Nov. 22, 2004
Poem: "Yes" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems
© Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could you know. That's why we wake
and look out--no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the second First Lady in American history, Abigail Adams, born Abigail Smith in Weymouth, Massachusetts (1744). John Adams traveled a lot during their marriage, and so they kept up a frequent correspondence. She also wrote to other family and friends, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. She wrote about her garden, her children, the momentous historical events she was witnessing, and about politics. Thousands of her letters have been collected and published, and she is considered one of the great letter writers in American history. She called the pen her only pleasure.
In their letters, she addressed him as her "dearest friend." He addressed her as his "dear soul." She wasn't always happy to give up her husband's company for the country's benefit. When she learned that he would be staying away for an extra month in 1775, she wrote, "I was pleasing myself with the thought that you would soon be upon your return. It is in vain to repine. I hope the public will reap what I sacrifice."
She never hesitated to give John her opinions about public policy, and she made her most famous suggestion on March 31, 1776, when she wrote, "I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."
When John wrote back, "I cannot but laugh...you are so saucy!" Abigail replied, "I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives...arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet."
It's the birthday of Andre Gide, born in Paris (1869). He was brought up in an extremely strict Calvinist household, and he struggled for most of his youth against sexual desires. He said, "[I was] crazed to such a point that eventually I came to seek everywhere some bit of flesh on which to press my lips."
He was traveling in North Africa in 1895 when he met the writer Oscar Wilde, who questioned his sexuality. At first, he was offended by Wilde's suggestion, but the encounter led him to embrace the fact that he was a homosexual. He went on to become one of the first modern writers to openly defend homosexuality in his book Corydon (1924), which became an underground classic, even though it was denounced and banned in mainstream literary society.
He was one of the most popular writers in France, in part because he was so controversial. For a long time, the Vatican proclaimed that it was a mortal sin to read any of his books. He's best known for his novels The Immoralist (1902) and The Counterfeiters (1926). He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947.
Andre Gide said, "'Know thyself'[is] a maxim as pernicious as it is ugly...A caterpillar who wanted to know itself well would never become a butterfly."
And, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better."
It's the birthday of the woman who wrote under the name George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire, England (1819). She was her father's favorite child, and he paid for the many tutors who taught her foreign languages and gave her all the best literature to read. Her father was shocked when, at the age of twenty-two, she told him that she had decided Christianity was a mix of fact and fiction, and she no longer wanted to go to church. He stopped speaking to her for nine weeks. She eventually made up with him, but she never changed her beliefs.
After her father's death, she traveled to Switzerland, wondering how she was going to support herself. Her father hadn't left her much money, and men didn't find her very attractive. She found herself spending all her time sitting in public places, staring at other people and taking notes. Her letters to friends were filled with observations of the people she met.
When she returned to England, she became a woman of letters at a time when there was almost no such thing. She impressed the owner of a literary journal so much that he let her become the poorly paid, unacknowledged editor of the Westminster Review, and under her guidance it became one of the most respected literary quarterlies in London.
Eliot also began to write fiction. She chose George Eliot as her pen name because George was the first name of her lover and she said, "Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word." She also described the name as, "A tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries."
At a time when most novels were full of exaggerated characters, wild coincidences, and sentimentality, Eliot devoted herself to writing about ordinary characters and ordinary life. She wrote, "Do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world."
Eliot's first full-length novel Adam Bede (1859) was about carpenter who is betrayed by his love, Hetty Sorrel. Eliot said, "[It is] country story--full of the breath of cows and scent of hay." It was an immediate success. People across Europe, including Leo Tolstoy in Russia, called it a work of genius, and everyone wondered who this George Eliot was. Mary Evans decided to reveal her identity, and went on to become one of the most renowned writers of her lifetime. In 1871, she published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, which has been called one of the greatest English novels of all time.
George Eliot, who wrote, "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
It was about 12:30 PM on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It was the only successful assassination of an American president carried out in the last hundred years, and the only presidential assassination ever caught on film. Almost every American alive at the time remembers where they were when they heard the news. Walter Cronkite cried when he made the announcement that the president was dead.
The alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested ninety minutes after the murder took place. Two days after his arrest, Oswald was being transferred to jail, in front of a crowd of on-lookers and TV cameras, when a local nightclub owner named Jack Ruby pulled out a gun and shot him.
Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over a presidential commission to investigate the assassination. The Warren Commission's report filled twenty-seven volumes with about 10 million words. In included the transcripts of 25,000 FBI interviews, 1500 secret service interviews, the testimony of 552 witnesses who appeared before the commission itself, as well as photos and related documents.
The writer Don DeLillo, who wrote the novel Libra (1988) about the Kennedy assassination, said of the Warren Report, "Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony...It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia...the Joycean Book of America."
The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Jack Ruby had also acted alone. But even before the commission's report was released, books were already being published suggesting various conspiracy theories. Today, there have been more books written by amateur historians about the Kennedy assassination than any other event in history.
The theories include a right wing conspiracy within the U.S. Government, a group of right wing dissidents, anti-Castro Cubans and their supporters, left-wing pro-Castro Cubans, or the Mafia. One theory is that Oswald himself actually never returned from a trip to Russia, but had been replaced and impersonated by a KGB agent. Another theory claims that Oswald was not trying to kill the president at all, but just John Connally, the governor of Texas, who sat in front of Kennedy in the same limousine. Still another suggests that Kennedy was accidentally shot by a secret service agent.
Today, fewer than half of all Americans believe the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone.
Don DeLillo wrote, "What has become unraveled since that afternoon in Dallas is...the sense of a coherent reality most of us shared. We seem from that moment to have entered a world of randomness and ambiguity."
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