Showing posts from August, 2007

Reading Journal: The Light in the Piazza

Elizabeth Spencer, The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Includes the novella The Light in the Piazza.

Adam Guettel's Tony Award-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza, is based on a novella by the Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1960. Two years later, it became a successful MGM film. The novella is a relatively simple story about a mother and daughter from Winston-Salem on vacation together in Florence. In the novella, we learn early on that the daughter, Clara, was in an accident years earlier, and has "the mental age of a child of ten." Outwardly, Clara is a beautiful young woman, and she attracts the attention of an amorous young Italian man named Fabrizio. But it isn't just her outward beauty that captivates Fabrizio and his family—it's Clara's childlike innocence and purity. Because she has the mind of a child, she is soon speaking fluently in Italian, and she …

The Light in the Piazza

Yesterday, I drove up to St. Paul to visit my favorite former student and dear friend, Peytie, who is about to start her first year of college. While I was in England, it was my friends that I missed more than anything else, and I especially missed Peytie. She is so smart, so talented, so full of positive energy, so full of amazing potential. There is no young person in the world—other than my brilliant and beautiful sons, nieces and nephews—who fills me with more hope and happiness. Yesterday she sang for me "The Light in the Piazza," from Adam Guettel's recent musical of the same name, and I was completely swept away. She also gave me the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, which is amazing. Guettel's music is somehow both catchy and complex. Although it owes a lot to the twentieth-century American musical tradition (I seemed to hear Barber and Copeland as well as Sondheim and Rodgers caught in the melodic eddies), it's completely fresh.

Reading Journal: Lincoln's Cooper Union Address

On the afternoon of February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stepped into Matthew Brady's New York studio and had this portrait taken. That evening, Lincoln took the stage of the Cooper Union and delivered a speech that propelled him to the front of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. The Cooper Union Address was the speech that brought the obscure, awkward-looking, former one-term Congressman from Illinois to national prominence. Great speeches still have the power to do that for a politician: to give him or her a national following. His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention did that for Barack Obama—the once-obscure one-term Senator from Illinois. Obama's speech began by telling his personal story, introducing himself as the son of immigrants who found opportunity in America, and then continued to riff on the American dream. Its key words are "faith" (six times) and "belief" (four times)—it's an inspirational speec…
Nothing pompous or profound to regale you with today. Last night we were treated to a classic late night thunderstorm that flashed and crashed and kept me awake most of the night. I'm exhausted. I'll go to bed as soon as I can get Will to stop playing the theme from Titanic on the accordion in the next room.

Native Weeds: White Snakeroot

I've spent the morning clearing weeds out of the back yard, which was almost entirely neglected during our year in England. One of the common weeds I've been pulling out is white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a shade-loving weed that also seems to be quite common in the undergrowth of the oak savanna restorations in the Arboretum, where this photograph was taken. White snakeroot is notorious in American history as the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The plant contains a strong toxin known as tremetol, which causes muscular debility, trembling, vomiting, and, in many cases, death. When the plant is eaten by dairy cows, the poison passes into their milk, which causes "milk sickness" in those who drink it. It was this milk sickness that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. She died on October 6, 1818, when Abe was about nine and a half years old.

A medical correspondent, reporting about the prevalence of the sickness in northe…

Compass Plant

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) in Carleton's Cowling Arboretum. Notice that the basal leaves are all oriented in the same direction.

The first settlers on the prairies in the 1830s found among the unusual plants growing there a tall, broad-leafed plant known as rosin weed, from its gum-like sap, or compass plant. One settler, writing in 1833, described the plant like this: "It is one of the most extraordinary plants in nature. The name compass plant proceeds from the fact of its leaves, which are very large, rising from the root to the height of from one to two feet, presenting their edges almost invariably to the north and south—and consequently their broadsides to the east and west. This circumstance renders this plant almost an unerring guide to the traveller in cloudy days, who may be caught in those large plains... Such is the uniformity of surface in those extensive prairies, that the most skillful woodsman would be unable to steer his course on a cloudy day, bu…

The Prairie

McKnight Prairie

“There was nothing but land,” Willa Cather writes, describing the prairie in the opening chapter of My Ántonia; “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” The description—or non-description—is echoed by one of Northfield’s early settlers, who described the prairie landscape as “unfinished.” Nothing relieved the monotony of the rolling grassland. It needed a humanizing touch—houses, barns, cultivated fields, hedges, a windbreak of pines—which the settlers went to work to provide.

Northfield occupies an interesting geographical position. When the first settlers arrived, the land east of the Cannon River was covered with prairie. West of the river, between the firebreaks of the Cannon and the Minnesota River, stood the Big Woods. Northfield occupied the border between the prairie and woods. The slopes and small bluffs above the Cannon River were studded with park-like oak savanna. The situation was perfect: the forest provided timber …

Reading Journal: "The Luck of Roaring Camp"

In 1868, nearly two decades had passed since the discovery of gold in California had filled the American West with prospectors, prostitutes, gunslingers and gamblers from across the United States. In those two decades, the experience of the West had begun to inspire the creation of a new American literature spun out of tall tales, plain speech, and the quick wits and sharp eyes of Western newspapermen like Sam Clemens. In 1867, Clemens—writing under the now-famous pseudonym Mark Twain—launched his national literary career with his tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which started life as a tall tale told in a miner’s shack on Jackass Hill, at the worn-out edge of the Mother Lode. A year later, there was enough of a literary scene in San Francisco that Anton Roman could confidently set up a new literary journal, the Overland Monthly, as a Western rival of Boston’s venerable Atlantic Monthly. As editor of the new journal, Roman installed another rising star on the…


We returned home to find the infrastructure work on Fifth Street nearly completed, and a new sidewalk in front of our house to replace the cracked and buckling sidewalk that was there before. I like sidewalks, and I'm happy to have a new four-foot wide sidewalk in front of my house, even though it brings with it the obligation to keep it clear of ice and snow in the winter. For me, sidewalks are an indispensable part of living in a community. In her classic study of city life and urban design, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs talks at length about the important functions of sidewalks in the life of a community. They provide safety, contact, and assimilation of children. Even more so than playgrounds and parks, they are places where the children of a community meet and play together and move under the eyes of large numbers of adults.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as fond as I am of sidewalks. On the east end of Fifth Street, where there were no …