Poem: "Mr. Glusenkamp" by Ron Wallace from Teachers: A Primer. © Ronald Wallace. Reprinted with permission.
His gray face was a trapezoid, his voice
droned on like an ellipse.
He hated students and their noise
and loved the full eclipse
of their faces at the end of the day.
No one could have been squarer,
and nothing could have been plainer
than his geometry.
He didn't go for newfangled
stuffnew math, the open classroom.
And yet he taught us angles
and how lines intersect and bloom,
and how infinity was no escape,
and how to give abstractions shape.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1951 that the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began. They were a middle-aged, married Jewish couple charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, and it was strongly suggested by the government that they were personally responsible for helping Communist Russia acquire the atomic bomb.
In recent years, KGB files have showed that Julius Rosenberg was indeed the leader of a Communist spy ring, and that he persuaded his brother-in-law to steal secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory having to do with nuclear weapons. But those secrets were relatively minor and had little effect on the Russians' acquiring nuclear weapons.
The FBI had hoped that Julius Rosenberg would name names of the other communists he worked with, but he refused. So the FBI arrested his wife, Ethel, in hopes of forcing Julius to talk, even though there was no evidence to suggest that she had any direct role in the spy ring. The judge set the bail for Ethel Rosenberg at $100,000, even though the only charges at the time were that she'd associated with her husband.
The main evidence in the trial came from Ethel's younger brother David Greenglass, who had worked at the Los Alamos laboratory as a mechanical engineer. He testified that Julius Rosenberg had asked him to smuggle sketches of nuclear machinery out of the laboratory to be handed over to the Russians. David also testified that Ethel typed up the documents he provided, but he later said that this was a lie.
The trial was over in less than a month, and both Ethel and Julius were found guilty. But everyone was shocked, even J. Edgar Hoover, when the judge sentenced both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death by the electric chair. The government offered to spare Ethel's life if Julius would make a last-minute deal to name names, but he refused to do so, and so they were both executed, one after the other in the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1953.
For years, many leftist groups assumed the Rosenbergs had been framed by the government since they had asserted their innocence until the end. But it turns out that they weren't framed. They were just unwilling to cooperate.
It's the birthday of novelist Gabriel García Márquez, born in Aracataca, Columbia (1928). He's the oldest of eleven children, and he lived with his grandparents for the first eight years of his life. He said, "I grew up in a village hidden away among marshes and virgin forest on the Colombian north coast ... a place where the sea passes through every imaginable shade of blue." As a child, he loved listening to his grandfather's stories about the recent civil war and his grandmother's stories about ghosts, omens, premonitions, and dead ancestors.
He was working as a journalist when he took a trip back to his hometown to help his mother sell his grandparents' house. Over the course of that trip he was flooded with memories of his childhood and the stories told to him by his grandparents. A fictional town began to take shape in his mind, based on his memories, and he knew he had to write a novel about that town. He wrote five novels in the next fifteen years, but he wasn't satisfied with any of them.
In January of 1965, Márquez began to write about that town in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and has gone on to write many more books, including Love in the Time of Cholera (1988) and The General in His Labyrinth (1989). His novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores came out in 2005.
Poem: "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost from The Poetry of Robert Frost. © Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Reprinted with permission.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964, "Oh Pretty Woman."
The Roy Orbison version of the song is about a man watching a pretty woman walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version is about the subsequent relationship with that woman, who becomes a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman. The music publishing company Acuff-Rose, which holds the copyright for the Roy Orbison song, sued 2 Live Crew for copyright violation.
Justice David H. Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one."
It was on this day in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell received patent No. 174,465 for the telephone. He filed for his patent on the same day as a Chicago electrician named Elisha Gray filed for a patent on basically the same device. Bell only beat Gray by two hours. Bell offered to sell his patent to Western Union for $100,000, but Western Union turned him down.
