Poem: "My November Guest" by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays.© Library of America. Reprinted with permission.
My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
For they are better for her praise.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Halloween, one of the oldest holidays in the Western European tradition.
Today, 70 percent of American households will open their doors and offer candy to strangers, most of them children; 50 percent of Americans will take photographs of family or friends in costume; and the nation as a whole will spend more than six billion dollars. In terms of dollars spent, it is the second most popular holiday of the year in this country, after Christmas.
For the Celtic people of Northeastern Europe, November 1st was New Year's Day, and October 31 was the last night of the year. Celts believed it was the night that spirits, ghosts, fairies and goblins freely walked the earth. Archaeologists aren't entirely sure what all the traditions were, but they believe the holiday involved bonfires, dressing up in costumes to scare away evil spirits, and offering food and drink to the spirits of family members who had come back to visit the home.
It was Pope Gregory III in the eighth century A.D. who tried to turn Halloween into a Christian holiday to divert Northern Europeans from celebrating an old pagan ritual. He made November 1st All Saints Day, and October 31 became All Hallows Eve. Instead of providing food and drink to the spirits, Christians were encouraged to provide food and drink to the poor. And instead of dressing up like animals and ghosts, Christians were encouraged to dress up like their favorite saints.
In the United States, Puritans tried to outlaw Halloween, in part because of its association with Catholicism. So it was the Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to this country, when they immigrated here in great numbers after the potato famine in the 1840's. Since the Irish were largely poor and oppressed, Halloween became a holiday for them to let off steam by pulling pranks, hoisting wagons onto barn roofs, releasing cows from their pastures, and committing all kinds of mischief involving outhouses. Treats evolved as a way to bribe the vandals and protect homes.
But by the late 1800's, Victorian women's magazines began to offer suggestions for celebrating Halloween in wholesome ways, with barn dancing and apple bobbing. And by the early 20th Century, it became a holiday for children more than adults. In 1920, the Ladies' Home Journal made the first known reference to children going door to door for candy, and by the 1950's it was a universal practice in this country. By 1999, 92 percent of America's children were trick-or-treating.
What's interesting about Halloween is that it has no real connection to the majority religion of this country, it does not celebrate an event in our nation's past, it does not involve traveling to visit family, and it doesn't even give us a day off work. But it gives us the chance to try out other identities. For one day, people can feel free to dress as the opposite gender, as criminals, as superheroes, celebrities, animals, or even inanimate objects. But Halloween retailers report that the most popular costumes remain some variation on witches, ghosts, and devils.
It's the birthday of English poet John Keats, born in London (1795). Keats's short life was marked by the deaths of friends and family members. His father died when he was nine, and one year later his grandfather died. When he was fifteen, his mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed his brother and, later, Keats himself. Keats said he felt "a personal soreness which the world has exacerbated."
He began writing poetry after he had started his career as an apothecary in London. He published the sonnet "O Solitude" (1816), which called the city a "jumbled heap of murky buildings." His first book, Poems (1817), was not well received. His publishers dropped him, but other poets saw promise in his work. His breakthrough poem was a sonnet called "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Keats had stayed up all night reading George Chapman's translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey with a friend. They stopped reading at 6:00 a.m., and by 10:00, Keats had written the poem and set it on the breakfast table for his friend.
Keats wrote most of the poetry for which he is famous in one twelve-month period, from September 1818 to September 1819. He wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and "To Autumn."
It's the birthday of the journalist Susan Orlean, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1955). She's best known as the author of The Orchid Thief (1998), about a self-taught botanist named John Laroche, who tried to steal an endangered species of orchid from a protected Florida state park in order to clone it and make it available in grocery stores everywhere.
The book started as a single article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker magazine when she first read about the court case. She became fascinated by the strange subculture of orchid enthusiasts, and she began to do research on the long history of obsessive orchid hunters traveling the globe to find rare, exotic orchid specimens. She also wound up writing about the Seminoles' ongoing battle with the U.S. Government for control of their tribal lands, the destruction of Florida's swamps by land developers, and her own relationship to obsession.
