Jul. 29, 2009

A Friendís Umbrella

by Lawrence Raab

Ralph Waldo Emerson, toward the end
of his life, found the names
of familiar objects escaping him.
He wanted to say something about a window,
or a table, or a book on a table.

But the word wasn't there,
although other words could still suggest
the shape of what he meant.
Then someone, his wife perhaps,

would understand: "Yes, window! I'm sorry,
is there a draft?" He'd nod.
She'd rise. Once a friend dropped by
to visit, shook out his umbrella
in the hall, remarked upon the rain.

Later the word umbrella
vanished and became
the thing that strangers take away.

Paper, pen, table, book:
was it possible for a man to think
without them? To know
that he was thinking? We remember
that we forget
, he'd written once,
before he started to forget.

Three times he was told
that Longfellow had died.

Without the past, the present
lay around him like the sea.
Or like a ship, becalmed,
upon the sea. He smiled

to think he was the captain then,
gazing off into whiteness,
waiting for the wind to rise.

"A Friend's Umbrella" by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © the Penguin Group, 2009. Published with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1890 that Vincent Van Gogh died, in the town of Auvers, France, after shooting himself in the chest two days earlier. He had arrived in Auvers in May of 1890 after spending a year in an insane asylum in Saint-Rémy. He became good friends with his doctor in Auvers, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. The two men looked very similar, and thought alike too.

Dr. Gachet told Van Gogh to paint often. So he painted 70 pieces during his time in Auvers, averaging about one a day. After he shot himself, Dr. Gachet determined that it was impossible to remove the bullet from his friend's chest, so at the artist's request, he lit Van Gogh a pipe and sat with him, talking. Vincent's beloved brother, Theo, came as well. Van Gogh died with them on this day, July 29, 1890. At the funeral, his coffin was covered in sunflowers. Dr. Gachet spoke, and he said of his friend, "He had only two goals, humanity and art."

It's the birthday of the man who became poet laureate the year he turned 95: Stanley Kunitz, (books by this author) born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1905). He published his first book of poems when he was 25, called Intellectual Things (1930), and he continued to write and publish for 75 years, until he died at age 100. Along the way, he worked as a journalist and a farmer.

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, (books by this author) born in Paris (1805). In 1831, he was 25 years old, and he and Gustave de Beaumont, who was just 29, were sent by the French government to study the prison system in America. They arrived in Manhattan at sunrise on May 11, 1831. For the next nine months, they traveled more than 7,000 miles, from New England to Wisconsin to Louisiana. They used nearly every vehicle then in existence, including steamer, stagecoach, and horse. They took notes on prisons, but on a lot of other things, too. When they went back to France, they published their joint report on the prison system, and then they each wrote another book. Beaumont was more interested in social reform, and he wrote Marie; or, Slavery in the United States, a novel that discussed the hypocrisy of slavery and racism in a state that claimed to be founded on principles of morality. It was successful, but it was nothing compared to the success of Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835).

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote about the court system, the role of religion, education, business, race relations, associations, and every other detail that went into American democracy and the character of Americans.

He wrote, "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money."

And, "An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing … he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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