It was on this day in 1933 that a man named Charles Darrow trademarked the board game Monopoly. Darrow based the game on an earlier game called "The Landlord's Game," which had been designed by a woman named Elizabeth Magie. She'd designed the game back in 1904 as an educational tool, to teach people about the evils of capitalism. Darrow's real genius wasn't in inventing the game, but in redesigning it. In the midst of the Great Depression, he turned the game into a celebration of capitalism, giving people a chance to imagine that they were rich.
It's the birthday of painter Piet Mondrian, born in a small town in the Netherlands called Amersfoort (1872). He began his career by painting windmills, moonlit nights and views of dunes in the style of Van Gogh, but he didn't have much success. Then in 1921, just as Mondrian was about to give up painting for work in a French vineyard, his father died. Mondrian suddenly began to paint the paintings that would make him famous: rigid black rectangles on white backgrounds, occasionally filled by primary colors.
On this day in 1923, Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," was published in the New Republic magazine. It was Frost's favorite of his own poems, and he called it, "My best bid for remembrance."
Though it's a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called "New Hampshire" (1923). He finally finished it, and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He'd never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he'd finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.
But while he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page.
Poem: "Bedside Manners" by Christopher Wiseman from In John Updike's Room. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.
How little the dying seem to need
A drink perhaps, a little food,
A smile, a hand to hold, medication,
A change of clothes, an unspoken
Understanding about what's happening.
You think it would be more, much more,
Something more difficult for us
To help with in this great disruption,
But perhaps it's because as the huge shape
Rears up higher and darker each hour
They are anxious that we should see it too
And try to show us with a hand-squeeze.
We panic to do more for them,
And especially when it's your father,
And his eyes are far away, and your tears
Are all down your face and clothes,
And he doesn't see them now, but smiles
Perhaps, just perhaps because you're there.
How little he needs. Just love. More Love.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of essayist and children's author Kenneth Grahame, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859), known today for his book The Wind in the Willows (1908). He began writing essays and stories on the side, and in 1895 he published two books of stories about children: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which were very popular in England and the United States. But when he wrote The Wind in the Willows, many publishers turned it down because the idea of talking animals was too fantastic. At the time, Victorian educators and child welfare experts believed that children should be discouraged as soon as possible from pretending and daydreaming, that letting children believe in fairy tales and myths was detrimental to their development. Grahame believed the opposite: that because of their imaginations, children were the only really living people.
It was finally Teddy Roosevelt, a huge fan of Grahame's early work, who convinced a publisher to take on The Wind in the Willows. It became such a success that Grahame was able to retire from the Bank of England and move to the country. He lived for another twenty-five years, but he never wrote another book.
It was on this day in 1884 that Susan B. Anthony addressed the United States Congress, arguing for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. She said, "We appear before you this morning ... to ask that you will, at your earliest convenience, report to the House in favor of the submission of a Sixteenth Amendment to the Legislatures of the several states, that shall prohibit the disfranchisement of citizens of the United States on account of sex."
She had been petitioning Congress in writing for sixteen years, but this was the first time that she managed to persuade Congress to vote on the amendment. It failed.
But even though the constitutional amendment failed that year, it was only six years later, in 1890, that Wyoming became the first state to give women the right to vote. Colorado adopted women's suffrage in 1893. Fifteen states in all gave women the right to vote in the next thirty years.
Susan B. Anthony died in 1906. The amendment she asked for on this day in 1884 didn't become law until almost fifteen years after her death, on August 26, 1920.
It's the birthday of writer John McPhee, born in Princeton, New Jersey (1931) and considered one of the greatest living literary journalists. He is known for the huge range of his subjects. He has written about canoes, geology, tennis, nuclear energy, and the Swiss army. He once researched his own family tree and traced it back to a Scotsman who moved to Ohio to become a coal miner. He said, "[That coal miner] has about a hundred and thirty descendants who have sprayed out into the American milieu, and they have included railroad engineers, railroad conductors, brakemen, firemen, steelworkers, teachers, football coaches, a chemist, a chemical engineer, a policeman, a grocer and salesmen."
