The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 18, 2017

August 18, 1227

The Secret History of the Mongols, [is] said to have been written by Genghis Khan's adopted son, ...[and] reveals a very different man to the brutal butcher of Western legend. Not just a womaniser, but a devoted husband. Not just a warrior, but a politician. Not just a conqueror, but a legislator. A man who wanted the lessons he had learnt - good and bad - to be passed onto his successors. Within its pages lies the inside story of how an illiterate nomad inspired his successors to conquer the largest land empire the world has ever seen.

Well, anyway,  that is the BBC blurb. And here are some words of the supposed mother of this Khan, distraught at the destruction her children accomplished.

Like the qasar [wild] dog gnawing on its own afterbirth,
like a panther attacking on a rocking mountain,
like a lion unable to control its anger,...
like a gerfalcon attacking its own shadow,...
like a male camel biting the heel of its young,...
thus you have destroyed!
Apart from our shadows we have no friends,
Apart from our tails, we have no fat.

Genghis Khan is said to have died on August 18, 1227. People still hunt for his tomb.

August 17, 2017

August 17, 1930

I feel sorry for Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930 to October 28,1998). His life had more than a fair share of tragedy. Let us look at a poem of his titled ‘Lynx’ as prefaced by Samuel Graydon:

Simon Armitage said of Ted Hughes’s poetry that it was “a connecting rod between nature and humanity”. As Hughes wrote in Poetry in the Making, “my interest in animals began when I began”, but in some ways, his work shows how disconnected the human and animal worlds are. In a letter in 1990, he wrote that the “animal / spiritual being” lives a life of “bliss” that humanity has “fallen from . . . into ego-consciousness”. At a distance from humans, animals are “a divine life in a divine world”.

The relationship between the “divine life” and the “divine world” is explored in “Lynx”, first published in the TLS in 1981. It was later titled “A Lynx” in Hughes’s collection of children’s poems,
Under the North Star (1981), and the inclusion of the indefinite article belies the importance he places on the individual.....

Here is the text of the poem:

The hushed limbs of forest,

Of clouds, of mountains, here

Take their hard-earned rest

Under the lynx’s ear.

In his sleep, they sleep –

As in a deep lake – deep.

Do not disturb this beast

Or clouds will open eyes,

Soundless the forest

Will fold away all its trees

And hazy the mountains

Fade among their stones.

And Graydon continues:

The sleeping “beast” is connected to everything else in its habitat – “in his sleep, they sleep” – as if nature is determined by his (un)consciousness. All is in order in sleep – all the rhymes – but in the second stanza, with the notion that the lynx may wake up, rhyme falters, and the clouds, forest and mountains are in tumult. For if one part is “disturbed” from its natural role, then all will “fold away”.

Neither the poem, nor the courteous posture of the critic, rise to a level which might deserve such reverential treatment.  How can you speak of the divine, without knowing what is the "human". As with much of Hughes' work, beneath a wallpapered surface, there is nothing but cobwebby and empty shelving.

Harder to understand is the honors this writer received.

August 16, 2017

August 16, 1908

It was said of William Maxwell (August 16, 1908 to July 21, 2000): “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

From the same source we have this lovely photograph, and a useful summary of William Maxwell's significance:

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995. His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries. He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death. Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty. Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist. He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved. After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met. Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own. He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable: According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m. He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties. He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him. “He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.” Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness. It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, a novel that seamlessly blends fiction and memoir, recounts the loss that was the watershed of Maxwell’s childhood—perhaps of his whole life. As Maxwell explained in a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, “I felt the need to put things back the way they were before. I couldn’t do it literally, but I could put it in the pages of a book. And so I did. I put the people back, I put the places back. Often I put her back.”

“When she died, the shine went out of everything and stayed out for a long, long while,” he told Rose. “I couldn’t really manage without her, so I managed – this is in the realm of the unconscious – to incorporate her personality into my own. I have friends who think they are fond of me but really they are fond of my mother.”

