Mar. 16, 2006


by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "Happiness" by Wesley McNair from The Town of No and My Brother Running © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.


Why, Dot asks, stuck in the back
seat of her sister's two-door, her freckled hand
feeling the roof for the right spot
to pull her wide self up onto her left,
the unarthritic, ankle—why
does her sister, coaching outside on her cane,
have to make her laugh so, she flops
back just as she was, though now
looking wistfully out through the restaurant
reflected in her back window, she seems bigger,
and couldn't possibly mean we should go
ahead in without her, she'll be all right, and so
when you finally place the pillow behind her back
and lift her right out into the sunshine,
all four of us are happy, none more
than she, who straightens the blossoms
on her blouse, says how nice it is to get out
once in a while, and then goes in to eat
with the greatest delicacy (oh
I could never finish all that) and aplomb
the complete roast beef dinner with apple crisp
and ice cream, just a small scoop.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first great American novel that could reach a large audience. Up until then, publishers would use a single printer to edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages, and sell the books. But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books.

Hawthorne began the novel shortly after he was fired from his position at the Salem Custom House, and spent almost all of his time working on it from June 1949 through February 1850. His wife, Sophia, said she was "almost frightened about it. ... He has written vehemently morning & afternoon & has not walked as much as he used to do. He has become tender from confinement & brain work."

Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America's Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.

Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote, "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buckshot. ... It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits."

Two thousand five hundred copies of The Scarlet Letter were published on March 16, and they sold out within ten days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country."

The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison, clasping her infant to her bosom, as a crowd of people looks on. Hawthorne wrote: "On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, born in New York City (1952). Her parents got a divorce when she was eight years old, at a time when not many couples got divorces, and she was raised on Long Island by her working mother. She loved reading Grimm's fairy tales and Ray Bradbury novels, and watching fantasy movies like Mary Poppins (1964). She started writing stories, dividing them into two categories: fantasy and realism. It wasn't until she read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) that she realized you could "take everyday realities and transform them into something fabulous." She said the novel "changed everything for me."

Her first best-selling novel was At Risk (1987), about an eleven-year-old girl who contracts the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. She's also the author of White Horses (1982), Illumination Night (1987), and The River King (2001).

It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). He's known as the "Father of the Constitution." At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was the leading voice of the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government to take precedence over the governments of the individual states. He introduced the "Virginia Plan," which called for a strong executive branch, long terms in the Senate, federal courts, and a system of checks and balances.

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