Poem: "House" by Billy Collins from The Trouble With Poetry And Other Poems.© Random House, New York. Reprinted with permission.
I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.
The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from
the five Critchlows
and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.
I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.
So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,
he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman
or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and to call down a son to earth
to take over the cows and the farm
when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and
the sun breaking over the same horizon
into these same windows,
lighting the same bed-space where I lie
having nothing to farm, and no son,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the singer, songwriter, and novelist Kinky Friedman, born Richard Friedman, in Chicago (1944). He grew up Jewish in Texas and went on to become one of the few successful Jewish country singers with his band the Texas Jewboys. He developed a cult following, writing humorous country ballads such as "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," and "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" about a fight in a bar between a Jewish man and an anti-Semite.
Then in the mid-1980's Friedman was walking down the street in New York City when he saw a woman being attacked by a mugger at an ATM machine. Friedman grabbed the man and held him until police arrived, and the next day the New York Post ran his picture on the front page with the headline, "COUNTRY SINGER PLUCKS VICTIM FROM MUGGER." The experience of crime fighting inspired Friedman to start writing mystery novels about a former country music singer named Kinky Friedman who lives with his cat and solves crimes in his spare time. His books include Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola (1993), and The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover (1996).
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Stephen Crane, born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). He's remembered as one of America's greatest writers, even though he died before he was thirty years old. As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher's mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even bare-handed. One of his teammates said, "He played baseball with fiendish glee."
His first serious writing was sports coverage of the games he played in for his high school newspaper. He went on to study engineering in college, but he said, "I found engineering not at all to my taste. I preferred baseball." He might have gone from college baseball to professional baseball, but he dropped out of college to become a writer instead.
His first novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) was too vulgar for any of the publishers at the time, so he borrowed money from his brother to have it self-published. Booksellers wouldn't stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, "I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment."
After reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself, and the result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he's read about in school. But when he finally finds himself in his first actual battle, he winds up running away, wandering through the wilderness, and stumbling upon wounded soldiers and dead bodies, until he joins back up with his regiment and becomes the war hero he had hoped to be.
The Red Badge of Courage made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who'd never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they'd fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he'd conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he'd just drawn on his own experience as an athlete.
Crane spent the rest of his life working as a war correspondent. On New Year's Eve in 1896, he was on a boat to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War when the boat hit a sandbar and sank. He barely survived in a small dingy with three other men and spent 30 hours at sea, eventually jumping ship and swimming to shore. The event damaged his health and led to his death a few years later, but it also inspired his short story "The Open Boat" (1898). Crane died two years later of TB. He was just twenty-eight years old.
Poem: "The Bleeding Mind" by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys: Poems.© Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission.
The Bleeding Mind
A great man was giving a lecture in a town
about thirty miles from here. The lecture was called
"Modern and Contemporary Documented Cases of Stigmata,
or, The Bleeding Mind." Cheryl and I were excited
about going, We managed to make several wrong turns
at poorly marked junctures, and arrived at the church
just in time. There were hundreds of cars parked
up and down Main Street, and a line of people
greater than anything we could have imaged. "Who
would have thought this many people would have been
interested in stigmata?" I said. "It's the whole
crucifixion thing," Cheryl said. "You know, people
say they don't want to be crucified, but then they
go around being obsessed with it. Look at this line,
they all want to know if they're candidates for the
stigmata." "That's crazy," I said, "that's not why
we're here, is it?" "Speak for yourself," she said.
"And, besides, this man, Ian Wilson, is supposed to
be very sexy. He's eighty years old, but with this
long white hair that he whips back and forth as he
speaks. At the end he goes out into the audience
actually weeping as he touches the two or three
people he believes may become stigmatic in their
lifetimes." "Cheryl," I said, "I don't think we're
going to get in. It's a very long line. And, besides,
the looks on some of these peoples' faces are beginning
to scare me." "My god, Aaron, I don't know what you
thought we were going to, a lecture on flatboats of
the Mississippi? This is all or nothing at all. Of
course people are terrified out of their minds,"
she said. "Flatboats of the Mississippi sounds
good to me," I said.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1889 that North Dakota and South Dakota became the 39th and 40th states of the Union. The two states had long been one of the remotest regions of the country, and one of the least explored by European settlers. The early surveyors labeled the Dakota territories "Indian Country," and that had scared off most travelers. But Lewis and Clark did spend the winter there in 1804. It's where they saw their first grizzly bear. Lewis wrote, "[The grizzly bear is] a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill. I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal." [sic]
The barren landscape of the Dakota territories didn't help attract settlers either. General Alfred Sully patrolled the area in 1864 and described it as "Hell with the fires out."
