Poem: "Symbol" By Robert Francis from Robert Francis: Collected Poems. © University of Massachusets Press. Reprinted with permission.
The winter apples have been picked, the garden turned.
Rain and wind have picked the maple leaves and gone.
The last of them now bank the house or have been burned.
None are left upon the trees or on the lawn.
Green and tall as ever it grew in spring the grass.
Grows not too tall, will not be cut again this year.
Geraniums in bloom behind the window glass
Are safe. Fall has fallen yet winter is not yet here.
How warm the late November sun although how wan.
The white house stands a symbol of fulfillment there,
Housing one old woman, a cat, and one old man
After abundance but before the earth is bare.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote one of the most famous letters in American history. It was a letter of condolence to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston, who was reported by the War Department to have lost five sons in battle. He wrote to her: "I pray that our Heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of liberty." But it was later confirmed that only two of Mrs. Bixby's sons had died in battle; one was later found alive and honorably discharged, and two deserted.
It's the birthday of British diplomat and author Sir Harold Nicolson, born in Teheran, Persia (1886). He was a diplomat and author of dozens of books, including biographies of Tennyson and Swinburne. Harold Nicolson said: "The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as incidents."
It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He wrote so much in his lifetime that his collected works are still being assembled and edited by French scholars. He's known to us for a single short novel: Candide (1760), about a young man who follows the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss that no matter what misfortunes befall us, this is the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire grew up at a time when Louis XIV had instituted the persecution of Protestants, turning France into a ferociously intolerant society, with little freedom of speech or religion. Voltaire began his writing career just a few years after Louis XIV had died, and he was one of the first writers to challenge the restrictions by writing satirical poems about the new king. He was sent into exile and then thrown into prison in the Bastille for eleven months. At the time, he wasn't particularly well known, and his imprisonment only served to make him famous. It was when he got out of prison that he began using the pen name Voltaire. No one is sure how or why he picked the name.
He became a well-known playwright and poet, but in 1725 he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched.
Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his aid in trying to get retribution for the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of a nobleman, but this incident made him realize that he was still a second-class citizen. He began writing about what happened and calling for justice, and he was thrown into the Bastille for a second time. He was released only on the condition that he leave France, and so he went to live in England.
Voltaire spent most of the rest of his late in exile, but he continued to write about his home country's religious fanaticism. He became a crusader for human rights and one of the most famous and respected men in Europe. People would cheer when they saw him passing on the street. He wasn't the first person to think about or write about human rights, but he did more to spread the idea of human rights than almost any other European writer.
In the last year of his life, Voltaire was allowed to return home to Paris in 1778, after 28 years in exile. More than three hundred people came to visit him his first day in the city, and one of those visitors was Benjamin Franklin, fresh from helping to lead the revolution in the United States of America.
Voltaire wrote, "People who believe in absurdities will eventually commit atrocities."
Poem:"To the woman at the Red Edge Motel" by Tom Chandler from Sad Jazz. © Table Rock Books. Lincoln, Rhode Island. Reprinted with permission.
To the woman at the Red Edge Motel
Some tourist of love
in his cheap suit of longing
will elbow the bar
in the lounge of no last names,
dip his cuff accidentally
in your seven & seven
and ask you to dance
to the faint moan of muzak,
perfume your earrings
with breath mints and gin
as the lights grow yet dimmer
as his hand on the switch
hovers inches away
from the slick red edge
of your hungover heart
with its faded no vacancy sign.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was about 12:30 pm on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It was the only presidential assassination ever caught on film. The alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested ninety minutes after the murder took place. Two days after his arrest, Oswald was being transferred to jail, in front of a crowd of on-lookers and TV cameras, when a local nightclub owner named Jack Ruby pulled out a gun and shot him.
The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Jack Ruby had also acted alone. But even before the commission's report was released, books were already being published suggesting various conspiracy theories. Today, there have been more books written by amateur historians about the Kennedy assassination than any other event in history.
The conspiracy theories include a right-wing conspiracy within the U.S. Government, anti-Castro Cubans and their supporters, left-wing pro-Castro Cubans, or the Mafia. One theory is that Oswald himself actually never returned from a trip to Russia, but had been replaced and impersonated by a KGB agent. Another theory claims that Oswald was not trying to kill the president at all, but just John Connally, the governor of Texas, who sat in front of Kennedy in the same limousine. Still another suggests that Kennedy was accidentally shot by a secret service agent.
