Jul. 4, 2007

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Poem: "Pastoral" by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems of W.C. Williams. © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission.


       WHEN I was younger
       it was plain to me
       I must make something of myself.
       Older now
       I walk back streets
       admiring the houses
       of the very poor:
       roof out of line with sides
       the yards cluttered
       with old chicken wire, ashes,
       furniture gone wrong;
       the fences and outhouses
       built of barrel staves
       and parts of boxes, all,
       if I am fortunate,
       smeared a bluish green
       that properly weathered
       pleases me best of all colors.
No one
       will believe this
       of vast import to the nation.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1776 that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a second-floor room on Market Street in Philadelphia, on a little lap desk that he had designed himself. He described the task in a letter to a friend, saying, "The object of the Declaration [is] not to find out new principles, or new arguments... but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.... [It is] intended to be an expression of the American mind."

Jefferson finished the first draft after a few days work and sent it to Benjamin Franklin on the morning of June 21, asking for suggestions. Franklin made just a few changes. In the most famous passage, Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

The Continental Congress made a lot more changes to Jefferson's draft when they considered its adoption. They deleted passages that attacked the British people, rather than just the king, and they cut an entire paragraph in which Jefferson had attacked the king for perpetuating the slave trade. The last five paragraphs were considered too long and rambling, and so they were reduced by half. In total, they made 86 changes, eliminating 480 words and leaving 1,337. Jefferson found the process of revision extremely painful. He later said, "I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations."

It was on this day in 1845 that Henry David Thoreau (books by this author) moved into his cabin on Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. He was not quite 28 years old at the time, and he had decided to try an experiment in simple living. He was inspired in part by the memory of a summer trip he took with his beloved brother John just before his brother had died of lockjaw.

Thoreau built a tiny cabin on the land, 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, with an attic and a closet, two windows, and a fireplace. It cost 28 dollars and 12 cents to build. The single biggest expenditure was $3.90 for nails. He moved into the cabin on this day, Independence Day, in 1845, to signify his new independence from his family and from civilization. But he had not exactly moved to the wilderness. There were farms in the area, and Thoreau could see the nearby railroad tracks from his cabin's window. He walked to town every day, and his mother frequently gave him bundles of food to eat.

But at his cabin, he kept a huge garden, seven miles of bean rows altogether, and he spent a lot of time weeding them and chasing away the woodchucks. He baked unleavened bread on a stone over a fire in the sand outside, and supported himself by hiring himself out as a surveyor and a builder. He found he could earn enough money if he worked for about a month and a half out of the year.

Thoreau ultimately lived at Walden for two years, two months, and two days. And he wrote it all down, trying to capture how his experience changed his view of civilization, and what it was he loved so much about this small, unimportant place. He published Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854. It sold 256 copies in its first year, but it has never gone out of print, and has been translated into virtually every language.

It's the birthday of the first great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author), born in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He was an aspiring writer, working at the custom house in Boston, when he lost his job. When he came home to tell his wife the news, she said, "Now you can write your book." He asked what she proposed they live on while he wrote, and she opened a desk drawer and showed him a pile of gold pieces she'd saved out of the household allowance – $150, enough to cover their expenses for several months. He sat down at once and began work on The Scarlet Letter (1850), about a Puritan woman named Hester Prynne who has to wear the letter "A" on her chest after she commits adultery. The first edition of 5,000 copies sold out in 10 days.

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