May 3rd

Today is the birthday of the photojournalist Jacob Riis, born in Ribe, Denmark (1849). He moved to New York in 1870. He got a job as a police reporter, working the night shift among the crowded tenements of poor immigrants, and he set out to improve their conditions. When flash photography was invented in 1887, he took photographs of the slums of New York and wrote companion essays to form a book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), and it helped bring about housing reforms.

It's the birthday of Israeli poet and novelist Yehuda Amichai (books by this author), born Ludwig Pfeuffer in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He moved to Palestine in 1936 and later became an Israeli citizen. He was one of the first poets to write in colloquial Hebrew. He wrote: "A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, / to make love in war and war in love."

It’s the birthday of poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (books by this author), born Eleanor Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium, in 1912. Her father was a science historian, and her mother was an artist, and the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, when May was three years old. She received a scholarship to Vassar, but by this time she had fallen in love with the theater and her dream was to act and direct, so she declined the offer. While studying acting and voice, she wrote poetry, and a series of her sonnets was published in Poetry magazine in 1930, when she was 18 years old. By 1935, she had decided that writing, not acting, was her life’s work. She wrote more than 50 books: poetry, novels, memoirs, and journals. Her memoir Journal of a Solitude(1973) has been called “the watershed in women’s autobiography.”

In World of Light, a 1979 documentary about Sarton, she said, “I don’t write poems very often and when I do, they come in batches and they always seem to be connected to a woman, in my case, a muse who focuses the world for me and sometimes it’s a love affair and sometimes it’s not.” She wrote a novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, in 1965, which is often referred to as her “coming out” novel. She worried, with good reason, that writing about homosexuality would pigeonhole or even dismiss her as a “lesbian writer,” and for many years to come, that’s exactly what happened.

By 1990, she was unable to write anymore as a result of a stroke, but she produced three journals and a volume of verse over the last five years of her life, by dictating them into a tape recorder.

“You choose to be a novelist,” she once said, “but you’re chosen to be a poet. This is a gift and it’s a tremendous responsibility. You have to be willing to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care, because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”

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