In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and a flood of prospectors poured in from the east, battling and displacing the Dakota people as they came. There were numerous battles between setters and Indians over the next decade and a half, but by 1881, most native people had been forced to live on reservations. The Northern Pacific Railway brought in 100,000 more people to settle in the Dakota Territory.
Today, the Dakotas are still pretty remote to most Americans. The population of each state is about the same as it was almost a century ago. North Dakota is still the least visited state in the nation. South Dakota is home to half of the wild buffalo left in this country.
It's the birthday of the journalist Paul Johnson, born in Barton, Lancashire, in northwestern England (1928). One of the most well known right-wing commentators in England, he started out as a liberal. He worked for years as a journalist for the left-wing New Statesman magazine in London, and he was a chairman of his local chapter of the left-wing Labor Party, when he suddenly made a dramatic political swing to the Right, supporting the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He said at the time, "I once thought liberty was divisible--that you could have very great personal liberty within the framework of substantial state control of the economy....And I don't mind admitting I was quite wrong."
He wrote about his change of heart in his book The Recovery of Freedom (1980). He has since gone on to argue that most of the worst political movements of the 20th Century came from the Left, including the regimes of Stalin, Lenin, and Pol Pot. He has criticized everything from feminism and third-world independence movements, to the evils of pop music. H e once said, "Pop music is the most evil instrument ever aimed at the heart and soul of youth." More than anything else, he has criticized intellectuals.
Johnson is also one of the most prolific historians of our time. He writes about 6,000 words a day, every day. But he says, "That's nothing to a chap like Sartre! Sartre could do 20,000 words a day! That's why in my essay on him I call him a little ball of fur and ink!" His books include A History of Christianity (1976), A History of the Modern World (1983), A History of the Jews (1987), and A History of the American People (1997).
It's the birthday of critic and novelist Thomas Mallon, born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He said, "[I had] the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer…where our fathers were all World War II veterans and our mothers were always at home."
He was the first member of his family to go to college, and he became a professor of literature. He had been teaching for several years, writing academic essays on the side, when he decided to write a book about diaries. He assumed it would be an academic work, with a small audience, but as he read the personal diaries of many important writers, he began to develop his own personal writing voice. The book he wrote, called A Book of One's Own (1984) included diary entries from Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, pioneer farmers, and even Thomas Mallon himself. It became a big success, and Mallon was suddenly able to quit teaching and become a literary journalist.
His other novels include Henry and Clara (1994) and Dewey Defeats Truman (1997). His most recent novel Bandbox, about a 1920's men's magazine, came out last year (2004).
Poem: "Interesting People of Newfoundland" by John Ashbery from Where Shall I Wander: New Poems.© Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission.
Interesting People of Newfoundland
Newfoundland is, or was, full of interesting people.
Like Larry, who would make a fool of himself on street corners
for a nickel. There was the Russian who called himself
the Grand Duke, and who was said to be a real duke from somewhere,
and the woman who frequently accompanied him on his rounds.
Doc Hanks, the sawbones, was a real good surgeon
when he wasn't completely drunk, which was most of the time.
When only half drunk he could perform decent cranial surgery.
There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw.
There was Walsh's, with its fancy grocery department.
What a treat when Mother or Father
would take us down there, skidding over slippery snow
and ice, to be rewarded with a rare fig from somewhere.
They had teas from every country you could imagine
and hard little cakes from Scotland, rare sherries
and Madeiras to reward the aunts and uncles who came dancing.
