaled an ankle-length skirt, regardless of its impracticality for many activities. “Bloomer Girls” donned dresses that reached slightly below the knee and were worn over a pair of billowing, loose-fitting pantaloons – a scandal. Even though she did not design the outfit, it was named after Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), one of the early proponents of women’s suffrage, and an advocate for dress reform. Women who donned these progressive garments protested society’s arbitrary norms and typically supported the early feminist organizations and their goals of equality, and the right to vote.

“Reform Dress” or “Bloomer”. Illustration from A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak.

The title of this post originates from a book I recently discovered. Published by the Denver Library District in 1949, A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak refers to Julia Anna Archibald Holmes (1838-1887). Born in Canada, she moved to Massachusetts at age 10, and to Kansas in the mid-1850s, where her abolitionist family was part of the movement that settled the state to prevent it from becoming pro-slavery. They helped found the town of Lawrence where she met James Holmes, a fellow abolitionist, and, furthermore, a member of John Brown’s Free State Rangers. Julia married him in the fall of 1857, when she was 18. After the discovery of gold in Colorado the following year, the couple joined the Lawrence Party in June 1858, among the earliest hopeful gold seekers. Crossing the Great Plains in covered wagons and on foot, they arrived at the base of Pike’s Peak about one month later and set up camp near the future Garden of the Gods.

Half a century earlier, in 1806, Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike had led the first U.S. government expedition to the region acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. While searching for the source of the Arkansas River, he saw and approached a tall mountain in the distance, but was prevented from its ascent by November’s inhospitable conditions. In his journal, he expressed the conviction, that “no man could have ascended to its pinnacle.” On August 5, 1858, however, Julia and her husband summited, and Julia is generally presumed to have been the first white woman to stand on top of the 14,115 foot mountain named after Pike years after his death. Ironically, she did so wearing her Bloomer dress which facilitated her journey, whereas Pike and his men were prevented not only by snow, but also by their inadequate summer uniforms.

Julia kept a journal, and even though it has been lost, letters to her family as well as articles written for women’s magazines have survived and provide insight into her adventures. They form the core of The Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak. The following are quotes from the book.

We were now fairly launched on the waving prairie. A person who has beheld neither the ocean nor the great, silent, uninhabited plains, will find it impossible to form an adequate idea of the grandeur of the scene. With the blue sky overhead, the endless variety of flowers under foot, it seemed that the ocean’s solitude had united with all the landscape beauties. (page 15)

I commenced the journey with a firm determination to learn to walk. At first I could not walk over three or four miles without feeling quite weary, but by persevering and walking as far as I could every day, my capacity increased gradually, and in the course of a few weeks I could walk ten miles in the most sultry weather without being exhausted. Believing, as I do, in the right of woman to equal privileges with man, I think that when it is in our power we should, in order to promote our own independence, at least, be willing to share the hardships which commonly fall to the lot of man. (page 20)

I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself and now I feel amply repaid for all my toil and fatigue. Nearly every one tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now, here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all. In all probability I am the first woman who has ever stood upon the summit of this mountain and gazed upon this wondrous scene, which my eyes now behold. (page 39)

Modern-day view from the summit of Pike’s Peak

When gold proved elusive, Julia and her husband moved to New Mexico for a number of years. Of their four children, two died. Julia was granted a divorce in 1870, probably as a consequence of domestic abuse and adultery. She made Washington, D.C. her permanent home where she remained active in the suffrage movement and worked for the US Government until her death at the age of 49. I have not been able to establish the cause of death. The portrait above shows Julia at about 32, when she left her husband. Does anyone else think she bears an uncanny resemblance to Julia Roberts?

“America’s Mountain” reminds me regularly of the eventful and accomplished life of “A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak”, the progressive, abolitionist, suffragist, writer, and first known female to scale its steep summit.

Click here for the German Version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/eine-bloomer-frau-auf-pikes-peak/