Today, fewer than half of all Americans believe the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone.
It's the birthday of Andre Gide, born in Paris (1869). He was one of the first modern writers to openly defend homosexuality in his book Corydon (1924).
It's the birthday of the woman who wrote under the name George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire, England (1819). She was her father's favorite child, and he paid for the many tutors who taught her foreign languages and gave her all the best literature to read. Her father was shocked when, at the age of twenty-two, she told him that she had decided Christianity was a mix of fact and fiction, and she no longer wanted to go to church. He stopped speaking to her for nine weeks. She eventually made up with him, but she never changed her beliefs.
After her father's death, she traveled to Switzerland, wondering how she was going to support herself. When she got back to England, she became a woman of letters at a time when there was almost no such thing. She edited a literary journal and she began to write fiction. She chose George Eliot as her pen name because George was the first name of her lover and she said, "Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word."
At a time when most novels were full of exaggerated characters, wild coincidences, and sentimentality, Eliot devoted herself to writing about ordinary characters and ordinary life. Eliot's first full-length novel Adam Bede (1859) was about carpenter who is betrayed by his love. It was an immediate success. People across Europe, including Leo Tolstoy in Russia, called it a work of genius, and everyone wondered who this George Eliot was. Mary Evans decided to reveal her identity, and went on to become one of the most renowned writers of her lifetime.
But she always had doubts about her abilities as a writer. Her husband had to hide the reviews of her work so that she wouldn't read them and become depressed. When she was working on her novel Middlemarch, she often reread her previous books and agonized over the idea that she would never be able to write that well again and all her best work was behind her.
Eliot was wrong, though. Middlemarch (1871) became her masterpiece. It's the story of Dorothea Brooke: an idealistic, intelligent young woman who hopes to become a social reformer. She marries the scholar Edward Casaubon, hoping to share his intellectual life, only to realize that the marriage is a disaster and her husband is a stuffy, old-fashioned snob, and the man she really loves is her husband's younger cousin.
Middlemarch made Eliot rich and famous. In the last years of her life, thousands of women wrote letters to her saying that she had described their lives, and asking for her advice in their marriages and careers.
George Eliot wrote, "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
Poem: "Out Here" by Robin Merrill from Laundry and Stories. © Moon Pie Press 2005. Reprinted with permission.
I know why he killed himself.
You know, the old man
who spent thirty years
trying to break out of prison
and his last two
aching to get back in.
I know him, how he missed
that cold comfort of gray.
I too, have seen colors be scary.
I know why he carved his name
in the headboard at the boarding house
before he swallowed the stolen pills.
For thirty years they barked his name.
He hasn't heard it since. After living
the same day over and over,
regimen and routine,
now he wakes without schedule.
There are no friends here.
There is no family.
He left all of that behind.
Though he didn't know it then,
prison gave him purpose.
It's lonely out here.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of mystery writer, critic and lecturer Robert Barnard, born in 1936 in Essex, England. He spent many years in academia while establishing himself as a writer of crime fiction. His first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974) was written while he was professor of English at the University of Tromsø in Norway. Since then he has written over thirty crime novels including historical crime novels featuring Mozart as a detective.
It's the birthday of writer and critic Guy Davenport, born in Anderson, South Carolina (1927). He is best known for his book of essays The Geography of the Imagination (1981). Guy Davenport said, "Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world."
It was on this day in 1889 the Jukebox made its debut at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. It was called a "nickel-in-the-slot player" and consisted of an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph inside a free-standing oak cabinet to which were attached four stethoscope-like tubes. Each tube could be activated by depositing a coin so that four people could listen to a single recording at one time.
It was on this day in 1903 that the opera singer Enrico Caruso made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, appearing in Rigoletto. At that time, the New York Met was the world's leading opera house, and Caruso made it there from a childhood in the slums of Naples, where he was the eighteenth of twenty-one children. His auto-mechanic father had tried to get him to work in a factory, but he'd run away from home at sixteen and supported himself singing at weddings and funerals.