On summer evenings in the eternal light it was a joy
just to be there and think. We took long rides
into the countryside, but were always stopped by some bog or other.
Then it was time to return home, which was OK with everybody,
each of them having discovered he or she could use a little shuteye.
In short there was a higher per capita percentage of interesting people
there than almost anywhere on earth, but the population was small,
which meant not too many interesting people. But for all that
we loved each other and had interesting times
picking each other's brain and drying nets on the wooden docks.
Always some more of us would come along. It is in the place
in the world in complete beauty, as none can gainsay,
I declare, and strong frontiers to collide with.
Worship of the chthonic powers may well happen there
but is seldom in evidence. We loved that too,
as we were a part of all that happened there, the evil and the good
and all the shades in between, happy to pipe up at roll call
or compete in the spelling bees. It was too much of a good thing
but at least it's over now. They are making a pageant out of it,
one of them told me. It's coming to a theater near you.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally, born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939). He's best known for his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together.
McNally started writing plays, but then put it off to take a job as a tutor for John Steinbeck's children. He thought maybe Steinbeck would give him some advice, but all Steinbeck told him was that playwriting was the worst existence in the world. McNally stuck with it though, and had a series of off-Broadway hits. Then his career hit a slump. He stopped writing and supported himself working on radio shows. He said, "I guess it hadn't occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write playsI thought you could be a playwright and sulk."
Then, one day, someone recognized his voice, and asked him if he was that guy on the radio. He realized that if he didn't keep writing plays, he'd be remembered as some radio personality. So he got back to work and produced Frankie and Johnny, which became his first big hit and was made into a movie.
It's the birthday of the humorist and cultural critic Joe Queenan, born in Philadelphia (1950). He's one of the angriest and funniest contemporary critics of popular culture. His working-class background inspired him to become a critic because, he said, "Blue collar people like me have zero tolerance level for the problems of celebrities."
He had been working a series of manual labor jobs, loading trucks and selling tennis racquets, when he decided to become a journalist. The first thing he published was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal called "Ten Things I Hate about Public Relations." He has gone on to write a series of books criticizing various aspects of American culture, including Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (1992), and Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Selfish History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2001).
Joe Queenan's advice to aspiring writers is, "Don't write until you're 25. Don't write for the high school yearbook. Don't write for the college literary magazine. Don't write that stuffyou never had any experiences, you don't know anything, just shut up."
It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in fancy boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at the Sylvia Beach's bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn't meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn't amount to much. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."
He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure. And then one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures was of the parade honoring Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.
He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why there it is."
Poem: "Blackbird" by C.K. Williams.© Reprinted with permission of the poet.
There was nothing I could have done
a flurry of blackbirds burst
from the weeds at the edge of a field
and one veered out into my wheel
and went under. I had a moment
to hope he'd emerge as sometimes
they will from beneath the back
of the car and fly off,
but I saw him behind on the roadbed,
the shadowless sail of a wing
lifted vainly from the clumsy
bundle of matter he'd become.
There was nothing I could have done,
though perhaps I was distracted:
I'd been listening to news of the war,
hearing that what we'd suspected
were lies had proved to be lies,
that many were dying for those lies,
but as usual now, it wouldn't matter.
I'd been thinking of Lincoln's,
". . .You can't fool all of the people
all of the time. . ." how I once
took comfort from the hope and trust
it implied, but no longer.
I had to slow down now,
a tractor hauling a load of hay
was approaching on the narrow lane.
The farmer and I gave way and waved:
the high-piled bales swayed
menacingly over my head but held.
Out in the newly harvested fields,
already harrowed and raw,
more blackbirds, uncountable
clouds of them, rose, held
for an instant, then broke,
scattered as though by a gale.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1918 that British war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in World War I at the age of 25. It was one week before the war ended. He was trying to get his men across a canal in the early morning hours when they were attacked by enemy fire, and Owen was fatally hit.