Benjamin Cheever observed that what others see as melancholy runs counter to a modern society that is indefatigably upbeat. “Now, we’re increasingly inclined to think of joy and success as what’s important and what we cherish, and get back to it as fast as we can – ‘I gotta be happy today.’ But he knew the little tragedies in life are as important as the victories. It was all right to be sad. It was okay. He understood that, he never lost that sense of darkness, a sense of shadow.”...

So Long, See You Tomorrow tells the story of an adulterous affair in rural Illinois that results in a murder, and the effect of that murder on two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Truth or fiction? “There was a real murder, there was a real boy, and a real encounter. From there it all departs,” said Wilkinson.

Not quite. The narrator describes the death of his mother, when he was 10:

…I couldn’t understand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn’t be. Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed. I had to find an explanation other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfortune than anybody else …

“From my point of view, a great deal of it was autobiography,” said Katharine Maxwell. “I don’t think he invented much in that story.”

For Maxwell, the book was the first he hadn’t written on a 4/3 schedule, writing from start to finish without duties at the New Yorker. “It’s superlative writing. It exemplifies my feeling about what storytelling should be,” said Wilkinson. “Everybody wants to write that kind of American novel – absolutely definitive of time and place with no wallpaper at all. Kind of Homeric. You can imagine a blind storyteller at the crossroads telling you So Long, See You Tomorrow.” In a career somewhat short on public recognition, the novel was awarded the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for the best novel of the previous five years. The first paperback edition was awarded a 1982 National Book Award. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1981.

William Maxwell seems to have been old longer than anyone else. What fame he achieved came late, so he is remembered as an elderly sage, the grandfather everyone wishes to have on hand. In the essay “Nearing Ninety,” he writes: “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night’s sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself, it is as if I had driven a mineshaft down through layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me.”

He was epigrammatic, prone to “the kind of gnomic comments found on tombstones and bubblegum wrappers,” said Cheever. Like this one: “The only part of dying that I mind is that when you are dead you can’t read Tolstoy.” On more than one occasion, he described impending death as a long afternoon nap. So death seemed to come quietly – as his health was failing, his wife Emmy was fighting her final battle with cancer. Friends gathered to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace aloud for him – he would not, as he had suggested, have a chance to read it later. When they finished, they wanted to continue onward to Anna Karenina, but Maxwell had had enough.

“In the end, he was waiting for her to die first. It was a final act of love, a last courtesy,” his friend, the poet Ed Hirsch, wrote. From her bed, Emmy called for champagne for her circle of friends. “It had a kind of secular holiness to it. Two people facing death with immense courage,” said Wilkinson. “He met death fearlessly. That’s a lifetime’s work to arrive at a place like that. It doesn’t come simply.”

After his wife’s death, Maxwell’s perspective began to shift, according to his daughter Katharine. He described it with Milan Kundera’s phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being.” The “melancholy-minded” man was melancholy no longer. “He realized something different was happening. He said, ‘I feel like the locusts who leave their skin behind and fly up the trees.’ ”

“He said that all of that stuff he learned in Sunday schools was true. It was very surprising to him – the last thing he was expecting. He said that his understanding was something wonderful. Life is not just pointless, not just about abandonment. Something lifts you up.” He asked the people around him to sing – including the daughter he had discouraged from an opera career. “Singing is the only thing worth doing,” he told her....

August 15, 2017

August 15, 1947

Below some images of items in the Harappa Museum. We include them now to salute India's Independence Day.

First is a seal from Mohenjodaro.
It is described by someone as
"Figure grappling rampant tigers."

And then this terracotta feline from Harappa.

While these items are now in Pakistan, they must also be at the heart of Indian nationalism. The fact the theme above, of "rampant tigers," a motif also found on seals in Mesopotamia, stresses that cultural unity which is a bedrock fact.

August 14, 2017

August 14, 1950

There is about Gary Larson (August 14, 1950) a certain hostility which is an aspect of much humor. I think about that cartoon where two cats are seated around a Christmas tree. One is holding a chocolate box, opened. In the box instead of chocolates are wee animals, like mice, and gerbils.

I read, (The Bond, I think) that as a child he had range of reptiles and bugs. In reference to cats he says" I'm fond of them but not in the way I am of dogs. I have a tendency to like all dogs, but with cats, I end up only liking my own."

