Poem: "The Book of A" by Wesley McNair, from Talking in the Dark. © David R Godine. Reprinted with permission
The Book of A
Raised during the Depression, my stepfather
responded to the economic opportunity
of the 1950s by buying more
and more cheap, secondhand things
meant to transform his life.
I got this for a hundred bucks,
he said, patting the tractor that listed
to one side, or the dump truck that started
with a roar and wouldn't dump.
Spreading their parts out on his tarp.
he'd make the strange whistle
he said he learned from the birds
for a whole morning
before the silence set in.
Who knows where he picked up
the complete A–Z encyclopedias
embossed in gold and published
in 1921? They were going to take these
to the dump, he said. Night after night
he sat up, determined to understand
everything under the sun
worth knowing, and falling asleep
over the book of A. Meanwhile, as the weeks,
then the months passed, the moon
went on rising over the junk machines
in the tall grass of the only
world my stepfather ever knew,
and nobody wrote to classify
his odd, beautiful whistle, formed
somehow, in the back of his throat
when a new thing seemed just about to happen
and no words he could say expressed his hope.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of contemporary poet Mary Jo Salter, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1954). She's the author of several collections of poetry, including Sunday Skaters (1994), A Kiss in Space (1999), and Open Shutters (2003).
It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). She was a tomboy growing up, and never cooked anything. She grew to be more than six feet tall, and when she went to college she wanted to be a basketball star. She eventually changed her mind and tried to write a novel, but that didn't work out either.
During World War II, she got a job with the Office of Strategic Service and hoped to become a spy, but instead she worked as a file clerk. She got to know her future husband Paul Child in China, and they both became obsessed with Chinese cuisine. When they got back to the United States, they got married, and she started taking cooking lessons. She later said, "I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate."
Though Harry Truman had announced the Japanese surrender the day before, it was on this day in 1945 that the Allies officially declared V-J Day, beginning one of the most prosperous and peaceful periods in American history.
American factories had become more and more efficient throughout the war, and once it was over, they were able to focus on consumer goods. In the year after World War II ended, Detroit produced 2.1 million cars, a 2500% increase from the year before. Factories also began to produce all the appliances that had been invented but that no one had been able to afford before the war: washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and televisions.
Hundreds of thousands of happy couples had romantic reunions after the end of World War II, and nine months after V-J day, in May, 1946, 233,452 babies were born in the United States. It was the largest number of babies that had ever been born in a single month in American history. By the end of 1946, 3.4 million babies had been born, the largest generation of Americans ever born at that point.
More than anything else, these new American families wanted houses. The country became so crowded that more than a half million families were living in Quonset huts. Many newly married couples had to move in with their families. The government provided a mortgage program for returning soldiers, and developers began to build houses by the tens of thousands.
The most famous housing developments were those built by the Levitts of Long Island, New York, who build more than 140,000 houses. The average house in Levittown cost about eight thousand dollars, with a mortgage payment of sixty-five dollars a month. When people first moved into the new neighborhoods, there were no streets or streelights, and the lawns had yet to grow grass. But every new house included a stove, a refrigerator, and a washing machine.
The period of economic growth that followed World War II would last for thirty years, and the prosperity was more widespread in the post-war years than during any other economic boom since. For many Americans it was the greatest period in our country's history. Whenever politicians talk about the way things used to be, they're almost always referring to the period after World War II.
Poem: "A Country Story" by Kenneth Fields, from Classic Rough News. © The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.
A Country Story
"When I was a little girl back in East Texas,"
My mother's mother, Beulah, used to tell,
"There was an outbreak of the German measles,
Mama was pregnant, so I went away
To a neighbor lady's, three or four miles from home
When the first signs showed. I was just eight, and sick,
And lonesome for Mama. One day she came for me.
My little sister had broken out, and Mama
Figuring she would die, and the baby, too,
Wanted us all together for those last weeks.
She wanted me home with her. As it turned out
My sister had been reading by the fire
And broke out from the heat, and it was me
That carried the measles home. After Mama died
I used to think of seeing her out the window
Talking to the neighbor lady on that day,
Crying and wiping her eyes with her apron hem."
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1977, Elvis Presley died at 42 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began his singing career by performing hymns and gospel tunes with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, at concerts and state fairs. His parents bought him his first guitar when he was 11. He was 18 when he walked into a Memphis studio and paid $4 to record "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" as a present for his mother.
