Aug. 21, 2005
Poem: from "Album" by Greg Pape, from American Flamingo. © Southern Illinois University Press. Reprinted with permission.
My son has built a tent-cabin
in the front room and invited the dog.
He has constructed an imaginary machine,
with an invisible lever, for catching the fog.
Fallen clouds drifting through the valley
along the river bottom, up and over the lines
and folds and contours of the hills, coulees
and benches, combed by cottonwoods and pines,
breaking softly against the windows
like thought or breath, then passing on,
flowing, opaque body of air, and we are both
caught up in this elemental conversation
of house and fog. The fog got in the house,
he says. I am catching it with this.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1858, that Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln began a series of seven debates during the Senate campaign for the state of Illinois. At the time, the country was deeply divided over the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana territories, and the debates were covered by newspapers as a kind of microcosm of the national debate. One Washington D.C. newspaper said, "The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois."
Stephen A. Douglas was the incumbent Senator and a nationally known spokesman for the Democratic Party, which supported expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was a former state Congressman who was running for Senate as the member of the brand new Republican Party, which opposed slavery expansion. Lincoln had made a name for himself in a speech that June, when he argued that the country's crisis would only grow worse until all the states came together in agreement about slavery. He famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Each debate between the two men lasted three hours. The opening speaker addressed the crowd for 60 minutes, without notes. Then his rival offered a 90-minute reply, and finally the opening speaker returned for a 30-minute rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas met seven times, outdoors, in village squares, county fairgrounds, college campuses, and vacant lots. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people showed up at each debate. At the first debate, the huge crowd kicked up so much dust that the newspaper said the village resembled a vast smoke house. People in the audience cheered for their candidates, and occasionally fired off canons after an especially good point was made.
Most people agreed that Douglas won the first debate. He had the advantage of a loud voice, which was important in the age before microphones. Lincoln's voice was shrill and high pitched, but he spoke in simpler language, and used shorter sentences, and after that first debate the two candidates were evenly matched. By the end, many observers thought Lincoln was the winner.
Douglas ended up winning the election by a slim margin, but the debate made Lincoln a national figure. Two years later, Lincoln ran for president. His campaign collected and published the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which became a national best-seller and helped Lincoln win the election in 1860 that started the Civil War.
It's the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy, born Joseph Charles Kennedy, in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He is now better known for his nonsense children's poetry in books such as One Winter Night in August (1975), The Phantom Ice Cream Man (1979), and Drat These Brats! (1993). His latest book is The Lords of Misrule, which came out in 2002.
It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, born in Brooklyn, New York (1937). In 1967, he published his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, about a broadcaster for a right-wing radio station in New Orleans. It was a minor success. The Vietnam War was on everyone's mind at the time, so he decided to go find out what was going on there. He got a job as a foreign correspondent to Saigon, but instead of focusing on the combat, he uncovered a vast illegal drug trade, which became the subject of his first major success, Dog Soldiers (1974). Ever since, he has traveled the world to write novels about all kinds of places, from Central America to Jerusalem. His most recent novel, Bay of Souls, about voodoo, came out in 2003.
It's the birthday of jazz great Count (William) Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1904). He started out on the vaudeville circuit through the Midwest and got stranded in Kansas City. He fell in love with the hard-driving jazz there, and became leader of a nine-piece band.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®