Sep. 17, 2011
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The Massachusetts Bay Colony founded the city of Boston on this date in 1630. The Massachusetts Bay Company, headed by John Winthrop, had obtained a charter from King Charles I to colonize and trade on the land between the Charles and Merrimack rivers in New England. Usually, companies were required to hold annual business meetings in England, but in this case, the charter didn't contain that clause. The Puritans later used that loophole to assert their independence from England. They didn't want a complete break with the motherland, but rather a chance to show them how they thought a society should be run. So they established a theocracy; only members of the church could participate in the government of the colony.
The 1,000 or so colonists in the Winthrop fleet had originally arrived in Salem, but the settlement that was already there was short of food and couldn't support them. They then made their way to the Charles River, where they decided to settle on the Shawmut Peninsula; they named their settlement "Boston," after the Lincolnshire port city that many of the religious nonconformists had come from.
Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia on this date in 1787. The document was drafted by 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, after a summer of rancorous debate, and it was signed by 37 of them and went to the colonies for ratification. Although Benjamin Franklin argued that adoption of the Constitution should require a unanimous vote, in the end it was decided that only nine of the 13 colonies needed to be on board.
The holiday was originally known as "Citizenship Day," but in 2004, Senator Robert Byrd attached an amendment to an omnibus spending bill. The amendment mandates that all publicly funded schools teach a special lesson on the history of the Constitution on the anniversary of the document's completion.
It's the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams (1883) (books by this author), born in Rutherford, New Jersey. He decided while still in high school that he wanted to be both a poet and a doctor, and he pursued both vocations with equal passion for the rest of his life. He wrote poems on the back of prescription slips, and he drew from the passions and pain of the patients he visited in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and, later, in his practice in Rutherford. Though he admired the poetry of his contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, he found them "too European," and it became his mission to capture a uniquely American voice, through the plain speech of the local people whose lives he came to know intimately. His reputation was slow to grow, in an era when people were falling all over Eliot's The Waste Land. Most of his patients didn't even realize he wrote poetry. But in the 1940s and beyond, he started to gain wider recognition. His five-volume poem Paterson, published from 1946 to 1958, is reckoned to be his masterpiece.
It's the birthday of the Irish writer Frank O'Connor (1903) (books by this author), the pen name of Michael O'Donovan, born in Cork. He was best known for his short stories, but he also wrote plays, poems, novels, and memoirs. He decided to be a writer at a young age. He told the Paris Review, "From the time I was nine or 10, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was 16 or 17 that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook." His parents couldn't afford to send him to college, but he made ample use of libraries to educate himself. He joined the Irish Republican Army while still a teenager, went to prison after a year of living as a homeless fugitive, and then got a library job and started writing. He later worked as director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and as a broadcaster for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. He spent several years in America, teaching by invitation at a succession of colleges and universities, but he always went home to Ireland at least once a year. He claimed he would die if he didn't.
It's the birthday of English novelist Mary Stewart (books by this author), born Mary Rainbow in Sunderland, County Durham, in 1916. She wrote romantic suspense novels, in which a man and a woman must solve some sort of mystery and, in the process of doing so, fall in love. She's best known for her five-book series The Merlin Chronicles, published between 1970 and 1995. They're part fantasy, part historical fiction.
She met her future husband, Frederick Henry Stewart, in 1945, at a V-E Day celebration at Durham University. It was a costume party, and he was in drag. She said, "He looked quite dreadful, but he had a lovely voice." They were married three months later, and he's the one who encouraged her to send her first manuscript — a mystery novel called Madam, Will You Talk? — to a publisher. The book was published in 1954. She published about one book a year from 1955 to 1980.
It's the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935) (books by this author), born in La Junta, Colorado. He was a champion wrestler in high school and voted most likely to succeed. He married his high school sweetheart and then accepted a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford. He got a job as a night aide at the VA hospital in Menlo Park, which is where he heard about an experiment in search of volunteers. It was part of the CIA's Project MKULTRA, which was investigating various mind control techniques; they were injecting people with psychoactive drugs like LSD and mescaline, and observing their reactions. Kesey signed up and was paid $75; even better than the money, the experiment provided him with an idea for a novel. He combined the drug trips with his experience working as a hospital aide and wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). It's the story of a struggle between a powerful nurse named Miss Ratched and a con man named Randle Patrick McMurphy, who feigns insanity to get out of a jail sentence, and it's considered Kesey's masterpiece.
Kesey was also part of the Merry Pranksters, a group of friends who dressed outrageously, performed street theater, and held parties called "acid tests" where they would take LSD and other psychedelics while listening to The Warlocks (later known as the Grateful Dead), surrounded by black-light posters and strobe lights. In 1964, Kesey wanted to go to New York for the publication of his novel Sometimes a Great Notion, so the Pranksters took their show on the road. In a Day-Glo school bus driven by Neal Cassady, they traveled from California to New York, throwing parties, passing out LSD — which was still legal at the time — and encouraging random strangers to join in their street theater. The trip ended on the East Coast with a meeting with Jack Kerouac, who didn't approve of any enhancements harder than alcohol and marijuana. Tom Wolfe wrote about the journey in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). The criminalization of LSD in 1966 severely curtailed the Merry Pranksters' activities, although Kesey arranged a reunion tour in 1994. He died in 2001, of complications from the treatment of liver cancer.
It's the birthday of writer and artist Brian Andreas (1956) (books by this author). He was born in Iowa City, Iowa, and grew up in Chicago. In the early 1990s, he had an idea to use the new Internet to collect people's experiences of being alive. He called the project Hall of Whispers, after a Babylonian myth about a room where whispers never die; he called the Internet a "technological campfire" that people could sit around and share their stories. From Hall of Whispers arose his long-term project, StoryPeople. Andreas uses pieces of wood salvaged from abandoned homesteads. He paints the wood in bright colors, and writes a bit of a story or poem on it.
"I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand & the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me while you sleep & there are no words for that."
It's the birthday of American poet and critic Brian Henry (1972) (books by this author). He's published several books of poetry, including Astronaut (2002), Quarantine (2006), and Lessness (2011). He teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Richmond.
He has advice for aspiring poets: "Create your own community, and forget about pedigrees and prizes. If the mainstream shifts to accommodate you — as it has done to accommodate so many non-mainstream communities of writers — then you at least arrived there on your own terms."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®