Calculus and Ice Cream Cones

May 6th, 2011 by Gay Marks

I am sad to say that this is Gay’s last post, as she left us to pursue her retirement on May 31.  I had hoped she would write a farewell post, but there is never enough time to do all that you plan.  We wish Gay a very happy new beginning, though we’ll miss her insights and all of her help at the MWWC.  –Cathleen

As I opened and began to ready Katharine O’Brien’s book of poetry, Excavation and Other Verse, I simultaneously looked out the window into a fogged-in parking lot on an April morning and I was struck by the coincidence of the view and the book’s first poem “Spring Song” which began “By April mist be not misled….”  Very quickly I became enamored of O’Brien’s poetry as I read on, but then just as quickly, the titles of some of the subsequent—“The old oaken Calculus problem,” “Mathematician,” “Einstein and the ice cream cone”—echoed the Katharine O’Brien, brilliant mathematician, with whom I was more familiar.

What led me to discover this talented woman writer were enclosures found in her important work, Sequences, here in the Maine Women Writers Collection—small, aged clippings from newspapers, a page of quotes and a half-page of edits, both in her hand, and a few other items she had left in the books she had donated to the Collection.  But upon discovering her published poetry collection, I realized I was mistaken to think her world was made up only of ciphers, equations and formulas.  And O’Brien herself writes of the intersection of her two passions in “The old oaken Calculus problem.”

O’Brien’s Sequences was published as one of Houghton-Mifflin Mathematics Enrichment Series and received many positive reviews from which O’Brien had hand-copied excerpts:  “a wealth of material,” “very well written,” “attractive contribution” onto a sheet of paper and left behind to be found.  (I will observe here that it is not a book to be enjoyed lightly!)

And seeing among the inserts the clipped articles that trumpeted the progress in the 1980s in unraveling “pi” and “prime numbers,” we can assume the world of mathematics was never far from her thoughts.

But I have to believe O’Brien softened and balanced her passion for math by creating light, personally revealing and sometimes humorous poetry—for her soul and for ours.  We thank her for both!

Blog As Buried Treasure

March 18th, 2011 by Gay Marks

I always hope that childhood memories for us all can include the experience of reading the back of a cereal box.  Distractedly shoveling spoonfuls of your favorite cereal, moistened with milk, into your mouth, you become completely engaged in the promise of a toy inside the box, or a maze to challenge your brain as you armed yourself with a pencil exchanged for your spoon, or, in my generation, the chance to enter some wacky, but dreamy contest sponsored by the maker of the cereal.

My fond breakfast memories were revived for me by the discovery of  a few interesting inserts in a Mary Ellen Chase book, The White Gate, here in the collection at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  Hidden within the pages of the 1954 book were: a carefully cut out and typed contest form, a wrapper box top for Post’s Sugar Crisp (is that cereal still available?), and an addressed envelope, also typed, to Post Cereals Buried Treasure of Chicago, Illinois.  Typed on the back of the envelope is the return address—James Bowers of Montclair New Jersey.  James’s entry form, cut out from a newspaper comic section (possibly the Sunday edition because the comics on the reverse are in color– and dated 1957), is approximately 5” x 8.”  In bold letters, above what appears to be a tropical island scene—palm trees, sand dunes, ships’ wreckage, peg legged pirates, are the contest directions: “Find The $25,000 Buried Treasure.”

The clue to the treasure’s location obviously are the footprints drawn onto the sand, criss-crossing the entire scene, as the pirate, sword in hand, aptly named Capt. Portzebie by James, looks on, a parrot perched on his shoulder.  Looking carefully at the entry form, one can see that James had made his mark!—he has put a heavily penciled circle around one footprint, typed the words “Foot Print” and drawn a penciled arrow to that circled print—aka “X” marks the spot.  So—James has risked his guess, folded his entry, typed his envelope, included his cereal box label—and yet the envelope was never mailed—here it sits next to my computer.  What happened to derail James’s hopes, to dash his dreams, to leave his mail unmailed?

One interesting clue to this surprising end is that the addressed, ready-to-mail envelope’s reverse side appears to have been used to leave a note for some anticipated visitors, telling them that he/she who has written the note on James’s entry mailing must be away, but will be back after lunch, and to please come ahead.  The note’s signature does not read “James,” but possibly his mother?  Did she never intend to mail the contest entry or did she plan to erase the penciled note, then mail it?  We only know that James never entered the contest.

The book which carefully held these enclosures for many years, The White Gate, was written by Mary Ellen Chase in a desire, as she says in her preface, to write short stories that “have to do with adventures in the imagination of a child, adventures possible only through imagination.”   We have to think that on some level James must have imagined winning that contest and the money it promised—or at least to have dreamed of adventures with pirates on far-away islands, a life completely unlike his life in New Jersey.  Did he ever know that his entry went unmailed?  Or was he so totally engrossed in Chase’s book that he unwittingly pulled his unmailed entry from the table on which it rested to slip his “dreams” into the book, marking his place and then closing the book forever.  We can only hope James continued to dream and imagine himself in new adventures even if he wasn’t going to win the $25,000 from General Mills this time.