It's the birthday of the man who created the True Story, and True Romance magazines, Bernarr Macfadden, born in Mill Spring, Missouri (1868). His parents both died when he was a boy, his father of alcoholism and his mother of consumption. His uncle sold him off as an indentured servant to work on a farm. After he almost died of malnutrition, he became obsessed with his health. He started doing daily exercises and became a vegetarian. When he was eighteen, he ran away from the farm and eventually set up his own business in New York City, teaching people to exercise and eat right.
He invented a muscle-building machine, and wrote a pamphlet to advertise it. The pamphlet grew into his first magazine, Physical Culture, which came out in March 1899. His first editorial was titled, "Weakness Is a Crime, Don't Be a Criminal." His magazine was such a success that he became one of the first health and fitness gurus.
Readers of Physical Culture often wrote letters to the magazine asking for advice on their love lives or describing unhealthy experiences they regretted. McFadden got the idea to publish these letters in a separate magazine called True Story. It was the first true confessions magazine, published in 1919. When other popular women's magazines were publishing articles about the love lives of duchesses and princesses, True Story published articles about the love lives of secretaries and shop girls. It was one of the most popular magazines of its time.
It's the birthday of author and editor William Maxwell, born in Lincoln, Illinois (1908). He grew up in a small town in Illinois. His father was a fire insurance salesman, and was on the road for days at a time. With his father gone so much, Maxwell became especially close to his mother. He said, "She just shone on me like the sun." When he was ten years old, his mother caught influenza and died during the epidemic in 1918. He wrote, "It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it... the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away." His family moved to Chicago a few years later. Though he never lived in Lincoln, Illinois again, he never forgot it and he wrote many of his short stories about his childhood there with his mother.
After college he moved to New York and got a job at the New Yorker. He started in the art department, where he persuaded John Updike to give up drawing cartoons and start writing fiction. Maxwell worked at the New Yorker for forty years, editing fiction by John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Vladimir Nabokov. He said that what made him a good editor was that he himself hated being edited, and so he changed very little. Eudora Welty said, "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."
While editing the stories of others at the New Yorker, Maxwell was writing his own fiction. He wrote many novels, including They Came Like Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980).
Most of his short stories are collected in All the Days and Nights (1995). Almost all of his novels and stories were inspired in one way or another by the memory of his mother's death. He was asked later in his life what he what say to his mother if he could tell her anything. He said, "I would tell her, 'Here are these beautiful books that I made for you.'"
Poem: "No Work Poem #1" by Virgil Suarez, from 90 miles: Selected and New Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.
No Work Poem #1
what hurt my father most after his accident
where one bad turn to the water fountain
nearly cost him his life, a forklift dropped
a pallet of 526 pounds of compressed card
board on him and crushed him like a bug,
was how the company told all of his work friends
that because my father had gotten a lawyer
they couldn't talk to my father anymore,
that it was policy that no one come in close
contact with him as though he had malaria
or some other contagious disease. My father
was depressed by this, a man who shared hard
work with other men, and they were his friends,
and his true friends came by anyway to share
stories of what went on at work, and this helped
rehabilitate my father, slowly, and I saw it
in his eyes when his best friend, Manzano,
told my father how many fewer boxes of coffee
they packed without him, that my father,
el campeon, still held the recordI didn't
understand this kind of work-talk,
but I saw how my father when he thought
he was alone would raise his hands and look
at them in the light, as though they were gifts,
and they were; with his hands he worked,
hard, with his hands, he beat the clock,
with his hands he provided for his family,
and proud, he looked at them, the way his
thin fingers now moved; with his hands
he clawed at life, what is given, what is taken.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Jonathan Franzen, born in Western Springs, Illinois (1959). He spent years working on his third novel. After five years he had written hundreds of pages, but he still didn't know what the book was about. He drew a giant diagram, graphing out the events, themes, and characters. He finally decided to throw everything away except for one chapter and started over. He wrote the rest of the book in less than a year. The Corrections evenetually was published in 2001. It's about a mother who wants all of her adult children to come to her house for one last Christmas before their father dies. It was a huge success.
It was on this day in 1998 that President Bill Clinton became the first sitting president in American history forced to testify in a criminal case investigation of which he was the focus.
Other presidents before Clinton had testified before grand juries in the past, but they had always done so to give evidence against others. Thomas Jefferson testified against former Vice President Aaron Burr. Gerald Ford testified in a trial of a man who had tried to assassinate him. Jimmy Carter testified in the bribery trial of a financier named Robert Vesco. But Clinton was the first sitting president ever to be served a subpoena to testify in his own indictment.
