Nov. 6, 2007

The Hour

by Michael Lind

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Poem: "The Hour" by Michael Lind, from Parallel Lives. © Etruscan Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Hour

Maybe the moment recurs daily at six, when commuters,
freed from the staring computers,
elbow and bump in unsought intimacy on a station
      platform with you, and frustration
rots what is left of your strength. Maybe the hour comes after
      dinner, when televised laughter
seeps from a neighboring room; maybe the time is the dead of
      night, when you ponder, instead of
dreaming. Whatever the time, you will escape it—by sinking
      down with a book, or by drinking
secretly out in the dark studio, or by unbuckling
pants on a stranger, or chuckling,
one with a mob, in a deep theater. Soon, though, the hour
      comes to corrode all your power,
pleasure and faith with the damp dread that it daily assigns you.
      How you evade it defines you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected for his first term as president of the United States. There were three other men who might have gotten the Republican nomination that year, all of whom were better known, better educated, and more experienced than Lincoln, who had only served a single term as a congressional representative and made two unsuccessful runs for senator. Newspapers called him a "third-rate Western lawyer." Lincoln managed to win the nomination in part because he was from Illinois and the Republican convention was held in Chicago that year.

In the general election Lincoln got only 40 percent of the popular vote, but he won in the Electoral College without a single electoral vote from a Southern state. Most writers at the time thought Lincoln had won the presidency by a stroke of luck, and they expected him to be a failure. The Harvard professor James Russell Lowell wrote in 1863, "All that was known of him was that he was a good stump-speaker, nominated for his availability ... [and that] he had no history."

South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded from the Union before Lincoln had even been inaugurated. By the time Lincoln was getting ready to leave Springfield for Washington D.C., there had been multiple threats on his life. He told a group of Chicago journalists, "Well, boys, your troubles are over now; mine have just begun." He would spend all but the last few weeks of his life fighting to hold the country together.

It's the birthday of Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892), who founded The New Yorker magazine. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he'd only read one book in his life. But he had actually started out as a migratory newspaperman, traveling the country and filing hundreds of stories from California and Brooklyn and New Orleans and Panama. He later said of that period in his life, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

He settled in New York after serving in World War I, at a time when the city was suddenly filling up with smart, interesting people in their late twenties, and it occurred to him that there was no national magazine being written for this new generation. All the popular magazines at the time were either too intellectual or too middlebrow. Ross wanted to create a magazine that was funny and entertaining and unpretentious, and the result was The New Yorker, which came out February 21, 1925.

Ross knew right away that the magazine should have a distinctive look, and so he made sure that it was filled with cartoons. But at a time when most cartoons were caricatures of public figures or just one-line gags with a picture attached, Ross insisted that his artists draw real things and real situations — people at bars or in offices or at parties or at home with their families. In the end, he helped invent the kind of cartoon that The New Yorker still publishes today.

Ross's genius was in spotting talent in writers and hanging on to those writers. He personally hired E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. Some of his employees were driven crazy by his endless memos and writing suggestions, or the way that he would walk into the writers' office and shout that he wanted to hear fingers pounding typewriters. But most people said they never really knew him. James Thurber wrote, "You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off."

It's the birthday of the novelist Michael Cunningham, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati (1952), whose novel The Hours (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999. It was made into a movie in 2002.

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