In his book Oranges (1967), about the orange-growing business, he wrote, "An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement."
It's the birthday of the literary critic Leslie Fielder, born in Newark, New Jersey (1917). He's best known for his book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). He was one of the first American critics to argue in favor of popular culture. He loved comic books and horror movies and soap operas, and he once said that the only writer of the late 20th century who would be remembered was Stephen King. He believed that the great theme of American literature was the search for identity. He said, "Americans have no real identity. We're all ... uprooted people who come from elsewhere."
Poem: "False Teeth" by Patricia Dobler from Collected Poems. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.
Walking back to her sister's house,
woozy from relief and Novocain,
she nearly trips on the B&O tracks.
Then she sees it. A $20 bill.
Not crumpled. Folded between the ties,
pleated into a little fan, as if arranged
by whatever tooth fairy looks after
30-year old women who lose all their teeth.
When she walks into her sister's and grins,
she scares the babyher swollen face,
the gums still bleeding, her words clotted
like the cries of an animal
They think she's gone crazy with pain until
she holds up the money. The men are laid off
again, but she can pay the dentist
what he's owed, she can buy false teeth.
They say, "For every child, a tooth,"
and this is a story for children
whose toothless mother lost
and found and came out even.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1933 that newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation.
It was the Great Depression. A quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. The prices for industrial goods and agricultural products were falling. There were breadlines in every major city for all the unemployed and hungry. Thousands of people roamed the country on freight trains looking for odd jobs and handouts. Banks were failing at an unprecedented rate, and millions of Americans had lost all or part of their savings.
So people were shocked by Roosevelt's cheerful demeanor when they saw him just before his inauguration. He was facing one of the most difficult domestic situations in the country's history, but he seemed excited about it. At his first press conference, on March 8, 1933, the reporters were surprised that the new president actually talked to them. Almost all previous presidents had refused to talk off the cuff with reporters, but Franklin Roosevelt didn't mind answering all kinds of questions about what he planned to do for the country's problems.
And then on this day in 1933 he called Congress into session. He had Democratic majorities in both houses, and many of the new members had been elected on his coattails. So the Congress became a kind of rubber stamp for the passage of some of the most sweeping federal legislation that had ever been passed in our country's history.
The first piece of legislation the President proposed was the Emergency Banking Act. Congress had been rushed into session so quickly that there was no printed version of the bill available. So a clerk read the bill aloud for the representatives. Even though no one had a chance to examine it in detail, the bill passed after forty minutes of debate. Roosevelt signed it that evening. Within a month, seven out of every ten banks in the country were open again, and there were no more runs on cash.
For the next few months, bills were passed almost daily. Among the new federal programs created were the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which distributed half a billion dollars to the poor; the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed people to work on forestry projects; the Public Works Administration, which employed people to build bridges, dams and roads all across the country; the Tennessee Valley Authority, which employed people to build and maintain dams on the Tennessee River, controlling flooding and providing cheap energy; and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which provided for the first insurance of banking deposits.
It was the largest expansion of the Federal Government in U.S. history. Roosevelt said, "The country needs and ... demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand idly by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach."
Poem: "The Winter's Spring" by John Clare from Poems of John Clare's Madness. © Poutledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd Lordan, 1949. Reprinted with permission.
The Winter's Spring
The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.
No flowers to pleaseno bees to hum
The coming spring's already come.
I never want the Christmas rose
To come before its time;
The seasons, each as God bestows,
Are simple and sublime.
I love to see the snowstorm hing;
'Tis but the winter garb of spring
I never want the grass to bloom:
The snowstorm's best in white.
I love to see the tempest come
And love its piercing light.
The dazzled eyes that love to cling
O'er snow-white meadows sees the spring.
I love the snow, the crumpling snow
That hangs on everything,
It covers everything below
Like white dove's brooding wing,
A landscape to the aching sight,
A vast expanse of dazzling light.
