Nov. 3, 2010
Our Hold on the Planet
The audio and text for this poem are no longer available.
It's the birthday of the poet William Cullen Bryant, (books by this author) born in Cummington, Massachusetts (1794). In his autobiography, he said that he could read all the letters of the alphabet when he was 16 months old, but admitted that he was nothing compared to his brother, who started to read Genesis when he was two and made it through the entire Bible before the age of four.
But there was no doubt that he was a prodigy. He started writing poems when he was nine years old. His religious grandfather paid him to write poems summarizing Bible verses; one of his attempts was: "His name was Job, evil did he eschew; / To him were born seven sons; three daughters too."
William was constantly absorbing knowledge from his father, Peter Bryant, a well-educated physician and politician. The elder Bryant was a staunch Federalist, and he and his friends were furious with their president, Thomas Jefferson, who was a Republican. Jefferson had placed an embargo on American ships, forbidding them to sail to Europe and trade there, with the hope that America could out-maneuver England by refusing to trade with them. However, England was doing just fine, because they were still able to export goods to America, while New England communities in particular were hit hard by the sudden lack of a market for their goods. Young William Cullen Bryant listened to his father and friends complain about Jefferson, and he decided to write a little poem. He even managed to get in a nasty comment about Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. The 13-year-old Bryant wrote about Jefferson:
"And thou, the scorn of every patriot name,
Thy country's ruin and thy council's shame!
Poor servile thing! derision of the brave!
Who erst from Tarleton fled to Carter's cave;
Thou, who, when menac'd by perfidious Gaul,
Didst prostrate to her whisker'd minion fall;
And when our cash her empty bags supply'd,
Didst meanly strive the foul disgrace to hide;
Go, wretch, resign the presidential chair,
Disclose thy secret measures, foul or fair.
Go, search with curious eye for horned frogs,
Mid the wild wastes of Louisianian bogs;
Or, where Ohio rolls his turbid stream,
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.
Go, scan, Philosophist, thy Sally's charms,
And sink supinely in her sable arms;
But quit to abler hands the helm of state."
Of course, Bryant's father was delighted with his teenage son, and encouraged him to expand the poem. He did, and eventually it was more than 500 lines long. Peter Bryant took it to Boston and had it printed up in a pamphlet called The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times; a Satire, by a youth of thirteen. It quickly sold out and went into a second edition, and it even got a rave review by one of the most prominent critics of the day.
Years later, when he was an established poet, William Cullen Bryant was ashamed of his vicious attack on Jefferson, admitting that he hadn't really understood what he was writing about. But The Embargo launched him on a career as one of America's most beloved early poets. His most famous poem is Thanatopsis, a poem about death — he wrote most of it when he was 17. He wrote:
[...] When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart; —
Go forth under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around —
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air —
Comes a still voice [...]
It's the birthday of writer and humorist Joe Queenan, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1950). He grew up in an Irish-Catholic, working-class family, with an abusive and alcoholic father. He said, "Blue-collar people like me have zero tolerance level for the problems of celebrities." So he became a journalist and has made a career out of mocking celebrities, as well as all of American culture. His first book was Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (1992), and he has written nine more books, including Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Selfish History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2001), True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans (2003), and most recently, a more serious memoir about his childhood, Closing Time (2009).
He said: "I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to be a nice person. Like all satirists, I basically hate nice people. I hate do-gooders. I loathe Ben and Jerry. I loathe all of those people. So did Molière. But, I thought, I've been doing this for all of these years, maybe I should try being nice for a change. Who wants to be evil and hated? So, I tried to be a good person for six months. One of the things I did was set up a website where I apologized to all of the people that I've been really mean to. Though I must say that I went out of my way to reaffirm my dislike of certain people. You would never apologize to Geraldo for anything. So, I set up that website and shortly after that, I decided that I didn't want to be a nice person anymore."
It was on this day in 1838 that The Times of India was founded. Back then it was called The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, and it was read by British settlers in India. Now it is a daily newspaper, and it has the highest circulation of any English-language newspaper in the world.
From the archives:
It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903), who wanted to be a writer but suffered from terrible writer's block. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word." He felt like a failure until one day he picked up a camera and realized that with a camera he didn't have to create things, he could just capture them. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why there it is."
Evans photographed storefronts and signs with marquee lights, blurred views from speeding trains, old office furniture, and common tools. He took pictures of people in the New York City subways with a camera hidden in his winter coat. He especially loved photographing bedrooms: farmers' bedrooms, bohemian bedrooms, middle-class bedrooms. He'd photograph what people had on their dressers and in their dresser drawers. In 1933, he was given the first one-man photographic exhibition by the new Museum of Modern Art.
In the summer of 1936, he collaborated with the journalist James Agee on a book about tenant farmers in Greensboro, Alabama, called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book included Evans's photographs of the Burroughs family, the Fields family, and the Tingle family at work on their farms and in their homes. Those photos are among the most famous images of the Great Depression. Walker Evans said, "Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®