Monday

Jul. 4, 2011

This is what you shall do

by Walt Whitman

"This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

"This is what you shall do..." by Walt Whitman, from the preface of Leaves of Grass. Public domain. (buy now)

Today is Independence Day. It marks the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The document was approved and signed on July 2, and was formally adopted on July 4; John Adams always felt that the Second of July was America's true birthday, and wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the date "will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." He envisioned "Pomp and Parade ... Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other." He reportedly refused to appear at annual Fourth of July celebrations for the rest of his life, in protest. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration's adoption — as did Thomas Jefferson, who had written most of the document.

It was traditional in the British Colonies to celebrate the king's birthday every summer, with bonfires, parades, and speeches. During the summer of 1776, they held mock funerals for King George instead — with bonfires, parades, and speeches. They also read the Declaration of Independence aloud as soon as it was adopted. Philadelphia held the first formal Independence Day celebration in 1777, with bells and fireworks; in 1778, General George Washington called for double rations of rum for the troops, and in 1781, Massachusetts was the first to name July 4 an official state holiday. Congress declared it a national holiday in 1870.

Jefferson turned down a request to appear at the 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C.; it was the last letter he ever wrote, and in it he expressed his hope for the Declaration of Independence:
"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. [...] All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

On this date in 1802, the United States Military Academy opened at West Point, New York. A national officers' training academy had been proposed as early as 1776 and had the strong support of Alexander Hamilton, but elite officer training was considered to be a European conceit and was rejected. Finally, in March 1802, Congress passed an act establishing a school for the Army Corps of Engineers, and President Jefferson officially opened West Point on July 4.

In the early years of the academy, there were few regulations and only two instructors, and cadets ranged in age from 10 to 37 years. It's not surprising that many of this country's great military leaders have passed through its doors, but the period between 1900 and 1915 produced Douglas MacArthur, Joseph Stilwell, Henry "Hap" Arnold, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley. The class of 1915 is known as "the class the stars fell on" because 36 percent of that year's graduates eventually attained the rank of general, which is designated by one or more stars on the uniform.

It's the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804) (books by this author), born in Salem, Massachusetts, as Nathaniel Hathorne; he added the "w" later. His family had lived in Salem since the 17th century, a family of staunch — even severe — Puritans, some of them magistrates who had been known to sentence townsfolk to public whippings just for being Quakers. Hawthorne's great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. While the rest of Salem was making money in the growing shipping trade of the 1700s, the Hathorne family fell from prominence and prosperity, and Nathaniel wondered if this was divine justice at work. He added the "w" to his name when he began publishing his writing, in an effort to disassociate himself from his Puritan ancestors, but he couldn't escape them completely; in novels like The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Marble Faun (1860) he returned to Puritan themes of guilt, sin, retribution, and the Fall of Man. He lived in Concord for a time and became friends with many of the Transcendentalists, among them Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. But he didn't share their optimism about human nature, and he eventually became disillusioned with artists and intellectuals.

The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is about a family, the Pyncheons, that has borne a curse for generations. There really was an old Salem family called the Pyncheons; they had been members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and they're the ancestors of novelist Thomas Pynchon. The house itself was modeled after the Salem residence of Hawthorne's cousin, Susanna Ingersoll; the curse was inspired by a family legend that the Hathornes had been cursed by one of the condemned Salem witches.

In a letter to his lifelong friend Horatio Bridge, Hawthorne wrote, "The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one's family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash."

On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The first edition consisted of 12 poems, and was published anonymously; Whitman set much of the type himself, and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time; there were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final "death-bed edition," published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Most of them were written by Whitman himself. The praise was unstinting: "An American bard at last!" One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Emerson felt it was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." This wasn't a universal opinion, however; many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire.

The 1855 edition contained a preface, which was left out of subsequent editions, and in it he wrote:
"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

It's the birthday of playwright Neil Simon (books by this author), born Marvin Neil Simon in New York City in 1927. He's the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history, and he's the only playwright to have four Broadway productions running at the same time. He's made a nice living for himself depicting the struggles — many of them matrimonial — of ordinary middle-class people, to comedic effect.

His father Irving was a garment salesman, and he had a tendency to disappear every so often, so Simon's mother Mamie supported her family by working in department stores. In 1946, Simon's older brother Danny, who worked in the publicity department at Warner Bros., got him a job in the studio's mailroom; by 1948 they were working together, writing material for Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. His first big break came in the early 1950s when he got a job on Sid Caesar's live television program Your Show of Shows, joining a writing staff that included Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks.

Much of Simon's work is semi-autobiographical. The Odd Couple (1966) came about after Simon's brother got divorced and moved in with another divorced guy. He wrote Chapter Two (1977) after the death of his wife of 20 years and his remarriage to actress Marsha Mason. The play is also about a widower who feels guilty when he falls in love again.

He wrote: "If you can go through life without ever experiencing pain, you probably haven't been born yet. And if you've gone through pain and think you know exactly why, you haven't examined all the options."

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

 









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