Clinton's lawyers and legal advisors encouraged him not to testify, but Clinton decided to do it anyway. The questioning took place on this day in 1998 in the Map Room of the White House. Clinton answered questions for four hours. The proceedings were videotaped and broadcast via closed circuit television to the grand jury in the federal court house.
The videotape of the testimony was released to the media. When the testimony was broadcast, 20 million Americans saw Bill Clinton in a medium close-up. For four hours, the camera never zoomed in or pulled back or cut to a different angle. The questions came from disembodied off-camera voices. Bill Clinton occasionally used reading glasses to read prepared statements, and he sipped a Diet Coke throughout the proceedings. But instead of looking angry and evasive, most Americans were struck by just how humiliated he seemed.
Most Americans saw a man forced to answer embarrassing and intrusive questions about his private life. As the questions progressed, Clinton looked more and more uncomfortable. It was perhaps the most human image of a president Americans had ever seen. Instead of turning against him for evading those questions, most Americans sympathized with him for having to answer those questions. His approval ratings remained above 70 percent after the airing of his testimony, and even went higher in the following months.
Poem: "Hailstorm, 1965" by Twyla Hansen, from Potato Soup. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.
Q: What is the largest hailstone in the US?
A: There have been six reports of hailstones eight inches in diameter.
-The Weather Channel
It was the summer I turned sixteen, one brother
was soon to be married and we'd sold the farm.
I remember wanting desperately to be kissed.
Everything wavered on some kind of edge, elm trees
a graceful dome over the dusty streets. Nothing to warn,
only cumulonimbus clouds in the afternoon, intense up
drafts, sky hazed sulfur-green, hail starting as crystalline
seeds that grew to marble-size, geometrically then,
to the size of softballs, clattering heavy against metal,
wood, glass, against the only small world we knew.
All the west windows in the high school, every roof,
field corn stripped down to stubs, lives shattered
that day by crop failure, gouges, even holes in the ground.
There had never been any guarantee. Always there is
a risk, a gamble, hard choices to make. My oldest brother
and I scooped out stones that ripped through
the ragtop of his '62 Impala. I can't imagine hail the size
of a melon. Somehow that day I sensed that youth
had dissipated, that through the vapor of downed leaves
and broken branches, there would always be another crisis,
and another close call, and yet there was something more out there
circling, the open road where I drove westmy oldest brother dozing
in the passenger's seat, my learners permit in toweighty on I-90
toward Missoula, toward the end of what we know now as innocence.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Paula Danziger, born in Washington, D.C. (1944). Her father often yelled at her as she was growing up in New York, and she told herself that someday she'd use it in a book. In 1974, she did, in a book for young adults called The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. She followed it up with many more, including Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? (1979).
It's the birthday of science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, born in Norfolk, England (1925). He's the author of many science fiction novels and collections of short stories, including Supertoys Last All Summer Long (2001), which was the basis for the Steven Spielberg movie A.I. His most recent novel is Super-State: A Novel of a Future Europe (2002).
It's the birthday of explorer Meriwether Lewis, born just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, (1774). He was the man that Thomas Jefferson chose to explore the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, and he in turn asked William Clark to be his partner on the journey.
Lewis was the younger man of the two, and whereas Clark was easy-going and friendly, Lewis was quiet and intellectual. Lewis kept meticulous journals and recorded everything they saw: prairie dogs, grizzly bears, Native American tribes both friendly and hostile. When the account of the expedition was collected and published, most of the words were Lewis'.
Among the many written observations of geography, Indian customs, and flora and fauna, Lewis also sent back specimens to Thomas Jefferson of the most interesting things he'd found. Among the varied items were several living animals: four magpies, one Sharp-tailed Grouse, and one black-tailed prairie dog. The prairie dog and one of the magpies arrived in good health, and they spent the rest of their days in the nation's capital.
Poem: "Girder" by Nan Cohen, from Rope Bridge. © Cherry Grove Collection. Reprinted with permission.
The simplest of bridges, a promise
that you will go forward,
that you can come back.
So you cross over.
It says you can come back.
So you go forward.
But even if you come back
then you must go forward.
I am always either going back
or coming forward. There is always
something I have to carry,
something I leave behind.
I am a figure in a logic problem,
standing on one shore
with the things I cannot leave,
looking across at what I cannot have.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Ogden Nash, born in Rye, New York (1902). He wrote "To keep your marriage brimming, / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you're wrong, admit it; / Whenever you're right, shut up."
