Feb. 6, 2009

Uncle Jim

by Peter Meinke

What the children remember about Uncle Jim
is that on the train to Reno to get divorced
so he could marry again
he met another woman and woke up in California.
It took him seven years to untangle that dream
but a man who could sing like Uncle Jim
was bound to get in scrapes now and then:
he expected it and we expected it.

Mother said, It's because he was the middle child,
and Father said, Yeah, where there's trouble
Jim's in the middle.

When he lost his voice he lost all of it
to the surgeon's knife and refused the voice box
they wanted to insert. In fact he refused
almost everything. Look, they said,
it's up to you. How many years
do you want to live?
and Uncle Jim
held up one finger.
The middle one.

"Uncle Jim" by Peter Meinke, from Liquid Paper: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Bob Marley, born in the village of Nine Mile, Jamaica, in 1945. He left home at age 14 and headed to Kingston to make his way as a musician. He made reggae music an international phenomenon with songs like "No Woman No Cry," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Three Little Birds," and "Redemption Song," with these famous lyrics: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds."

It's the birthday of lexicographer Eric Partridge, (books by this author) born on a farm near Gisborne, New Zealand, in 1894. When he fought in WWI, he was fascinated by British soldiers' slang. And since slang wasn't included in dictionaries, he decided that somebody should study it and write it down. He wrote books about the history of slang and clichés, and he even wrote a book about the slang used in Shakespeare's plays.

In 1950, he published A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, and Spivs.

On this day in 1937 John Steinbeck published his novel Of Mice and Men. It was a short book, just 186 pages, the story of two migrant farm workers: George Milton and his simple-minded friend, Lennie Small. Steinbeck had worked as a farmhand. He wanted to write fiction about the hard life of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression and write it in a way that would be accessible to the workers themselves. He had seen how successful theater performances were in farm camps, so he decided to write a novel that was made up almost entirely of dialogue and could easily be made into a play.

He took the title from lines by the Scottish poet Robert Burns: "The best-laid schemes of mice and men / Gang aft a-gley," or, "The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry."

Steinbeck was almost finished when his dog tore the manuscript to shreds. But he rewrote the novel, and it was published on this day in 1937 and made into a play later the same year. These days, Of Mice and Men is required reading in most high school English classes.

It was on this day in 1843 that the first minstrel show was performed at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City. The performers were Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower. They called themselves the Virginia Minstrels and performed in blackface. Blackface was already popular, but usually by one singer or dancer in a solo act.

The Virginia Minstrels made it a whole show, with a tambourine, bones, fiddle, and banjo. The shows featured songs, dances, jokes, and skits, all of them using insulting dialect and exaggerated stereotypes of blacks on Southern plantations — offensive characters like Jim Crow, Mammy, and Zip Coon. For the next 40 years, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in the United States.

It's the birthday of Michael Pollan, (books by this author) born in 1955 on Long Island, New York. He worked as a journalist and as an editor for Harper's Magazine. And then he started writing about food and food production, and his last three books have all been huge best-sellers: The Botany of Desire (2001), The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), and In Defense of Food (2008).

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