by Stephen Dunn
In Manhattan, I learned a public kindness
was a triumph
over the push of money, the constrictions
of fear. If it occurred it came
from some deep
primal memory, almost entirely lost-
Here, let me help you, then you me,
otherwise we’ll die.
Which is why I love the weather
in Minnesota, every winter kindness
to obvious self-interest,
thus so many kindnesses
when you need them;
praise blizzards, praise the cold.
And today is the birthday of Jane Austen (books by this author), born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). Our knowledge of her personal life is incomplete, since her sister, Cassandra, burned or heavily edited much of Austen’s correspondence after the author’s death at the age of 41. Austen was the seventh of eight children, and only the second daughter. Her mother wrote lighthearted verse for the family’s amusement, and her father, a clergyman, encouraged Austen’s writerly aspirations when it became apparent that she probably wouldn’t marry. He saw to it that she had a writing desk and plenty of paper. Austen’s brother Henry first approached publishers on her behalf, and managed to secure a deal for her novel Susan in 1803; the publisher never did publish the book, and Austen tried to buy back the rights in 1805. Unfortunately, because of her father’s sudden death and the family’s insecure financial position, she couldn’t afford the price the publisher set. Her first published work was Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. She was widely read in her lifetime, but published all her books as “A Lady,” rather than giving her name. Her health began to decline in 1816, and she died in 1817, possibly of Addison’s disease, lymphoma, or – as has recently been suggested – arsenic poisoning.
When her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh published a memoir of his aunt in 1870, a cult began to grow up around the author; other writers have had plenty to say about her. Virginia Woolf called her “the most perfect artist among women,” and imagined calling on Austen and finding “a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.”
Mark Twain had the opposite reaction, however: “I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”