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

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.

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.

National Book Month: Reading (and Encountering) Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism, the post-World War II art movement whose works are often typified by large canvases covered in raucous line or bold swaths of color—and sometimes both, has enjoyed renewed interest lately. Not that the movement and the individual artists who created its landmark paintings have ever drifted far from the public’s collective consciousness. Twelve years ago, Jackson Pollock was the subject of a critically acclaimed feature film starring Ed Harris as the talented and tormented artist. This month in Washington, D.C., a critical moment of creativity in the life of Mark Rothko is examined in the Arena Stage production of “Red.”

In 2010, the Postal Service got in on the action by issuing a pane of stamps honoring ten Abstract Expressionists—Pollock and Rothko, along with their contemporaries Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Arshile Gorky. Featuring reproductions of paintings by each artist, the stamps were arranged dynamically on the pane as though they were hanging on a gallery wall.

Last year, the Museum of Modern Art showcased works by these and other artists in a popular exhibition, “Abstract Expressionist New York.” I didn’t hesitate to add curator Ann Temkin’s highly readable catalog to my library.

In Fall 2011, MoMA singled out Willem de Kooning for a career retrospective. “Asheville,” the painting featured on the de Kooning stamp, was one of many artworks included in the blockbuster exhibition, also accompanied by a scholarly catalog with dozens of beautiful painting reproductions.

Joan Mitchell, the lone female artist included on 2010’s Abstract Expressionist pane, got her due as the subject of Patricia Albers well-received biography, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter. Although I’ve always been drawn to her paintings, halfway through the book I have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the artist. Mitchell’s estate was instrumental in guiding the Postal Service’s selection of her lyrical “La Grande Vallée 0” for the stamp.

Clyfford Still is my favorite Abstract Expressionist artist. His expansive paintings remind me both of the benevolent beauty and sublime forces of nature. In November 2011, the long-awaited Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver, Colorado. The museum is all Still, all the time. Drawings, paintings, and even sculpture tell the story of artistic development and refinement of a signature style of painting. The museum’s catalog also describes the bequest that brought Still’s significant collection of paintings to Denver, as well as the elegant and sympathetic building designed by Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works Architecture and its principal architect Brad Cloepfil.

The Postal Service’s inspired Abstract Expressionist stamps, and the books mentioned here, are suitable substitutes for the real things—paintings of uncommon beauty and imagination. But I recommend going wherever and whenever you can to see the artwork in “real-life.” And keep the stamps and books as mementos of your encounters with art.

The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, 1944 by Arshile Gorky. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Achilles, 1952 by Barnett Newman. © 2009 The Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1948-C, 1948 by Clyfford Still. © Clyfford Still Estate

Orange and Yellow, 1956 by Mark Rothko. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

La Grande Vallée 0, 1983 by Joan Mitchell. Private Collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Edward Tyler Nahem.

Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock. © 2009 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Golden Wall, 1961 by Hans Hofmann. © 2009 The Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Asheville, 1948 by Willem de Kooning. © 2009 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34, 1953-54 by Robert Motherwell. © Dedalus Foundation/VAGA, New York, NY

Romanesque Façade, 1949 by Adolph Gottlieb. © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/VAGA, New York, NY

National Book Month: Reading about Larry Doby

Of the four players featured on the forthcoming Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, Larry Doby (1923–2003) may be the least well known. However, the Hall of Fame center fielder was a true pioneer. Months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in April 1947, Doby—who spent the majority of his career with the Cleveland Indians—became the American League’s first African-American player.

Joseph Moore, a professor emeritus of history at Montclair State University, has long been a Doby admirer. A new edition of Moore’s biography, Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League’s First Black Player, hit shelves this month.

I recently caught up with Moore via email. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Larry Doby was a pioneer, but what specific aspects of his story led you to write about him?

I chose to write Doby’s biography for a variety of reasons. As a native of Paterson, N.J., I grew up impressed by his legendary feats at Eastside High School. My brother-in-law, a scout for the Phillies, told me many stories of Doby as a player in semi-pro baseball. When I worked on the re-write desk in the sports department of the local daily newspaper, I knew that the sports editor was the man who first broke the story of Doby’s signing with the Indians. On top of all that, as a baseball fan and a professor of history at Montclair State University, I had become deeply concerned about the history of Black Americans in the United States.

Was writing the book an enjoyable process?

The research and writing of the book never felt hard. My interviews with Mr. Doby, my research trips to South Carolina, Cleveland, Chicago and elsewhere, were stimulating and exciting. Putting it all together was a very satisfying intellectual exercise.

Have you always been a big baseball fan?

From my earliest memory, I was a baseball fan. I used to imitate Mel Allen’s Yankees broadcasts: “Rizzuto to Gordon to Hassett, it’s a double play!”

Most Americans, even those who aren’t sports fans, know Jackie Robinson. I don’t think that’s the case with Doby. Why hasn’t he been celebrated as much as some of of the country’s other pioneering athletes?

Doby hasn’t been as celebrated as Robinson for many reasons: he was second, not first; he was in Cleveland, not New York; he was self-effacing, not outspoken; he kept his feelings inside, instead of being combative. As he always said, “I just wanted to be plain me.” And when he became the manager of the White Sox, he was second again, this time to another Robinson, Frank.

What kind of treatment—by fans and teammates—did Doby receive when he joined the Indians in 1947?

When team manager Lou Boudreau introduced Doby to the Indians players in July 1947, some of them refused to shake his hand. Others refused to talk with him. But second baseman Joe Gordon and catcher Jim Hegan were exceptions. They accepted and helped Doby. In the cities of the American League, he heard racial epithets from racist fans and rival players. In his first spring training he was segregated in Arizona. Twelve years later he was still segregated from his teammates, this time in Florida.

Did the pressure of being the American League’s first African-American player take a toll on him?

These many pressures took a heavy toll on Doby, but he would never acknowledge them, never complain. Imagine what kind of career he would have had, had he been welcomed!

What are a few things about Doby you’ve learned while working on the new edition of your book?

In preparing the new edition, the passage of time, and the accolades showered upon him, gave me a richer perspective on who Doby was, and what he did. He was and is so much more than that plaque in Cooperstown.

An additional note: I collaborated with the late Bud Greenspan and his staff to create a 90-minute documentary about Doby for Showtime in 2007. It has been screened nationally many dozens of times since then under the title of the original book, Pride Against Prejudice.


The Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps are being issued as Forever® stamps in self-adhesive sheets of 20 (5 of each design). Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate. At the time of issuance, the Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps are being sold at a price of 45 cents each, or $9.00 per sheet.

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