He'd begun his career as an opera singer in 1894, at an amateur opera house. He was paid sixteen dollars for two appearances. He developed a reputation throughout Europe and around the world, and in just under ten years he had reached the top of the opera world, debuting at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on this day in 1903.
Most critics agreed that he did a good job, but it wasn't a standout performance. The critic for the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Caruso has a natural and free delivery and his voice carries well without forcing."
But over the course of that first opera season at the Met, Caruso began to relax, and he sang better and better with each performance. By the end of the season, audiences were going into hysterics.
Less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, Caruso made some recordings for the Victor Company, and these recordings of his voice helped transform the phonograph from a curiosity into a household item. Caruso became the first vocal recording star.
He went on to perform seventeen consecutive seasons at the Met, giving a total of 626 performances in New York, in 37 different operas. He gave his final performance at the Met on December 11, 1920. He had to leave the stage after the first act, because he was coughing up blood. It was the final performance of his life. It turned out he had pneumonia, which killed him a few months later.
Poem:"Good People" by W. S. Merwin from The Pupil © Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
From the kindness of my parents
I suppose it was that I held
that belief about suffering
imagining that if only
it could come to the attention
of any person with normal
feelings certainly anyone
literate who might have gone
to college they would comprehend
pain when it went on before them
and would do something about it
whenever they saw it happen
in the time of pain the present
they would try to stop the bleeding
for example with their hands
but it escapes their attention
or there may be reasons for it
the victims under the blankets
the meat counters the maimed children
the animals the animals
staring from the end of the world
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Thanksgiving Day. The American Thanksgiving tradition originated with the Pilgrims. As early as 1621, the Puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest.
It's the birthday of the novelist Lawrence Sterne, born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713). He's the author one of the most revolutionary novels in English literature: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760). The novel was revolutionary because it was a fictional autobiography in which the narrator is unable to tell his own story, constantly interrupting himself with various absurd digressions on all sorts of subjects, questioning received ideas in ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics.
Laurence Sterne said, "I am persuaded that every time a man smilesbut much more so when he laughsit adds something to this fragment of life."
It was on this day in 2000 that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case of Bush Vs. Gore, to decide whether the hand recounts of the Presidential election in the state of Florida were lawful.
The first recount had been done by machines, and in that recount George W. Bush's lead had shrunk from 1,784 votes to only 327. But there had been problems with thousands of ballots in four counties: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade. Al Gore asked for manual recounts in three of those four counties, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, which also happened to be heavily Democratic counties.
What became so controversial was the fact that there were many so-called undervotes in these counties that had been disqualified and never counted. In the case of punchcard ballots, some of them simply hadn't been punched properly, and election workers had to determine the voter's intent.
The Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who had helped campaign for George W. Bush, tried to stop all the manual recounts. She announced that she would certify the election for George W. Bush before the recounts were finished. After a series of court cases, the Florida State Supreme Court ruled that the Secretary of State had to give time for the recounts to be completed, and the court set the deadline for Sunday, November 26.
The day before Thanksgiving, the Bush legal team turned to Supreme Court to try to stop the recounts. The Bush lawyers claimed that the Florida State Supreme Court had violated an obscure law from 1887, prohibited states from changing the rules after the date of that election, and that the Florida Court had usurped the Florida legislature's exclusive powers to set the procedures for selecting electors, as provided for by Article II of the United States Constitution.
At the time, most legal commentators believed that the Supreme Court would not get involved in the case, because a majority of the justices believed strongly in states' rights. It was Justice Anthony Kennedy who made the initial decision that the court should hear the case.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled twice. First, they ruled that the Florida State Supreme Court had to clarify its own ruling. But when the Florida Sate Supreme Court responded by ordering a statewide recount of undervotes, the Supreme Court intervened and stopped the recount from going forward. It eventually ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that a statewide recount would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, because there was no statewide standard for counting undervotes. The decision effectively decided the election for George W. Bush. As a result, 60,000 undervotes and 113,000 overvotes were never officially examined or counted.
Poem: "Ice" by Gail Mazur from Zeppo's First Wife: New and Selected Poems © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.
In the warming house, children lace their skates,
bending, choked over their thick jackets.
