Nov. 6, 2013


by Kirsten Dierking

What if a sleek, grey-feathered nuthatch
flew from a tree and offered to perch
on your left shoulder, accompany you

on all your journeys? Nowhere fancy,
just the brief everyday walks, from garage
to house, from house to mailbox, from
the store to your car in the parking lot.

The slight pressure of small claws
clasping your skin, a flutter of wings
every so often at the edge of vision.

And what if he never asked you to be
anything? Wouldn't that be so much
nicer than being alone? So much easier
than trying to think of something to say?

"Nuthatch" by Kirsten Dierking, from Tether. © Spout Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected to his first term as president of the United States. Before that, Lincoln's only experience in national politics had been a single term as a congressional representative and two unsuccessful runs for senator. He had only one year of formal schooling and no administrative experience. Newspapers called him a "third-rate Western lawyer."

He was nominated for president largely on the basis of the series of debates he'd had with Stephen A. Douglas in the Senate race of 1858. Lincoln lost the election for senator, but on the basis of his national prominence, he became a presidential candidate for the election of 1860. There were three other men who might have gotten the Republican nomination that year, all of whom were better known, better educated, and more experienced than Lincoln. Lincoln only had the upper hand because he was from the swing state of Illinois. It also helped that the Republican Convention was held in Chicago that year. Lincoln's campaign operatives arranged it so that Illinois railroads would offer special rates for train rides to the convention, thereby flooding it with Lincoln supporters.

Once he got the nomination, Lincoln lay low until the election. His strategy was to let the opposition tear itself apart without stirring up any controversy of his own. And the strategy worked. Lincoln's main rival for the presidency was his former senatorial rival Stephen A. Douglas, who was running as a Democrat. But the Southern Democrats broke off and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln wound up winning only 40 percent of the popular vote, but he won in the Electoral College, even though he didn't receive a single electoral vote from a Southern state.

The Southern states took his election as a sign that slavery would be abolished, and before he even had a chance to take the oath of office, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded from the Union. By the time Lincoln was getting ready to leave Springfield for Washington, there had been multiple threats on his life. Before he left Illinois, he told a group of journalists, "Well, boys, your troubles are over now; mine have just begun."

It's the birthday of the March King, John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C. (1854). His father was a U.S. Marine Band trombonist, and he signed John up as an apprentice to the band after the boy tried to run away from home to join the circus. By the time he was 13 years old, Sousa could play violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone, and was a pretty good singer, too. At 26, he was leading the Marine Band and writing the first of his 136 marches, including "Semper Fidelis," which became the official march of the Corps, and "The Washington Post March." In addition to those marches, he wrote a nearly a dozen light operas and as many waltzes, too; and he wrote three novels. But he's best known for "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

He was a hard worker, devoutly religious, and known far and wide for his personal integrity. He often said, "When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!" and his words were prophetic: He died suddenly of a heart attack following a rehearsal in 1932.

It's the birthday of Harold Ross (books by this author), born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). He founded The New Yorker magazine but never really fit in with The New Yorker's audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he'd only read one book in his life. But he had actually started out as a migratory newspaperman, traveling the country and filing hundreds of stories from California and Brooklyn and New Orleans and Panama. He later said of that period in his life, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

He settled in New York after serving in World War I, at a time when the city was suddenly filling up with smart, interesting people in their late 20s, and it occurred to him that there was no national magazine being written for this new generation. All the popular magazines at the time were either too intellectual or too middlebrow. Ross wanted to create a magazine that was funny and entertaining and unpretentious, and the result was The New Yorker, which was first published in February of 1925.

Ross knew right away that the magazine should have a distinctive look, and so he made sure that it was filled with cartoons. But at a time when most cartoons were caricatures of public figures or just one line gags with a picture attached, Ross insisted that his artists draw real things and real situations, people at bars or in offices or at parties or at home with their families, and the result was that he helped invent the kind of cartoon that The New Yorker still publishes today. Ross's genius was in spotting talented writers and hanging on to them. He personally hired E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. He was known for his endless memos and writing suggestions, and for walking into the writers' office shouting that he wanted to hear fingers pounding typewriters. But most people he worked with said they never really knew him. James Thurber wrote: "You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off."

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




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