May 16, 2007

Stealing Lilacs

by Alice N. Persons

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Poem: "Stealing Lilacs" by Alice N. Persons, from Never Say Never. © Moon Pie Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Stealing Lilacs

A guaranteed miracle,
it happens for two weeks each May,
this bounty of riches
where McMansion, trailer,
the humblest driveway
burst with color—pale lavender,
purple, darker plum—
and glorious scent.
This morning a battered station wagon
drew up on my street
and a very fat woman got out
and starting tearing branches
from my neighbor's tall old lilac—
grabbing, snapping stems, heaving
armloads of purple sprays
into her beater.
A tangle of kids' arms and legs
writhed in the car.
I almost opened the screen door
to say something,
but couldn't begrudge her theft,
or the impulse
to steal such beauty.
Just this once,
there is enough for everyone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who served as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, born in Florida, New York (1801). Seward was considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination before the election of 1860. He'd been the governor of New York and a senator from New York, and he was probably the most widely known and respected Republican politician in the country. Before he went to the nominating convention in Chicago that year, he had already composed the resignation speech he planned to make to the Senate when he accepted his party's nomination.

So Seward could hardly believe it when a lesser-known lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln outflanked him at the convention and won the nomination instead. Seward probably lost the nomination because he was seen as too extreme in his anti-slavery views. In one famous speech, he had argued that the Constitution might allow for slavery, but that there was a higher law than the Constitution. Moderates saw that point of view as too dangerous, and so they nominated Lincoln instead.

Seward viewed Lincoln as an inexperienced country bumpkin, and so when Lincoln asked Seward to serve as secretary of state, Seward saw it as his chance to run the government from behind the scenes. He assumed that Lincoln would be unprepared and easy to control. When the Confederates blockaded federal troops at Fort Sumter, Seward advised Lincoln to back down and avoid war. Lincoln did precisely the opposite. Seward was so infuriated that Lincoln hadn't taken his advice that he wrote the president a angry memo, basically calling Lincoln a fool. But within a month, he realized that Lincoln had been right to force a confrontation with the South.

Seward expected Lincoln to fire him for writing such an insubordinate memo, and he was shocked when Lincoln instead forgave him. Seward wrote to his wife, "[Lincoln's] magnanimity is almost superhuman. The president is the best of us." Seward went on to become Lincoln's most trusted advisor and friend in the administration.

It's the birthday of journalist Studs Terkel, (books by this author) born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, New York City (1912). He moved with his family to Chicago when he was a boy, and a few years later his father was disabled by a heart condition. Terkel's mother got a job managing a hotel for blue-collar factory workers. Terkel got to know the men who stayed at his mother's hotel, and he stayed up late at night talking to them and listening to their stories.

He worked as an actor as a young man and got a series of parts in plays and radio dramas, usually playing gangsters and villains. He went on to host programs on TV and radio, interviewing politicians, writers, and celebrities.

Then, in the 1960s, he decided to start interviewing ordinary people for a book called Division Street (1967), about the changing demographics of Chicago. He went on to publish a series of books in which he interviewed ordinary people about different subjects, including Working (1974), "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II (1984), RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession (1991), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001). His book Hope Dies Last came out in 2003.

It was on this day in 1763 that James Boswell first met Samuel Johnson, the man who would become the subject of his life's work. Boswell had heard that Johnson sometimes stopped by a particular bookshop in London, so Boswell began to spend time there in hopes of running into the great man. Boswell was drinking tea at the bookshop on this day in 1763, when his friend Thomas Davies told him that Johnson had just come into the shop. Boswell got incredibly nervous when Johnson came into the room. He introduced himself, but he and Johnson got into an argument about a man they both knew, and the meeting ended poorly.

But Boswell wouldn't give up. He went to a party at Johnson's house a few weeks later, and after the party was over Johnson asked him to stay a little longer to talk. The two men became close friends, and Boswell began to write a book about Johnson that would become his obsession. Boswell tried to take notes on everything Johnson did and said in his presence, in order to preserve it for posterity.

Those notes eventually became Boswell's book The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). By 1825, all of Samuel Johnson's writings were out of print and they didn't come back into print for another hundred years. But Boswell's book about Johnson went through 41 English editions in the 19th century alone. Boswell managed to write a book about Johnson that is more interesting to us today that the books that Johnson wrote. The Life of Samuel Johnson is now generally considered the greatest biography of all time.

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