It's the birthday of fashion designer (Gabrielle) Coco Chanel, born in Saumur, France (1883). Along with the perfume Chanel No. 5, which came out in 1922, she introduced turtleneck sweaters, trench coats, costume jewelry, bell-bottom trousers, bobbed hair, and the "little black dress."
Chanel said, "I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like would have an opposite, which I would like."
It's the birthday of the memoirist Frank McCourt, born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the first of seven children born to two Irish immigrants. He lived for a few years in New York City, as his father struggled to hold onto a job, but after his younger sister died, the family decided to return to Ireland. They settled in a tiny Irish town called Limerick.
McCourt's father was an alcoholic, who got fired from his jobs again and again, and managed to spend all of his meager income at the pub. McCourt grew up wearing tattered clothing and shoes that had been resoled with scraps of old tires. His family's home had neither a bathroom nor electricity. He and his siblings slept every night in bed with their parents on a flea infested mattress. For most meals, all they had was tea and bread. McCourt's mother said that tea and bread was a balanced meal, because it contained a liquid and a solid.
Two of McCourt's brothers died of disease and malnutrition. McCourt was ten years old when he caught typhoid fever. He had to spend a week in the hospital, and he was shocked to find that the hospital was a kind of paradise. It was the first time he could remember that he got three square meals a day, the first time he had slept between real bed sheets, and it was also the first time that he had free access to books. He read Shakespeare in the hospital, and fell in love with literature. From that day forward, he would borrow books wherever he could find them, and since his house had no electricity, he would read at night on the street, standing under a streetlamp.
McCourt eventually saved enough money to buy a ticket on a boat to New York City. He served in the Korean War and went to college on the GI Bill. He became a high school English teacher, and taught in the New York City public schools for 18 years.
For years he tried to write about his experiences growing up in Ireland, but he found he was too angry to write anything worth reading. Then, one day, he was listening to the way his granddaughter used language, and he suddenly realized that the key to writing his book would be to write it in the voice of a child. A few days later, McCourt opened up a notebook and wrote the words, "I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw." It was his earliest memory, and it became one of the first scenes in what would become his memoir, Angela's Ashes.
The book came out in 1996. The publisher printed a modest run of 27,000 copies, and McCourt himself said he was just pleased to have published a book at all. But the book caught on through word-of-mouth, and McCourt's public readings were immensely popular, and then the book won the Pulitzer Prize. It eventually spent two years on the New York Times best-seller list, becoming one of the most popular memoirs ever written.
Poem: "Flying" by Philip F. Deaver, from How Men Pray: Poems. © Florida Poetry Series. Reprinted with permission.
I have a flying dream,
have since I was a kid.
In it, I remember suddenly
how to fly, something
for some reason I've forgotten;
by getting to a certain place
in my mind, I'm able simply to rise.
I go up only about sixty or seventy feet,
but that's high enough to look down on
my house, the one I grew up in,
in Tuscola, look down on it
and the trees of the neighborhood;
it's high enough to watch my father
from above as he leaves for work,
to see my mother as she gathers grapes
from the backyard arbor,
to see my sister in her pretty dress,
pulling all her friends in our wagon
down the long, new sidewalks,
to see our many dogs over the years
high enough to see the blur of childhood,
to put my quiet shadow over all of us
early on. In the dream it's a summer's day
and I might sometimes also
be the one looking up, squinting hard
and seeing way high above
birds moving, black spots against the blue
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh, born in San Diego, California (1948).
It's the birthday of Jacqueline Susann, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1918). More than anyone before her, she used her public persona and the mass media to sell books. She developed a system for promoting Valley of the Dolls that helped to revolutionize the way books are marketed. She went on coast-to-coast tours, appeared on local radio and television stations, and made personal appearances in bookstores to read and sign autographs.
It's the birthday of gothic horror author H(oward) P(hilips) Lovecraft, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He said, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
It was on this day in 1862 that the newly formed National Labor Union called upon Congress for the first time to establish the eight-hour work day. The United States had been a country mostly of farmers until the early 1800's, and farmers based their working hours on the season, and the number of hours of sunlight they had each day. It was only after American workers began moving to the cities to take factory jobs that they began to demand more regulated working schedules. Many workers were forced to work between ten and sixteen hours a day, six days a week, with no paid holidays or vacations.
