Tuesday

Jul. 3, 2012

At Gettysburg

by Linda Pastan

These fields can never be
simply themselves. Their green
seems such a tender green,
their contours so significant
to the tourists who stare

towards the far range of mountains
as if they are listening
to the page of history tearing
or to what they know themselves of warfare
between brothers. In this scenery

cows and cannons stand side by side
and motionless, as if they had grown here.
The cannons on their simple wheels
resemble farm carts, children
climb them. Thus function disappears almost entirely

into form, and what is left under
the impartial blue of the sky is a landscape
where dandelions lie in the tall grass
like so many spent cartridges, turning
at last to the smoke

of puffballs; where the only red
visible comes at sunset;
where the earth has grown so lovely
it seems to forgive us even as we are learning
to forgive ourselves.

"At Gettysburg" by Linda Pastan, from Heroes in Disguise. © W.W. Norton, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (1937). His first professional ambition was to be a journalist, and so he got a job with The Western Daily Press and, later, The Bristol Evening World, and wrote about a variety of things, from features to a humor column. He passed about six years this way, until he started working as a drama critic and fell in love with the theater. He began writing plays himself in 1960, producing a couple of one-act plays and writing for television and radio.

He had his first major theatrical success in 1966, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It's the story of Hamlet, but told through the eyes of two very minor characters whose lives only achieve significance through their involvement with the story of the Danish prince. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and was staged by the National Theatre in 1967; Stoppard, at 29, was the youngest playwright to have a play at the National Theatre. Rosencrantz went to Broadway that same year, and when he was asked what the play was about, he said, "It's about to make me rich." Stoppard won his first Tony Award for Rosencrantz. He's won four more since then, and many other awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Shakespeare in Love (1998).

Today is the birthday of Franz Kafka, born in Prague (1883). He was unhappy for most of his life: terrified of his tyrannical father, plagued by a whole host of psychosomatic illnesses, and tormented by guilt and anxiety. He described himself as "peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly." He wrote surreal, dark, and pessimistic stories like "The Metamorphosis" (1915), "In the Penal Colony" (1919), and "The Trial" (1925). That's the image of Kafka that generally survives today.

But he was also a productive and well-liked employee at an insurance company, and worked tirelessly to prevent workplace accidents in the lumber industry. He kept up a rigorous fitness regimen and loved fresh air: "I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby." And he found love and happiness in the last year of his life, with a woman named Dora Diamant. Even though Kafka was suffering excruciating pain from tuberculosis, Diamant later said, "Everything was done with laughter," and "Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was a born playmate, always ready for some fun."

On this date in 1913, Civil War veterans retraced their own steps in a reenactment of Pickett's Charge. Pickett's Charge was the last Southern charge of the bloody three-day Battle of Gettysburg; Major General George Pickett led 12,500 Confederate troops up Cemetery Hill, where Union troops were waiting for them behind a stone wall. Only half of Pickett's men survived. The Battle of Gettysburg marked a turning point in the Civil War as the last major strategic offensive by the South, involving 160,000 Americans on both sides, with the total number of dead or wounded soldiers as high as 51,000.

Fifty thousand Civil War veterans traveled to Pennsylvania for the reunion in 1913; the youngest was 61, and the oldest alleged to be 112. It ended with Confederate survivors walking the path of Pickett's charge up to the stone wall, where the Union veterans were waiting to shake their hands and embrace them.

In 1938, almost 2,000 veterans — with an average age of 94 — attended a reunion to mark the battle's 75th anniversary. It was at this reunion that President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, which commemorates the 1913 reunion and reconciliation. On the front of the memorial, these words are carved: "Peace Eternal in a Nation United." The flame can be seen from a distance of 20 miles.

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

 









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