Jan. 11, 2007

I Married You

by Linda Pastan

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Poem: "I Married You" by Linda Pastan, from Queen of a Rainy Country. © W. W. Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I Married You

I married you
for all the wrong reasons,
charmed by your
dangerous family history,
by the innocent muscles, bulging
like hidden weapons
under your shirt,
by your naive ties, the colors
of painted scraps of sunset.

I was charmed too
by your assumptions
about me: my serenity —
that mirror waiting to be cracked,
my flashy acrobatics with knives
in the kitchen.
How wrong we both were
about each other,
and how happy we have been.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the founding fathers of our country, Alexander Hamilton, (books by this author) born in the British West Indies (1755 or some sources say 1757). He had an extraordinary childhood. He grew up on the tiny island of Nevis, where his father abandoned the family and his mother died when he was just a boy. But he was taken in by a local merchant, who gave him a job at a general store. He turned out to be quite good at accounting, so when he was 13, his boss took a trip to Europe and left young Alexander in charge of the store. He started writing on the side, and an article about a recent hurricane so impressed the adults around him that they all pitched in to pay for his passage to New York, where he could attend school.

He arrived in America just as rebellion against Great Britain was brewing, and he immediately began to write for New York newspapers in support of the colonies' rights. He impressed George Washington so much that he became Washington's right-hand man when he was barely 20 years old. After the revolution, when many American politicians believed that the colonies should remain mostly independent of each other, Hamilton was one of the earliest supporters of a strong central government.

In just three years, between 1787 and 1790, he served on the Constitutional Convention, wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, which helped garner support for the new constitution, became the first secretary of the Treasury, and set up the U.S. National Bank. He was challenged to a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr. They met at sunrise in a wooded area of Weehawken, New Jersey, above the Hudson River. Hamilton showed up for the duel to prove his courage, but he purposely fired his gun straight up into the air. Burr aimed at him anyway, and Hamilton was mortally wounded and died the next day.

He hasn't been as well remembered as Washington or Jefferson, but by setting up the national treasury, the national bank, the first budgetary and tax systems, and most of all by helping gather support for the U.S. Constitution, he did more to design the system of government we now live under than almost any other man.

It's the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1842). He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. He took 12 years to finish the book, which was called The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but it was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind that he called "a stream of consciousness." Before him the common view was that a person's thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote, "Consciousness ... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows."

James's ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness in their work, through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into his or her head. James encouraged audiences to take up the practice as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis of her writing style. William James said, "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, (books by this author) born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant. He helped reform South Africa's penal system. And then, one night while traveling, he started writing Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When the book was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It's the best-selling novel in South African history, and it still sells about 100,000 copies a year.

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