Dec. 15, 2011
If day after day I was caught inside
this muffle and hush
I would notice how birches
move with a lovely hum of spirits,
how falling snow is a privacy
warm as the space for sleeping,
how radiant snow is a dream
like leaving behind the body
and rising into that luminous place
where sometimes you meet
the people you've lost. How
silver branches scrawl their names
in tangled script against the white.
How the curves and cheekbones
of all my loved ones appear
in the polished marble of drifts.
The Bill of Rights was adopted 220 years ago on this date, in 1791. The bill is made up of the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, and it was adopted as one unit. It follows the precedent set by the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689), both of which were early attempts at ensuring the rights of citizens against the power of the crown. Much of the credit for the United States Bill of Rights is due to George Mason, who was an admirer of the philosopher John Locke. Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government (1689), argued that government should exist for the protection of individual property, and that all people were equal in the state of nature. Mason had crafted a "Declaration of Rights" for Virginia's constitution in 1776, while serving in that state's legislature. The document impressed James Madison, who showed it to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, in turn, adopted some of its ideas when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met to craft the United States Constitution. The Anti-Federalists didn't approve of the document as written because it offered no protection to individual rights, and they refused to sign it. George Mason said, "I would sooner chop off [my] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." Jefferson wrote to Madison, "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth." Eventually, the Federalists persuaded the Anti-Federalists to sign by promising them they would address the individual rights matter once the Constitution was ratified. James Madison's feelings were mixed, but he took up the task of writing a bill of rights, which he called "a nauseous project," and he introduced it into the first session of Congress in 1789. After some haggling, the 10 amendments were ratified as one unit, which guarantees, among other things, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a fair trial.
Today is the birthday of playwright Maxwell Anderson (1888) (books by this author), born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania. His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and the family traveled across the Midwest. Anderson was often sick in bed as a child, and he used that time to read. He went to college in North Dakota and started a career as a high school teacher there, but he was fired for his pacifist views. He moved to California and ended up teaching at Whittier College, where he was fired again for the same thing. He took up journalism in San Francisco and, later, New York.
His first play was called White Desert (1923). He said, "I wrote it in verse because I was weary of plays in prose that never lifted from the ground." It was a contemporary tragedy about a marriage, set on the North Dakota prairie. It was an ambitious goal, bringing tragic poetry to the stage, and it seemed that audiences didn't share his enthusiasm, because the play closed after just 12 performances. Even though he gave up verse for a while, he kept writing and had success with contemporary subjects in plays like What Price Glory? (1924) and Saturday's Children (1927). One day, he realized that poetic tragedies never worked when they were set in their own place and time, so he tried again and enjoyed commercial success with his Tudor plays, among them Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Mary of Scotland (1933), and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948). He broke his own rule in 1935, with Winterset, a tragedy in verse that's set in contemporary America; the play was loosely inspired by the real-life story of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and anarchists who were convicted of murder.
It's the birthday of Edna O'Brien (1930) (books by this author), born in County Clare, Ireland. She was always interested in writing, but her family distrusted anything literary; to please them, she studied pharmacy in Dublin, and earned her license in 1950. She met her future husband at the Dublin chemist's shop where she went to work, and they moved to London in 1954. Shortly after they arrived, she went to a lecture given by Arthur Mizener on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. "You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one," she told The Paris Review in 1984. "So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt — Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn't believe it — this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write."
Her first novel, The Country Girls, took her only three weeks to write, and was published in 1960. It was promptly and ceremoniously burned by her parish priest, with O'Brien's mother's blessing. The book, its two sequels, and six of her other books were all banned in Ireland.
She published a collection of short stories, Saints and Sinners, this year, and she's at work on her memoir.
The movie Gone With the Wind opened in Atlanta on this date in 1939. Excitement was at a fever pitch; at a top-secret preview screening in California three months earlier, the audience had gone wild when they realized what they were seeing. They screamed, they cried, and they stood on their seats. The official opening of the film in Atlanta was the culmination of three days of parades, receptions, and a costume ball. Confederate flags and false antebellum façades covered the city. The governor declared December 15 a state holiday, and asked Georgians to dress in period clothing. Former president Jimmy Carter remembered it as the biggest event to happen in the South in his lifetime. The cast attended the premiere, with the notable exception of the African-American performers, who were prevented by Georgia's Jim Crow laws from sitting next to their white co-stars.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®