Dec. 17, 2013


by John Updike

I was awakened from a dream,
a dream entwined with cats,
by a cat's close presence.
In the darkness by my bedside there
had loomed a form with shining hair—
squarish, immense-eyed, still.
Its whiskers pricked my lips:
I screamed.
                     My daughter cried,
in just proportion terrified.
I realized that,
though only four, all skin and smiles,
my daughter is a lioness, taken as a cat.

"Daughter" by John Updike, from Collected Poems: 1953-1993. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the day that The Nutcracker ballet was performed for the first time in St. Petersburg, Russia (1892). Czar Alexander III, in the audience, loved the ballet, but the critics hated it. Tchaikovsky wrote that the opera that came before The Nutcracker "was evidently very well liked, the ballet not. ... The papers, as always, reviled me cruelly." Tchaikovsky died of cholera less than a year later, before The Nutcracker became an international success.

It was on this day in 1821 that Kentucky became the first state to abolish debtors' prison. Debt had been a criminal offense for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, debtors worked as slaves for their creditors. Under Genghis Khan, a merchant could be put to death if he went bankrupt three times. In 17th-century Britain, serious debtors had one ear cut off. In colonial America, some debtors were branded or whipped in public, but most were thrown in jail. In fact, debt was the only crime for which long-term imprisonment was common. Most crimes were dealt with immediately through public punishment, fines, or death. But debtors stayed in prison until they could pay their debts, which was impossible for the majority of inmates, who were poor and had no hope of earning income in prison.

The jails themselves were terrible places. Open sewers ran across the floors. Many had no beds, no heat, no clean water, and awful food or none at all — inmates were asked to pay for their own food, but of course they had no money. Debtors died of disease and starvation, but most owed almost nothing. Of the 1,162 debtors jailed in New York City in 1787, 716 owed less than 20 shillings (1 pound).

Richard Mentor Johnson, a Kentucky senator and Martin Van Buren's vice president, spent much of his career in debt, although he was able to mortgage properties and avoid prison. His constituents were not so lucky. The financial crisis of 1819 especially hurt farmers, and many common people were sent to debtors' prison. Senator Johnson was outraged, and on this day in 1821, he was responsible for outlawing debtors' prison in Kentucky, well ahead of the national curve. After Johnson's 10-year crusade to end debtors' prison on the national level, Congress enacted a federal statute in 1832. Johnson said in a speech on the Senate floor: "The principle is deemed too dangerous to be tolerated in a free government, to permit a man for any pecuniary consideration, to dispose of the liberty of his equal." Bankruptcy protection replaced debtors' prison. In 1946, 8,600 Americans filed for bankruptcy; in 2008, more than a million did.

It was on this day in 1900 that the new Immigrant Station opened on Ellis Island. Ellis Island had opened for the first time eight years earlier, after Congress approved a $75,000 facility to process new immigrants. After five years, the station burned down, and so a new building was constructed, this one costing $1.5 million. On its opening day, 2,251 immigrants passed through the new station.

When immigrants boarded ships back in their home countries, they were asked 31 questions, including name, age, health history, whether they were polygamists or anarchists, and whether or not they had at least $25. A ticket in steerage class cost about $30, but ships spent just 60 cents per day to feed their steerage passengers and packed in up to 2,000 immigrants per ship, so steamships netted up to $60,000 for a one-way trip. This profit didn't encourage them to make conditions less miserable for steerage passengers, who spent most of their journey lying in their bunks because rooms were so crowded and there wasn't much space on deck. No one bothered cleaning up the vomit from seasick passengers, and there was no way for steerage passengers to stay clean. The mortality rate was as high as 10 percent.

All steerage passengers were sent through Ellis Island. The grand new inspection station, which opened on this day, was designed in the French Beaux-Arts style, built of red brick with limestone trim. This building had high ceilings, four cupolas, and a sweeping staircase. Immigrants were assigned an interpreter, who guided them up the stairway to the beautiful Registry Room. There, they were examined by doctors, who made chalk marks directly on the immigrants' clothes if they were suspected of having any medical conditions. If conditions were serious enough, they were deported, and many spent hours or days in fear of deportation, although in the end only about 2 percent of people were sent home. If they passed the medical test, they had to go through another round of questioning, and then they were sent on their way. Among those who spent the night waiting for further examination was novelist Louis Adamic, who arrived from Slovenia in 1913. He wrote: "The day I spent on Ellis Island was an eternity. [...] The first night in America I spent, with hundreds of other recently arrived immigrants, in an immense hall with tiers of narrow iron-and-canvas bunks, four deep [...] I shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores and dream-monologues in perhaps a dozen different languages."

Today would mark the beginning of the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. For the winter festival, the Romans made and exchanged gifts, decorated their homes with holly and ropes of garland, and carried wreaths of evergreen branches to honor the god Saturn.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author) was born on this day near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Whittier was raised on a debt-ridden farm, attended school only 12 weeks a year, and had to walk several miles to borrow books on biography or travel since his house contained only a single almanac. All of his life, Whittier suffered from the effects of the hard physical labor of working on a farm. He was a newspaper editor, abolitionist, state senator, and poet. He wrote the poem "Snowbound" in 1865, which made him enough money to retire on.

It's the birthday of Ford Madox Ford (books by this author), born Ford Hermann Hueffer, in Surrey (1873). He edited the Transatlantic Review, published Joyce and Hemingway, and co-wrote three potboilers with Joseph Conrad when he was 24 and Conrad was in his mid-40s. His best-known novel is The Good Soldier (1915). He wrote a dedication for a later edition 10 years after its original publication, and said in it that he had intended to do for the English novel what Maupassant had done for the French with his novel Strong as Death. Once, a young man, upon meeting Ford, said enthusiastically, "By Jove, The Good Soldier is the finest novel ever written in the English language." A friend of Ford's standing by said: "It is, but you have left out a word. It is the finest French novel ever written in the English language."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Ashton-Warner (books by this author), born in New Zealand (1908). She wrote several novels, but she is best known for her memoir, Teacher (1963). Ashton-Warner wanted to be a writer or a concert pianist or a painter or anything other than a teacher like her mother, but she ended up teaching in rural New Zealand schools for 15 years. She had a gift for reaching the most difficult students in the group, the children who didn't want to be there any more than she did. She said about her first year, "The truth is that I am enslaved ... in one vast love affair with seventy children."

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