“…and all Good Wishes for a Happy New Year”

December 20th, 2010 by Gay Marks

Although I’ll admit to never having read any of Margaret Deland’s books, I now have a certain curiosity about her. I’m intrigued because of an inserted Christmas card found in one of the Maine Women Writers Collection books by Deland. This holiday card to “dear Mrs. Piper and her charming daughter Minerva” was placed in one of Deland’s two autobiographical books, this one entitled Golden Yesterday written in 1941—to be discovered later when the book was prepared for cataloging.

What is curious about the card has nothing to do with its vintage look—it’s a perfect holiday graphic from the 1950s, but is because of a funny little drawing created by Deland from the initials she uses for her signature along with two other sets (indicating her “family,” as she refers to them in the card). The intrigue for me is seeing that Deland has transformed the “D” initial in her name into the head of a snowman or snowwoman-like creature with huge ears and finishing the look with stick arms, spidery hands, a flowing skirt (may we assume we are seeing a snowwoman?), goofy shoes. The head of the figure is bald (all snow creatures are bald!), and the face somehow conveys an expression of surprise with its dots from her pen for eyes and mouth. And Deland has used the finishing flourish of her “D” to give the caricature a sense of motion. Is Deland sharing a moment of whimsy or humor– or is there something less festive behind the doodle? Was this creature known to Mrs. Piper and Minerva? Is Minerva a child who would delight in seeing the drawing on the card?

As with other inserts in the Maine Women Writers Collection, the unknowns about their origins, their paths into the books that harbor them, and their intent make them interesting for collection material. And gives me pause to wonder what I have closed a book on.

The Roosevelts’ Happy Holiday Home

December 13th, 2010 by Gay Marks

Discovered in the Maine Women Writers Collection copy of Margaret Sanger’s Happiness in Marriage (1926) was an unsigned Christmas card inserted among the book’s pages.  The single-sided card shows a photo of a living room scene in sepia tones (only a few hand-colored flames curl around the fireplace logs), and a couple seated on a couch in front of a traditional fireplace, with dogs at their feet.  Printed on heavy stock, it gives no indication to whom the card was sent.  But the couple on the couch is easily recognizable, and the printed greeting on the card confirms that the card is the official holiday greeting from then-Governor of New York, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–”Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from The Governor and Mrs. Roosevelt” reads the text to the right of the homey image.

Franklin Roosevelt was New York’s governor for only one term, 1928-1932, so matching the 1926 publication date of Sanger’s book with the holiday card, it might be assumed that the card was left in the book close to the time of the book’s publication.  The author, Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate and lifelong activist in many humanitarian causes, authored the book as a manual of sorts to help men and women begin their marriages as she says in the dedication, “seek[ing] happiness in marriage based on truth.” Is it reasonable to infer that the original owner of book (before it began its journey to MWWC) was a supporter or even more closely connected with the Franklin Roosevelts, and also a follower of Sanger?

If so, these relationships imply a progressive political philosophy for the book’s original owner or at least for the one who inserted the greeting card, a reader who, at a very challenging time in America’s political and economic history, sought guidance in that turbulent time.

Interestingly, although the specific route that the copy came to Maine Women Writers Collection remains unknown, at one point it was held by the Southwest Harbor Library in Maine and then gifted to MWWC.  In doing some reading about Sanger, I learned that some of her causes were secretly supported by undisclosed funds from the Rockefeller family, who, coincidently, summered on Acadia for generations.  Is it possible that one of the home libraries of a Rockefeller weeded its book collection to donate to a local island library?

And finally, when thinking about this particular insert, one cannot escape the irony of both the image of marital harmony that the Roosevelts’ holiday card projects and the subject of Sanger’s book, happiness in marriage, with what historians have revealed about Franklin Roosevelt’s infidelities during his marriage to Eleanor. Eleanor maintained the marriage charade publicly, but we now know that fireside scene of domestic bliss to be just that, and in more ways than one, a photo opportunity, as America tumbled toward economic disaster.

Greetings At The Front

November 29th, 2010 by Gay Marks

Book inserts can often belie their innocent appearance. Take, for example, the following opening sentence on the back of a 1919 Christmas card note: “I suppose you are ‘off to The War’ in some capacity.” The card was sent to Theodore Eastman and found as an insert in the Maine Women Writers Collection book, The Smiling Hill-top by Julia Sloane, also the author of the card’s note. (Many of Ted Eastman’s books came to MWWC –inside this particular book is an additional letter from Ms. Sloane to Mr. Eastman pasted inside the book’s cover.)

In The Smiling Hill-top and Other California Sketches, Julia Sloane writes with great humor and color of her family’s adjustment to the new landscape of Southern California, having moved therefrom New England. However, her card’s opening line to Mr. Eastman tells of America’s involvement in the war in Europe at the time of the book’s publishing. Ms. Sloane also goes on to say in the note that she might “offer to be your [Eastman’s] ‘godmother’ if you are at the front.” What is jarring about these sentences is that they are in stark contrast to the sentiment of the holiday card—“Merrie Christmas.” War at Christmas time, at any time, is tragic.

Ted Eastman did live beyond WWI, and if, in fact, he did go to the “front,”  this card may have become his talisman and been saved as a reminder to Mr. Eastman of his good fortune to have survived a horrific war– or possibly the card was just saved as a token of the author’s friendship. What can be surmised, once this insert was uncovered, was the importance of the card to both the sender and the person who had to reconcile the personal message with the card’s holiday greeting.