National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

John H. Johnson Stamp Released Today

The 35th stamp in the Black Heritage series was released today and it honors John H. Johnson, the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines, and an entrepreneur who in 1982 became the first African American listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 400 wealthiest people in America. Johnson overcame poverty and racism to build a business empire embracing magazines, radio stations, cosmetics, and more. His magazines portrayed black people positively at a time when such representation was rare, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.

Johnson was born in humble circumstances on January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, Arkansas, a Mississippi River town. His father, Leroy Johnson, was killed in a sawmill accident; subsequently, in the Great Flood of 1927, the three-room, tin-roofed house he lived in with his mother, Gertrude (later Williams), floated away. They recovered with help from the Red Cross.

At that time, educational options were limited for black students in Arkansas City. The schools were segregated and there were no black high schools. Johnson’s mother saved money to be able to move to Chicago in search of greater educational opportunities for her son, who was a good student. They migrated north in 1933.

Cultural Diary Page

At DuSable High School, despite being teased for his country ways, Johnson quickly distinguished himself. He was editor of the school paper and president of his class, graduating in 1936. He won a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago, but could not afford to attend. He explained his circumstance to Harry Pace, a successful black businessman, who offered Johnson a part-time job as an office boy at his insurance company and suggested he attend school part-time.

Working in a black-owned business allowed Johnson to see how he might some day own a company of his own. One of his duties was to compile a digest of articles to keep Pace informed about black American life. This gave Johnson the idea to start his first magazine, loosely patterned after the popular Reader’s Digest. In 1942, using his mother’s furniture as collateral on a $500 loan, he launched Negro Digest, which became an instant success. Its circulation doubled almost overnight after Johnson persuaded First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write an article on the topic, “If I Were a Negro,” published in October of 1943.

The popularity of Negro Digest inspired Johnson to found another magazine, Ebony, three years later. It, too, was an immediate success, selling 25,000 copies in its first issue, and rapidly became Johnson’s flagship publication. Its circulation eventually rose into the millions.

A monthly general-interest magazine, Ebony was similar to the popular Life and Look. When it was launched in 1945, there were no black players on major league baseball teams, and black representation in the mainstream media, when it could be found, was often negative. In its articles about current events and cultural issues, Ebony highlighted African-American success stories. For its 40th anniversary issue in 1985, Johnson spoke of his magazine’s strategy: “We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad. … We look for breakthroughs, we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that long shots do come in.” He could have been describing himself.

The recognition that African Americans were hungry for positive images of black life was critical to Johnson’s success. “I thought my way out of poverty. Ebony was my passport,” he once remarked. In 1946, the year after it was started, Ebony landed its first national advertising account (with Zenith). Selling advertising space to white-owned corporations and persuading them to use black models in their ads were major breakthroughs.

In addition to these successes, Ebony played an important role in the civil rights movement. Johnson was a friend and supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and provided important coverage of protest marches and other events. Even during tension-filled times in the Deep South, photographers from Ebony—white or black, depending on the circumstances—were on the scene to capture the news. Johnson’s magazines are an invaluable resource for students of American history. In 1985, he said, “I hope future historians will say that we changed the negative image Black people had of themselves.”

Six years after launching Ebony, in 1951, Johnson launched the newsweekly Jet. Other magazines followed, and Johnson’s business empire grew as he began publishing books, producing for television, and buying radio stations. In 1973, he created Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a line of beauty products. He also acquired control of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, where he had started out as an office boy.

As Johnson’s influence, accomplishments, and fortune grew, he received many prizes and honors. He joined Vice President Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of Africa and served as a Special United States Ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, his industry peers named him publisher of the year—a prize Johnson compared to winning an Oscar. In presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, President Bill Clinton lauded him for giving hope to African Americans during difficult times. A panel of experts polled by Baylor University in 2003 named Johnson “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history.” That same year, Howard University named its journalism school after him.

From poverty to the pinnacle of American society, Johnson’s journey was extraordinary. In 1989, he published his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, in which he credited his mother with much of his success. She taught him that he couldn’t succeed without hard work, but also that some people work hard and fail; he recognized that he was lucky. In the concluding section of his autobiography, he wrote, “And if it could happen to a Black boy from Arkansas City, it could happen to anyone.”

Johnson died August 8, 2005, of congestive heart failure. His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, is CEO of Johnson Publishing Company.

The Black Heritage stamp honoring John H. Johnson is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate. In addition to the panes of stamps and Cultural Diary Page (see above), collectors will also be interested in the , , , , and .

National Book Month: Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder

Most of us familiar with writer and environmentalist Rachel Carson know her National Book Award-winning The Sea Around Us or her groundbreaking 1962 work Silent Spring, which sparked the modern environmental movement.

Fewer of us know The Sense of Wonder, a slim volume that began as a magazine article in the 1950s. In it Carson passionately, persuasively calls on adults to nurture the oftentimes fleeting sense of wonder about the natural world with which every child is born, even if the adults can’t tell one bird from another:

it is not half so important to know as to feel.

Look up at the sky with your child, Carson writes. Listen to the wind blow, “and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts.” This stuff isn’t just for parents; it’s for all of us.

I first encountered The Sense of Wonder on a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine with my husband several years ago. Until then I could see the beauty of the landscape around me but not its details; I understood its sounds but not its language. Carson’s book, which I flipped through every night of our two-week vacation, taught me how to see. It opened up the natural world to me, and me to the world. I will be forever grateful.

“There is other living music.” Indeed.

The Month of Letters Challenge

Have you heard about the Month of Letters Challenge? It was created by award-winning novelist Mary Robinette Kowal, a champion of slow, reflective communication. Here’s the challenge:

In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items. All you are committing to is to mail 24 items. Why 24? There are four Sundays and one US holiday. In fact, you might send more than 24 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.

Writers and regular people around the world are taking part in the challenge, and so are we! Will you join us? Let us know in the comments, and check back here throughout February to see how we’re doing. (If you’re on Twitter, follow #LetterMo.)

Posted in Month of Letters Challenge | Tagged February, , , Month of Letters Challenge,

National Book Month: W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk

Of the many important activists in the fight for equality for African Americans, W. E. B. Du Bois is one of my favorite figures. Born during Andrew Johnson’s presidency in 1868, Du Bois lived to the age of 95. In his nine and a half decades of life, Du Bois saw the nation grow, change, fight, and suffer—and he witnessed the gross miscarriages of justice leveled against black Americans.

An activist, sociologist, writer, and brilliant scholar, Du Bois penned 21 books in his lifetime and over 100 significant essays. He was also the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, was groundbreaking in 1903—dissecting the emancipation of blacks and its effects on his race in the 40 years since—and is one of the only books I studied in school that still resonates with me.

He begins his treatise with a simple statement of purpose:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

Knowing that a great majority of his readership would be white Americans, Du Bois addresses the issue of racial inequality as a national problem, not one merely for the blacks to sort out on their own. He also lays out his views on the role of black leaders—views which won him great admiration from many prominent African Americans who saw Du Bois as a mentor, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

His command of language always seems to me much more powerful, and ultimately effective, than a heated, emotional plea for justice. Though his passion is evident in the arguments he constructs, his tone is clear and collected.

This book established Du Bois as an important writer in the American canon. Considered a radical in his time, Du Bois was instrumental in the creation of the NAACP and left his mark on the burgeoning civil right movement in countless ways. His activism paved the way for many of his well-known successors.