It was on this day in 1922 that a British man named Howard Carter made one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time by discovering the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
It's the birthday of the poet Charles Kenneth Williams, born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). When he was growing up, he said, "I wasn't particularly compelled by words for their own sake, or by 'literature,' which had always repelled me with its auras of mustiness and reverence. I detested almost any book I had to read, hated English in school, and I must have been surprised, maybe even a little put off, to find myself, just as the dreary poetry survey courses ended, turning the stuff out myself." He wrote his first poems to impress his girlfriend, who liked poetry, but he eventually grew to care more about the poetry he wrote than the effect it had on his girlfriend.
After graduating from college, he sat down and tried to read everything he'd ever heard of. He read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Shelley, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Miller, Frazer, Jung, Plath and Ginsberg. He said, "I'd fall asleep every night over a book, dreaming in other people's voices. In the morning I'd wake up and try, mostly fruitlessly, to write acceptable poems."
For years Williams had been trying to write a poem about the Holocaust. Growing up Jewish, he'd never once been told about the Holocaust by his parents or any other adult. He'd only learned about it from an older friend, in 1958, when he was in his twenties. He was stunned that six million people had been murdered during the first few years of his own lifetime, and he hadn't even heard about it. So he began a huge epic poem about the subject, which he wrote and rewrote, rearranged and revised, again and again, never getting it right.
One afternoon, in 1964, he read a magazine article about civil rights activists in the South, and he decided to write a letter to the editor of the magazine comparing racism in America to the anti-Semitism under Hitler, and it was while he was writing that letter to the editor that he suddenly realized how to write his poem about the Holocaust. That poem was called "A Day for Anne Frank," and Williams has said that he's never struggled very hard to write a poem since.]
It's the birthday of humorist Will Rogers, born near Claremore, Oklahoma (1879). He was the last of eight children, the son of a successful rancher. He never graduated from high school and, at an early age, began performing in rodeo shows, specializing in roping tricks. His father tried to settle him down by enrolling him in a military academy, but he ran away and hopped a boat to South America. From there he took off to Africa, where he began performing in something called "Texas Jack's Wild West Show." He toured with various circuses in New Zealand and Australia until he finally found his way back to the United States, where he performed in vaudeville shows in New York City.
Rogers went on to become the original king of all media. In his lifetime, he was a Broadway showman, Hollywood actor, traveling public speaker, radio commentator, and newspaper columnist. His column was syndicated in almost 400 papers; it was the most widely read column of its day.
Will Rogers said, "When I die, my epitaph is going to read: 'I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.' I am so proud of that I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it."
Poem:"Praise Song" by Barbara Crooker. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there's left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn't cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it's all we have, and it's never enough.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the day in 1605 when police foiled the so-called Gunpowder Plot by seizing Guy Fawkes before he could blow up the English Parliament. Fawkes was a British soldier who had converted to Roman Catholicism at a time when the British government was making it a crime to be a Catholic. Catholic masses were held in secret chapels, clergy had to go into hiding and sleep in closets, and families that refused to attend Protestant mass suffered crippling fines.
Fawkes became so disgusted by British Protestantism that he left England and enlisted in the Spanish Army in the Netherlands. He became known as a soldier of great courage. At that time, a small group of Catholics were secretly planning to assassinate the Protestant King James I, and they enlisted Fawkes to help them execute the plot, and he agreed.
They rented a cellar under the Parliament building, and Fawkes planted more than 20 barrels of gunpowder there, in the hopes of blowing up the king. The rest of their plan included an uprising in the Midlands, and the crowning of a puppet queen, the king's young daughter Elizabeth. But an anonymous tip gave up the plot to the authorities and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, ready to light the fuse. He managed to withstand torture on the rack for two days before giving up the names of his co-conspirators.
For Catholics, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot only worsened their oppression. They could no longer practice law, serve as officers in the army or navy, nor vote in local or parliamentary elections. Some British authorities even suggested that Catholics should have to wear red hats in public.
November 5th came to be celebrated as a holiday in England and in the early American colonies. People would build bonfires, light off fireworks, and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. But even in England, the holiday has been overshadowed by the American import of Halloween.