The slogan for the movement to get an 8-hour workday was "8 Hours Labor, 8 Hours Recreation, 8 Hours Rest." There were huge demonstrations and labor strikes throughout the 1870s and the 1880s in support of the eight hour workday. 100,000 workers went on strike in New York City to get the eight hour workday in 1872. In 1886, 80,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue in support of the eight hour workday in Chicago. That same year, 350,000 workers went on strike nationwide in support of the same cause. But after a strike led to violence at the McCormick Reaper Manufacturing Company, and the subsequent Haymarket Square Riot, the government chose to suppress labor activism, rounding up labor leaders and arresting them.
It wasn't a labor leader who helped bring the eight-hour work day into the mainstream. It was Henry Ford. When most other factory owners had their employees working more than fifty hours a week, Henry Ford mandated that his employees work only five eight-hour days a week, because he believed that employees with a little time on their hands would be better consumers, and therefore better for business.
The eight-hour workday didn't become federal law until 1933, when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, which provided for the establishment of maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining. Then, with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, American workers were guaranteed overtime pay for hours worked above 40 per week.
At the time those laws were passed, most sociologists predicted that Americans would work steadily fewer and fewer hours. But in fact, the opposite has happened. Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. And 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week. Americans also take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation.
Poem: from "Album" by Greg Pape, from American Flamingo. © Southern Illinois University Press. Reprinted with permission.
My son has built a tent-cabin
in the front room and invited the dog.
He has constructed an imaginary machine,
with an invisible lever, for catching the fog.
Fallen clouds drifting through the valley
along the river bottom, up and over the lines
and folds and contours of the hills, coulees
and benches, combed by cottonwoods and pines,
breaking softly against the windows
like thought or breath, then passing on,
flowing, opaque body of air, and we are both
caught up in this elemental conversation
of house and fog. The fog got in the house,
he says. I am catching it with this.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1858, that Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln began a series of seven debates during the Senate campaign for the state of Illinois. At the time, the country was deeply divided over the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana territories, and the debates were covered by newspapers as a kind of microcosm of the national debate. One Washington D.C. newspaper said, "The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois."
Stephen A. Douglas was the incumbent Senator and a nationally known spokesman for the Democratic Party, which supported expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was a former state Congressman who was running for Senate as the member of the brand new Republican Party, which opposed slavery expansion. Lincoln had made a name for himself in a speech that June, when he argued that the country's crisis would only grow worse until all the states came together in agreement about slavery. He famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Each debate between the two men lasted three hours. The opening speaker addressed the crowd for 60 minutes, without notes. Then his rival offered a 90-minute reply, and finally the opening speaker returned for a 30-minute rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas met seven times, outdoors, in village squares, county fairgrounds, college campuses, and vacant lots. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people showed up at each debate. At the first debate, the huge crowd kicked up so much dust that the newspaper said the village resembled a vast smoke house. People in the audience cheered for their candidates, and occasionally fired off canons after an especially good point was made.
Most people agreed that Douglas won the first debate. He had the advantage of a loud voice, which was important in the age before microphones. Lincoln's voice was shrill and high pitched, but he spoke in simpler language, and used shorter sentences, and after that first debate the two candidates were evenly matched. By the end, many observers thought Lincoln was the winner.
Douglas ended up winning the election by a slim margin, but the debate made Lincoln a national figure. Two years later, Lincoln ran for president. His campaign collected and published the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which became a national best-seller and helped Lincoln win the election in 1860 that started the Civil War.
It's the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy, born Joseph Charles Kennedy, in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He is now better known for his nonsense children's poetry in books such as One Winter Night in August (1975), The Phantom Ice Cream Man (1979), and Drat These Brats! (1993). His latest book is The Lords of Misrule, which came out in 2002.
It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, born in Brooklyn, New York (1937). In 1967, he published his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, about a broadcaster for a right-wing radio station in New Orleans. It was a minor success. The Vietnam War was on everyone's mind at the time, so he decided to go find out what was going on there. He got a job as a foreign correspondent to Saigon, but instead of focusing on the combat, he uncovered a vast illegal drug trade, which became the subject of his first major success, Dog Soldiers (1974). Ever since, he has traveled the world to write novels about all kinds of places, from Central America to Jerusalem. His most recent novel, Bay of Souls, about voodoo, came out in 2003.
It's the birthday of jazz great Count (William) Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1904). He started out on the vaudeville circuit through the Midwest and got stranded in Kansas City. He fell in love with the hard-driving jazz there, and became leader of a nine-piece band.