It is the foliage of the woods
That winters bringthe dress,
White Easter of the year in bud,
That makes the winter Spring.
The frost and snow his posies bring,
Nature's white spurts of the spring.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1785 that Thomas Jefferson was appointed the American ambassador to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin.
Before his trip to France, the farthest that Jefferson had traveled from his home in Virginia was to Philadelphia. On the boat ride across the Atlantic, Jefferson passed the time reading Don Quixote with a Spanish dictionary. He also kept an unofficial naval log, tracking the ship's latitude and longitude, the wind and the distance covered.
He had learned French from books, so he had some difficulty communicating when he first arrived. The porters who carried his luggage to shore cheated him out of a good deal of money. He also had to buy a whole new wardrobe, with silver buckles and lace sleeves, so that he could keep up with the current French fashions. But by the time he got to Paris he had fallen in love with the city.
One of the things he loved best about Paris was the book shopping. He said, "I suffer from the malady of bibliomania," and he spent most of his spare time in Paris perusing the bookshops. By the time he got back to the U.S., he had purchased enough books to fill two hundred fifty feet of shelves.
At the time, Paris was one of the most modern cities in the world, and Jefferson loved all the new inventions on display. He went to a restaurant where the food was delivered automatically to your table by a dumbwaiter, and he later installed a similar device in his home at Monticello. He wrote letters home about the new phosphorous matches, which allowed you to light your candle without even getting out of bed. And he saw a demonstration of a new device called a propeller, which created a breeze by spinning. He wondered whether it might be used to invent a flying machine or to propel a boat in water.
He also just loved the French people. In a letter to Abigail Adams, he wrote, "Here we have singing, dancing, laugh, and merriment. ... They have as much happiness in one year as an Englishman in ten."
It was on this day in 1864 that Ulysses S. Grant was named Lieutenant General of the Union armies during the Civil War. Two days later, Grant was promoted again, to General in Chief of the Armies of the United States, and he was given complete control over the Union war effort.
Ulysses S. Grant said, "The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on."
Poem: "The Man Into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball" by Thomas Lux from Poetry 180. © Thomas Lux. Reprinted with permission.
The Man Into Whose Yard You Should Not hit Your Ball
each day mowed
and mowed his lawn, his dry quarter-acre,
the machine slicing a wisp
from each blade's tip. Dust storms rose
around the roar, 6 p.m. every day,
spring, summer, fall. If he could mow
the snow he would.
On one side, his neighbors the cows
turned their backs to him
and did what they do to the grass.
Where he worked, I don't know,
but it set his jaw to: tight.
His wife a cipher, shoebox tissue,
a shattered apron. As if
into her head he drove a wedge of shale.
Years later, his daughter goes to jail.
Mow, mow, mow his lawn
gently down a decade's summers.
On his other side lived mine and me,
across a narrow pasture, often fallow-
a field of fly balls, the best part of childhood
and baseball. But if a ball crossed his line,
as one did in 1956,
and another in 1958,
it came back coleslawhis lawnmower
ate it up, happily
to cut something, no matter
what the manual said
about foreign objects,
stones, or sticks.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1918 that the first cases of what would become the influenza pandemic were reported in the U.S. when 107 soldiers got sick at Fort Riley, Kansas.
It was the worst pandemic in world history. That year the flu killed only 2.5 percent of its victims, but more than a fifth of the world's entire population caught it, and so it's estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died in just a few months. Historians believe at least 600,000 people died in the United States alone. That's more than the number of Americans killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century combined.
No one is sure exactly how many people died, because it wasn't even clear at the time what the disease was. One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic in this country was that it was barely reported in the media. President Woodrow Wilson had passed laws to censor all kinds of news stories about the war, and newspaper editors were terrified of printing anything that might cause a scandal.
