Sep. 25, 2013

The Yak

by Hilaire Belloc

As a friend to the children, commend me the Yak;
     You will find it exactly the thing;
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
     Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
     (A desolate region of snow),
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet,
     And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
     And if he is awfully rich,
He will buy you the creature—or else he will not
     (I cannot be positive which).

"The Yak" by Hilaire Belloc, from Sonnets and Verse: The Collected Poems of Hilaire Belloc. © Duckworth, 1947. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States approved 12 amendments to the recently ratified Constitution. Ten of them would eventually become the Bill of Rights that we know today.

George Mason, a statesman and delegate from Virginia, was deeply disappointed in the United States Constitution. He had helped craft it with much optimism in the beginning, but became troubled by what he saw as too much power concentrated in a central government authority, and no protection for individual rights. In late summer, 1787, Mason wrote to his son that he "would sooner chop off [his] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." On September 15, 1787, the final vote was made to approve the Constitution, and Mason was one of only three who protested, calling for a "bill of rights" to be added to the document.

But Mason and his fellow anti-Federalists didn't give up, and others joined them. Over the next two years, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison also took up the cause. Patrick Henry felt the Constitution didn't offer sufficient safeguards against tyranny, and asked, "What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances[?]"

In the summer of 1789, Madison introduced a set of 17 amendments before Congress. These amendments were narrowed down to 12, which were approved on September 25 and sent to the states for ratification. Only 10 of these were ratified by the required two-thirds of the states, and they became our Bill of Rights. The document protects, among other things, an American citizen's right to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, a well-organized militia, and a speedy and public trial. It also grants freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, the quartering of troops, and self-incrimination. Finally, Article Ten declares, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

In the end, it was a document crafted by George Mason that inspired much of the language, structure, and content of the Bill of Rights. Mason had drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights for his home state's constitution in 1776. Inspired by an English Bill of Rights from the 17th century, it was the first constitutional protection of individual rights in North America. It established the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of the two amendments that were dropped from the original bill, one of them never passed. It established a formula for determining a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives, where a state's number of representatives depends upon its population. A minimum number of 435 seats was set by statute in 1911, and the population of the United States has grown so much since then that even the least populous districts have more than the minimum number of voters. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary and unlikely to pass.

The second of the "failed" amendments prohibited Congress members from voting to raise their own pay without allowing their constituents to have a say. Since there was no statute of limitations on ratifying the original 12 amendments, this one did eventually pass. Michigan was the state that pushed it over the two-thirds majority, on May 7, 1992 — more than 200 years after it was originally proposed.

It's the birthday of William Faulkner (books by this author), born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). Faulkner was named for his great-grandfather, a Civil War colonel who'd been killed in a duel, but the family name he inherited was indeed Falkner, spelled with no "u." He permanently adopted the additional vowel when applying for the Canadian Royal Air Force, believing it made his name look British. Having already been rejected by the U.S. Army Air Corps because of his height of only five feet six inches, he also lied about his birthplace, for good measure, and adopted a phony British accent.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner was still in training when the First World War ended. This didn't stop him from returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, the town where he'd grown up, sporting an officer's uniform and claiming to have a silver plate in his head. He went to Ole Miss for a few semesters as a war veteran, even though he'd never finished high school, but dropped out of that too.

It was, perhaps, one of the last times Faulkner pretended to be something other than what he was. Of the 19 novels he eventually wrote, 18 were set in the South; 14 of those were set in a fictionalized version of Oxford, the town that he strayed from but always returned to. Many of his characters and their exploits were based on his real-life neighbors and family members — like his great-grandfather.

As much as the rest of the world would always associate Faulkner with the American South, the South didn't always appreciate his representation; Oxford residents alternated between being angered by recognizable depictions in his fiction and disappointed when they weren't included. But it might have been Faulkner's stance on segregation that stirred up the most trouble. He condemned it, putting him at odds even with his own brother, but he also rejected the idea of federal intervention on the issue, putting him at odds with nearly everyone else. The South, he argued, needed time to get used to the idea of integration. When W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a debate on the topic in 1956, Faulkner declined, saying, "I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically." Faulkner believed that a slow and moderate approach to integration was simply a matter of practicality.

He said, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things. ... The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Faulkner also said: "The South's the place for a novelist to grow up because the folks there talk so much about the past. Why, when I was a little boy, there'd be sometimes 20 or 30 people in the house, mostly relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins, some maybe coming for overnight and staying on for months, swapping stories about the family and about the past, while I sat in a corner and listened. That's where I got my books."

It's the birthday of Francine du Plessix-Gray (books by this author), born in Warsaw, Poland (1930). She got a late start writing fiction. She was married with two children, she kept a journal, and it kept getting bigger. She said that one day when she was 33, after she cooked and entertained a group of weekend guests, she "felt an immense void ... the deepest loneliness I'd ever known." She wept for hours, took out a notebook, and started rewriting one of the three stories that had won her a prize when she was in college. Twelve years later, it had become the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants (1976), her first novel.

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Shel Silverstein (books by this author), born Sheldon Allan Silverstein in Chicago (1930). As a youngster himself, he wanted to play baseball or be popular with girls, Silverstein once said, but he couldn't play ball and he couldn't dance. So he wrote and drew to occupy himself, developing a signature style and wit that would delight children all over the world.

It was never his intention. He began his career as a cartoonist while serving in the Korean War, publishing in the military's daily paper; when he returned from duty, he got a job as a staff cartoonist for Playboy magazine, where he also contributed several poems. It wasn't until a fellow illustrator who was finding success publishing for kids put Silverstein in touch with his editor that he was convinced to try writing for children. The blend of witty and wistful that would later become his trademark was initially off-putting to some, who told him his work was too mature for kids, but not enough so for adults. He proved them wrong by publishing four children's books in two years, including his most enduring — and category-defying — The Giving Tree.

Silverstein's playful rhymes and dark humor achieved success for him in another arena too: songwriting. Of his many songs, his most popular may be "A Boy Named Sue." About a man whose deadbeat dad named him "Sue" before he skipped town, the song was quintessential Silverstein: both silly and sad. When Johnny Cash sang it at his famous San Quentin State Prison concert, he was so unsure about whether people would like it he hadn't even bothered to memorize the lyrics. The convicts went wild for the song, as did Cash fans all over the world. It remains pretty popular with kids too.

Silverstein avoided press, refused to go on book tours, and even requested that his publisher not release biographical information about him. As he said in a rare interview with Publisher's Weekly, "I'm free to ... go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else — man, woman, child or dog."

Silverstein died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home in Key West, Florida.

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