It's the birthday of actor and playwright Sam Shepard, born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). Shepard grew up in the small town of Durante, California. His father was an abusive alcoholic. Shepard said that one of his father's rules was, "You weren't allowed to have any feelings." One night his father came home late and found the front door locked, so he tore the door right off the house. Sam Shepard left home the next day. He made his way all the way from California to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he got a job with a traveling theater troupe.
Shepard said, "That was one of the most exciting times of my life…We never spent more than one or two nights in the same place and our stages were always the altars of churches…We crisscrossed New England, up into Maine and Vermont. The country amazed me, having come from a place that was brown and hot and covered with Taco stands. Finally we hit New York City and I couldn't believe it. I'd always thought of the 'big city' as Pasadena and the Rose Parade. I was mesmerized by this place."
He got involved in the burgeoning Off Off Broadway theater scene in New York City. He was working as a busboy at a Greenwich Village cabaret when he learned that one of the head waiters had just founded a new experimental theater, which eventually produced his first play, called Cowboys (1964). Shepard began writing furiously, often finishing a one-act play in a single sitting, and he produced so much that even he doesn't remember how many there were. He said, "There was so much to write, I felt I couldn't spend time rewriting; I had to move on to the next thing." One of his early plays, Icarus's Mother (1965), is about a group of characters lying on the beach, waiting for a fireworks display to begin, talking about what they see in the sky.
His first big success was Buried Child (1978), about the patriarch of a disintegrating family, an old man named Dodge who has spent years doing nothing but drinking whisky and watching TV, until the day his grandson Vince comes home and demands to be recognized as the heir to the family farm. It was the most accessible play Shepard had ever written, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Shepard has gone on to produce more plays than any other American playwright, almost none of which premiered on Broadway. His latest play God of Hell came out in 2004.
Sam Shepard said, "The work never gets easier. It gets harder and more provocative. And as it gets harder you are continually reminded there is more to accomplish. It's like digging for gold. And when you find the vein, you know there's a lot more where that came from."
On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis to tell him that he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his novel Main Street (1920). Lewis thought the caller was making a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke. Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant, born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885). He's best known for a huge, eleven-volume work called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). In the book, which he wrote with his wife Ariel, he attempts to synthesize nearly all of human history, following artistic, scientific, religious, and political movements. It was an effort to create a world history for the ordinary person. Though the book was heavily criticized for being incomplete, it was important to many people who wanted to read and enjoy history and were sick of dry, scholarly texts.
Poem: "Light Shining out of Darkness" by William Cowper. Reprinted with permission from Hallelujah: The Poetry of Classic Hymns. Copyright © 2005 by Anna Marlis Burgard, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
Light Shining out of Darkness
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the man who founded The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). His father worked in the mining business, and the family had to move from Colorado to Utah when the silver beds ran dry. Ross said he got interested in the newspaper business when he found out that journalists got to go on police patrols and ride fire engines. He ran away from home when he was sixteen and began riding the rails around the country, working at various newspapers from New Orleans to California.
In the 1920's, Ross worked in the New York City publishing industry and became friends with many of the important artists of the time. He began to lunch with a group of bohemian writers, including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber. They met for meals at New York's Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fifth Street. They called themselves "The Vicious Circle," because they loved to gossip and attack the Puritan values of American society. Ross came up with the idea for a magazine about American life, written in the same witty tone of the group's discussions.
Ross raised money from a friend whose father had made a fortune in yeast, and on February 21, 1925, the first issue of The New Yorker hit the stands. Ross said, "The New Yorker starts with a declaration of serious purpose but ...it will not be too serious in executing it."
It's the birthday of novelist James Jones, born in Robinson, Illinois (1921). He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939. He was stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii On December 7, 1941, when it was bombed by the Japanese. He went on to fight in the battle of Guadalcanal, where he was wounded, earning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
He kept a journal while he was in the Army, and when he got home from the war, he wrote a novel about the experience of disillusioned veterans. It was rejected by all the major publishing houses, but the editor Maxwell Perkins liked a scene from the novel and told him to expand it. He spent five years expanding that scene, and it became the novel From Here to Eternity (1951), the story of a soldier's life in the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
It was on this day in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected for 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 basically laid 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."