Nov. 5, 2012
My son calls me while I'm in line at the Stop & Shop
and I freeze, transporting tea from the cart
to the conveyer belt, mind racing to places
he might need me, as I answer my cell.
But he's not calling for rescue from the scene
of an accident, a highway wreck or more
natural disaster, rather calling, as if I were
only in the next room. Home early
from school, he's wondering what's
for dinner and after being told, asks if I might
make mashed potatoes instead of rice.
I sigh a little yes, slightly annoyed at his
casualness, but glad to be able to heed the call,
reminded, I'm the one who thinks of this
accessibility as a way to keep the world
at bay, able now to respond anywhere,
yet burdened by availability.
Born into this expanding, more connected
universe, he can't imagine why anyone
would want to be out of reach, my child who
wears new technology like a second skin
and for whom the whole world
is an easy touch away and should be.
Today is the birthday of the man who said: "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal class, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free." That's the speaker and labor organizer Eugene Debs (books by this author), born to poor Alsatian immigrants in Terre Haute, Indiana (1855). At the age of 14, Debs left high school to work as a paint scraper on the railroad. He soon joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, became an influential member of the union, and went on to become editor of their national magazine. He first went to prison for support of the Pullman Strike of 1894. He emerged six months later a committed socialist, a charismatic speaker, and in 1900, ran for president on the Socialist ticket. He also co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) alongside Bill Haywood and Mother Jones.
A tall lanky man with piercing blue eyes, Debs was an animated speaker, often bending far over the podium to look into the faces of the crowd. He disliked the label of leader, saying: "Too long have the workers [...] waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves."
In 1908, Debs campaigned for president on "The Red Special" locomotive, traveling to the farthest corners of the country. He lost yet again, but this time he received more than a million votes. Nine years later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a speech in which he said, "The rich start the wars, the poor fight them." The Espionage Act had recently passed, making it a crime to publicly oppose the American involvement in World War I. Debs represented himself, called no witnesses, and his statement before the court is regarded as a masterpiece of American oratory.
He continued to speak out from an Atlanta penitentiary on labor issues, and ran yet another popular presidential campaign from behind bars. Now in his early 60s, he refused any special treatment in jail and won over his fellow inmates by constantly fighting on their behalf. When he was pardoned on Christmas Day in 1921, the warden opened every cell block and allowed more than 2,000 inmates to gather at the gates and bid farewell to Debs. As he turned the corner and began to walk the gauntlet of prisoners, Debs opened his arms to the men and began to weep as the crowd roared. Some 50,000 people greeted him upon his return to Terre Haute.
His book on the prison industry, Walls and Bars, was published after his death from heart failure in 1926.
Eugene Debs, who said, "When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats; when we've stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends."
On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis (books by this author) to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Lewis thought it was a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke: Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He wasn't sure he deserved it and told a friend at the time, "This is the end of me ... I cannot live up to it." He used his Nobel lecture to talk about all the other writers that might have been chosen: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Willa Cather; and he ended the lecture by mentioning the younger writers he considered the future of American literature, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, each of whom had just published their first few books. Lewis said, "Young Americans ... are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them."
It's the birthday of writer Thomas Flanagan (books by this author), born in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1923. He did not become a novelist until after the age of 50. He'd been a professor of literature in New York and at Berkeley, and a scholar of Irish history. One day, waiting for his wife to pick him up, he had a flash of inspiration for a historical novel in which an Irish poet walked down a road. This became the first chapter of The Year of the French (1979), about Ireland's failed attempt to revolt against the English in 1798. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Flanagan went on to write other well-received historical novels about Ireland, incorporating real-life figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and Wolfe Tone along with fictional characters.
He spent nearly every summer of his last 40 years in Ireland, and once said, "It is not the romantic, rather sentimental Ireland of many Irish-Americans that I love, but the actual Ireland, a complex, profound, historical society, woven of many strands, some bright and some dark."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®