A Franklin stove keeps the place so cozy
it's hard to imagine why anyone would leave,
clumping across the frozen beach to the river.
December's always the same at Ware's Cove,
the first sheer ice, black, then white
and deep until the city sends trucks of men
with wooden barriers to put up the boys'
hockey rink. An hour of skating after school,
of trying wobbly figure-8's, an hour
of distances moved backwards without falling,
then—twilight, the warming house steamy
with girls pulling on boots, their chafed legs
aching. Outside, the hockey players keep
playing, slamming the round black puck
until it's dark, until supper. At night,
a shy girl comes to the cove with her father.
Although there isn't music, they glide
arm in arm onto the blurred surface together,
braced like dancers. She thinks she'll never
be so happy, for who else will find her graceful,
find her perfect, skate with her
in circles outside the emptied rink forever?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Helen Hooven Santmyer, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1895). When she was five years old she moved with her family to the small town of Xenia, Ohio, where she grew up. She was inspired as a young girl by the Xenia Women's Club, an early feminist intellectual organization, to go off to New York and get a job as a secretary for Scribner's magazine, where she met many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But after a few years of living in New York City, and then studying at Oxford, she moved back to Xenia where she was elected to the membership of the Xenia Women's Club that she had so much admired as a little girl.
She was writing all the time, and even published a few novels, but they had little success. It was only after her retirement that Santmyer began to delve into the history of her hometown, eventually writing a collection of essays called Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia (1862). Then she began an epic novel about a small town women's group based on her own Women's Club of Xenia. The finished product ...And Ladies of the Club (1982) was more that 1,300 pages long. It was published by the Ohio State Press, and sold about 300 copies.
The book sat on a few library shelves around Ohio, unread for the most part, until the mother of a Hollywood executive happened to read it and she passed it on to her son. He thought the book would make a good mini-series, so he bought the television and movie rights to the novel. It was reissued in a paperback and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, reaching number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 1985. Helen Hoven Santmyer had become a best-selling novelist and literary celebrity at the age of eighty-eight.
It's the birthday of American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835), the son of a weaver and political radical. He became enormously wealthy in the steel industry and then sold his company and spent the rest of his life giving his fortune away to cultural, educational and scientific institutions for the improvement of mankind.
Over the course of his life, Andrew Carnegie endowed 2,811 libraries and many charitable foundations as well as the internationally famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also bought 7,689 organs for churches. The purpose of the latter gift was, in Carnegie's words, "To lessen the pain of the sermons."
It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas, born in Flushing, New York (1913). He's the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1984).
It's the birthday of baseball player Joe DiMaggio (1914) born in Martinez, California. Joe DiMaggio is remembered as one of baseball's most graceful athletes. Many consider his 56-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1941 as the top baseball feat of all time.
Poem:"Talking in Bed" by Philip Larkin from The Collected Poems © Estate of Philip Larkin 1988. Reprinted with permission.
Some Talking in Bed
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1942, the movie Casablanca had its premiere at the Hollywood Theater in New York City. Casablanca is the story of Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner in North Africa during World War II. One night, he is approached by a French Resistance fighter named Victor and his wife Ilsa, who are trying to get papers to escape to America. Ilsa happens to be Rick's true love, who deserted him when the Nazis invaded Paris.
The movie took ten weeks to shoot. The original title was "Everybody Comes to Rick's." One of the actors considered for the part of Rick was Ronald Regan, but the producer eventually settled on Humphrey Bogart. The script was constantly rewritten throughout the shooting, and not even the writers knew whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or Victor at the end. The reviews were mixed, but it was a box office hit, and it went on to with the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943.
Casablanca is one of the best-loved and most quoted movies of all time. It contains lines such as, "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine," "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and, "Here's looking at you, kid."
It's the birthday of cartoonist Charles Schulz, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1922). He was the only son of a St. Paul barber, and the family was extremely poor. Schulz said, "We used to eat pancakes all the time because it's all we could afford."
He skipped a grade in elementary school and after that he never felt like he fit in. He was skinny and had a bad complexion and in high school he flunked at least one class every year. But he learned to love newspaper comics from his father, who'd only had a third grade education but who bought six different newspapers every weekend and read all the comics with his son. For as long as he could remember, Charles Schulz wanted to be a cartoonist.
