Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally — before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot — May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.
May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.”
The many meanings of a simple word like “May” can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”
Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom:
Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished)
You might wish to read Byron’s Memoirs (who wouldn’t?), but you can’t, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on “Lord Byron’s honor & fame” (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May — the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson’s model for his heroine — that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground.
In January he had written to her, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett,” but it wasn’t until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid’s bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)
What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you’re lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university.
“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin (1964)
Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in “Waterloo Sunset.”
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (1970)
A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective “gonzo.”
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)
The lesson of “Spring,” the opening tale in Lobel’s thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May.
Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
“Remember, it’s YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!” With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it’s not likely that anyone — assuming they survived it — will forget the climactic late May event of King’s debut.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)
An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan’s classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, “The Girl in the Black Helmet” and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks’s own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism.
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants’ alliance that’s as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy’s subtle, sympathetic novel.
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008)
“I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK,” sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious — rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante — and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal.
Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr