Dec. 4, 2013


by David Shumate

You see them in their black carriages along the highway as if they
got separated from some funeral cortege and now must deliver
the dead on their own. The men wear beards but shave their
mustaches. The women wear long dresses and tight bonnets.
The children play with wooden toys and point when they pass
televisions glowing along the roads as if each house had a soul
all its own. They keep bees. Raise crops. Train teams of horses so
large they look like they've been exaggerated. If an Amish man
promises to meet you at noon by the courthouse with a dozen
cages of chickens, he'll be there. When the children are about to
turn into adults, they go on a rumspringa to see which world suits
them best. Girls dangle jewelry from their ears and necks. Smear
makeup on. Boys get behind the wheel of a car. Barrel down gravel
roads. Stop in a field. And baptize themselves with a bottle of gin.
A few go out for football. The girls join the cheerleading squad.
Then return home smelling of perfume or cologne. Giggling as
they stumble up the stairs, long after the candles have been blown

"Amish" by David Shumate from Kimonos in the Closet. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. (buy now)

It was on this date in 1674 that Father Jacques Marquette built a log cabin on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the mouth of the Chicago River. The French Jesuit had explored the area the year before, with explorer Louis Jolliet, and he returned with the intent of establishing a mission there. His journey had been going fairly smoothly, and hunting was good, but a snowstorm dumped a foot of snow overnight, and Marquette also suffered a recurrence of the dysentery that had plagued him on his previous journey. He and his companions built a crude cabin, intending to pass the winter there. It was an advantageous location; it was possible to move between the Great Lakes and the Chicago River (which eventually connected with the Illinois River, and thence to the Mississippi) by way of a short overland portage. For this reason, the Jesuits chose the site of Marquette's little cabin to build the Mission of the Guardian Angel in 1696. The mission was largely abandoned in 1720 after repeated Native American raids, but in the 1780s, a man of African descent named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a farm there. He was the first permanent resident of Chicago.

From Marquette's journal entry of December 4:

"We started well to reach Portage River, which was frozen half a foot thick. There was more snow there than anywhere else, and also more tracks of animals and turkeys. The navigation of the lake from one portage to the other is quite is fine, there being no traverse to make, and landing being quite feasible all along, providing you do not obstinately persist in traveling in the breakers and high winds. The land along the shore is good for nothing, except on the prairies. You meet eight or ten pretty fine rivers. Deer hunting is pretty good as you get away from the Pottawatomies."

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). The year before he was born, his mother had given birth to a girl who died after a week, and she wanted her son to fill that place. Rainer's given name was René, and his mother dressed him in dresses, braided his hair, and treated him like a girl. Later, he wrote, "I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll."

He financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. It was during the winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death. Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

Today is the birthday of the British essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle (books by this author), born in Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). Carlyle moved to London with his wife in 1834, and began work on an ambitious project about the French Revolution. He spent months of hard work on the book, living in poverty and devoting every resource to the project, but when he lent the manuscript to philosopher John Stuart Mill, Mill's maid accidentally threw it in the fire. Even though he wasn't normally a cheerful person, Carlyle refused to let the loss get him down, and he began rewriting it immediately. The French Revolution (1837) became one of his most respected works, and would later serve as Dickens' primary reference when he was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

It was on this date in 1867 that Oliver Hudson Kelley founded the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as The Grange. It's the oldest national agricultural advocacy organization. Kelley was born in Boston in 1826, and moved to Itasca, Minnesota, to become a farmer when he was 23. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson sent him to the Southern states to report back on the condition of the farms there. It was during this trip that Kelley began to think about a fraternal organization, similar to the Freemasons, which would work to improve conditions for farmers and bring the North and South back together in a common cause. So he formed the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry for this purpose, and his organization was unusual for the time: it encouraged women and teenagers to participate. In fact, the charter required that four of the elected positions must be held by women. The Grange represented the interests of farmers in disputes with the railroads, it established free rural mail delivery, and helped farmers improve their lives through research-based education. It also championed non-agricultural causes like temperance and women's suffrage.

It's the birthday of mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (books by this author), born in New York City (1903). His first six books weren't crime fiction at all, but were Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He first started writing detective stories under pseudonyms like William Irish and George Hopley. He was a contemporary of other, more famous crime writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and his stories and novels were adapted for radio and film noir, including The Bride Wore Black (novel: 1940; film: 1968) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (novel: 1945; film: 1948).

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