December 31, 1994, was the date of the last of Larson's The Far Side cartoon strips.

August 13, 2017

August 13, 1823

It was on this date, August 13, 1823, that the letter we quote appeared in The Morning Post. a daily newspaper published in London from 1772 til 1937.

EDITOR – After reading the interesting little anecdote in your Paper of the Philanthropic Cat, I am encouraged to lay before your Readers another trait of one of its kindred species. In the summer of 1817, I hired a small villa in the neighbourhood of Sevenoaks,
[in Kent, a coastal English county] which, when I entered, I found not wholly untenanted, for I soon observed a find large yellow streaked Tom Cat, which I admired much, but my wife having an antipathy to cats, I was compelled to order that the hapless animal should be forbid the premises. This the servants attempted to put into execution, but in vain, for in despite of sticks, stones, tin kettles, and other offensive weapons, Puss always returned when the storm had abated, till at length we relented, and the exile was re-established in its office of slaying rats and mice. A month after this, the cook, when about to put a fine fowl on the spit, was called away, d when she returned the fowl was gone. Search was made, and in five minutes the fowl was discovered in the merciless claws of the Cat. The enraged cook darted the spit which she held in her hand at the wretched animal; but anger blinded her aim – it missed, but in a moment Puss was well belaboured with broomsticks, from which at length he contrived to escape. For two days was he missing, but on the third, as the cook was busied in culinary avocations, she head a gentle purr behind her, and looking round, she saw the fine fellow with a plump young pheasant in his mouth, which he gently laid at her feet. Need I add, the pheasant was plucked, pulled, roasted; so it was, and the very best I ever tasted in my life. An anecdote, somewhat similar, may be found in the rare Tract of PERSIA LEFORDE, printed at the Hague in 1589, entitled “Histoyre des Animeaulx Domestiques.” I am sorry to say, Puss took to poaching, and was killed the year after, by the double-barrel gun of one of Lord STANHOPE’S Keepers.


The above Lord Stanhope may be The 4th Earl (1781-1855).

August 12, 2017

August 12, 1885

We all remember Helen Hunt Jackson (October 15, 1830 to August 12, 1885), I think. She wrote Ramona (1884). I sound hesitant simply because I recently found out Alfred Payson Terhune is considered a forgotten and forgettable writer. NO! How could that be.

It was a nicer surprise to find out that the author of Ramona also wrote a book about cats.
Letters from a Cat published by her mistress for the benefit of all cats and the amusement of little children (1879). Here is an anecdote from within this book:

She used to follow me, just like a little dog, wherever I went. She followed me to school every day, and we had great difficulty on Sundays to keep her from following us to church. Once she followed me, when it made a good many people laugh, in spite of themselves, on an occasion when it was very improper for them to laugh, and they were all feeling very sad. It was at the funeral of one of the professors in the college.

The professors' families all sat together; and when the time came for them to walk out of the house and get into the carriages to go to the graveyard, they were called, one after the other, by name. When it came to our turn, my father and mother went first, arm-in-arm; then my sister and I; and then, who should rise, very gravely, but my Pussy, who had slipped into the room after me, and had not been noticed in the crowd. With a slow and deliberate gait she walked along, directly behind my sister and me, as if she were the remaining member of the family, as indeed she was. People began to smile, and as we passed through the front door, and went down the steps, some of the men and boys standing there laughed out. I do not wonder; for it must have been a very comical sight. In a second more, somebody sprang forward and snatched Pussy up. Such a scream as she gave! and scratched his face with her claws, so that he was glad to put her down. As soon as I heard her voice, I turned round, and called her in a low tone. She ran quickly to me, and I picked her up and carried her in my arms the rest of the way. But I saw even my own papa and mamma laughing a little, for just a minute. That was the only funeral Pussy ever attended.

Pussy lived several years after the events which are related

The above is less far-fetched than you think. The distinction between indoor and outdoor is a modern one and has a binary meaning lacking before the last century.

Here are some illustrations from Letters from a Cat, done by Addie Ledyard.



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