After serving in World War II, Schulz moved back to St. Paul and got a job doing artwork for a Catholic magazine. In his spare time, he began to draw a cartoon strip about a group of kids, including one named Charlie Brown. He offered the strip to the St. Paul newspaper for free, in hopes of getting exposure, and they accepted. The strip was called "L'il Folks." After running two years, Schulz asked the newspaper if they could begin to pay him. They said no.
So Schulz bought a train ticket to New York and showed his comic strip to the United Feature Syndicate. They bought it, but changed the name from "L'il Folks" to "Peanuts." The first strip came out on October 2, 1950, featuring Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, and his friends Lucy, Schroeder, Linus, and Sally.
What made Peanuts revolutionary was that instead of making the children cutesy pranksters, like most children in cartoons at the time, Schulz drew upon on his own childhood difficulties for material. Charlie Brown was a chronically depressed and unlucky child who never gets to kick the football, who always gets his kite stuck in the tree, and who never wins the love of The Little Red Haired Girl. Charlie Brown was the first character in an American comic strip to suffer anxiety and insecurity, and Peanuts became the most popular comic strip of all time.
Charles Schulz said, "The meaning of life is to go back to sleep and hope that tomorrow will be a better day."
Poem:"My Dead Daughter" and "I always turn the radio" by Robin Merrill from Laundry and Stories 2005 © Moon Pie Press. Reprinted with permission.
My Dead Daughter
my dead daughter spraypaints
PLEASE DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE
on the road where she died.
My dead daughter has a flute
at the grammar school
for kids who's parents can't afford
a flute of their own.
My dead daughter
sends fifth graders
instead of marching with them
my dead daughter is helping
send her classmates to college.
My dead daughter's
changing the world.
I always turn the radio
when I stop at the
by the white cross
where you died
I always turn the radio
some sort of ceremonial
moment of silence
for the first time
to turn the radio
I was talking
to a new friend
can you forgive me
to turn the radio
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the historian Charles Beard, born near Knightstown, Indiana (1874). He was one of the most controversial historians of his day, in part because he refused to accept the myths passed down about the nobility of the founding fathers. In one of his first important books, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, (1913) he uncovered the records of personal holdings of government securities by the framers of the constitution, and he found that they all got rich when the constitution was adopted.
His most ambitious book was The Rise of American Civilization (1927).
Charles Beard said, "One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence."
It's the birthday of writer James Agee, born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). He was seven years old when his father was killed in a car accident, an event that haunted him for the rest of his life. After his father's death, he went to a series of boarding schools, and wound up at Harvard, where he began to write.
Agee got a job as a journalist right out of college, and in the summer of 1936, he got an assignment from Fortune magazine to travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and write a story about the lives of cotton sharecroppers for a series called "Life and Circumstances." Agee brought Walker Evans along with him as his photographer. They spent two months living with three families, and on their way back to New York City, Agee realized that he couldn't write a mere magazine article about the experience. Instead, he spent the next five years working on a book, which he called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It finally came out in 1941. By that point, no one cared about the Great Depression anymore. The war was on. The book went largely unnoticed, and sold about 600 copies.
Agee went on to work as a film critic, and his film criticism is still read today, even though many of the movies he reviewed have been forgotten. He also began to write film scripts, including the script for the movie African Queen (1951). For the last two decades of his life, Agee worked on and off on a manuscript about the death of his father. He said, "[I want to recreate] my childhood and my father, exactly as I can remember and represent them."
Before he could finish the book, he died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab in 1955, with no will, no insurance, and $450 in the bank. All his books were out of print. His last novel was published posthumously as A Death in the Family, and won the Pulitzer Prize (1957). Three years later, in 1960, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was republished, and it went on to sell more than a quarter-million copies. It is now generally considered one of the best examinations of life during the Great Depression.
In Let us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee wrote, "In every child who is born under no matter what circumstances and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again, and in him, too, once more, and each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life: toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of terrorism, and of God."
It's the birthday of the poet Marilyn Hacker, born in New York City (1942). Her first collection of poems, Presentation Piece (1973) won the National Book Award. Her most recent collection is Desperanto (2003).