So as the flu epidemic spread across the country, the newspapers barely commented on it. In large cities, people were dying of the flu so rapidly that undertakers ran out of coffins, streetcars had to be used as hearses, and mass graves were dug. In the fall of 1918, doctors tried to get newspapers to warn people in Philadelphia against attending a parade. The newspapers refused. In the week after the parade, almost five thousand Philadelphians died of the flu. The flu might not have traveled as quickly across the country if troops weren't being mobilized and shipped from base to base.
Among the writers affected by the flu pandemic was Katherine Anne Porter, who grew so sick with the disease that her family had already arranged for her funeral when she managed to recover. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy got on a train with her parents on October 30, 1918. Her father died of the flu before their train reached Minneapolis. Her mother died a day later. The novelist William Maxwell lost his mother to the flu that year. He said, "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."
Poem: "Fundamental" by Thomas Lux from Split Horizon © Thomas Lux. Reprinted with permission.
Acts of God,
the insurance people, whose business depends
on fear of them,
call them: hurricane, monsoon, cyclone,
whirlwindwhen your house bears
the branches' lash, big winds
lift and slam the clapboards.
Little spiders, spirit receptors,
living in the walls or swinging
above the sills, sense it
first, are humble. The fiery,
the fundamental God
is mad, again. He gets that way,
decides to smash or flood
and it's no use to build a sandbag wall
around your acre, to try to divert
the torrents via channel
dug by hand. Or, he says: No water,
not a drop. I'll burn
their legumes to dust,
swell and crack their black black tongues.
Oh nofire ants, weevil, mouse plague,
locusts: with a hundred neighbors
we'll beat the fields with rakes
and broomshopeless, hopelessbut our effort
saves a few more loaves
for winteruntil God gives them mold: cold and
hungry, He says. He says: These bugs
are tiny and bad,
mostly, I don't like their habitsso greedy,
mean, what'll shape them up
is fire and noise, their fields
I'll burn and barren,
what they need are heaps of pumice,
ash up to their ears,
and their sky, under my feet,
their sky, bloody and wracked, I'll split with howls.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the Blizzard of 1888, known as "The Great White Hurricane," one of the worst in American history. It came unexpectedly, after a warm spell. It lasted for thirty-six hours, killed more than four hundred people and dropped forty inches of snow on New York City. Drifts piled up to second-story windows.
On this day in 1901 industrialist Andrew Carnegie gave New York City 5.2 million dollars to construct sixty-five libraries. He had just sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for 250 million dollars, and decided to retire and devote himself to giving it all away. He later gave money to create more than 2,500 libraries all over the United States and in Britain. He said, "The man who enters a library is in the best society this world affords; the good and the great welcome him, surround him, and humbly ask to be allowed to become his servants."
It's the birthday of poet and children's author Naomi Shihab Nye, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1952). She has published several books of poetry, including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002) and Hugging the Jukebox (1982).
Nye says, "Since my father was Palestinian, from Jerusalem, and my mother was American, our house in St. Louis held rich fragrances of cardamom, garlic, and olive oil. Shihab means shooting star in Arabic. I liked that. Languages danced together in our rooms and interesting people drifted through our doors. I used to think, 'We're still waiting for a dull moment.'"
It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louise Kerouac, in Lowell Massachusetts (1922). He grew up speaking French, and couldn't speak English fluently until junior high. He was strong and athletic; he played football and he was good at it. In the Thanksgiving game of his senior year in high school he scored a game-winning touchdownthe ball was tipped, he stretched out and grabbed it inches from the ground, and smashed his way into the end zone. The fans went crazy, and there were college scouts there who got him an athletic scholarship to Columbia University. In the college newspaper they called him a "fleet-footed backfield ace," but he broke his leg early on and never played again.
But he became friends with other like-minded writers, including William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He took a series of cross-country road trips with his friend Neal Cassady. In 1949 they drove a Cadillac limousine from California to Chicago, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke. In 1951 he sat at his kitchen table, taped sheets of Chinese art paper together to make a long roll, and wrote the story of Cassady and their trips. It had no paragraphs and very little punctuation and Allen Ginsberg called it "a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself." And that became his novel On the Road (1957).