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Poem: "Gate C22" by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he'd just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she'd been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn't look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you're lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman's middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the original muckrakers, Ida Tarbell, (books by this author) born in Hatch Hallow, Pennsylvania (1857), who was working for McClure's Magazine when she was assigned to write an exposé about John D. Rockefeller's company Standard Oil. It just so happened that Ida Tarbell's father had owned an oil refinery, and he'd nearly been driven out of business by Standard Oil. Ida Tarbell had grown up listening to her father complain about Standard Oil. So she spent the next two years investigating, and her friend Mark Twain put her in touch with a company insider named Henry Rogers, who gave her evidence that Standard Oil was colluding with railroad companies to drive smaller refineries out of business. After her articles were collected into the book The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), the federal government began an anti-trust prosecution, and the breakup of the company was finally decided by the Supreme Court on May 15, 1911. It was the first time that a journalist had ever brought down a major American corporation.

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Sam Shepard, (books by this author) born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). His first big success was his play Buried Child, about 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 won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1978. Shepard has gone on to produce more plays than any other American playwright, almost none of which premiered on Broadway. His play Kicking a Dead Horse had its debut in Dublin last March (2007).

On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. 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 in literature. He wasn't sure he deserved it and told a friend at the time, "This is the end of me. ... I cannot live up to it." He used his Nobel lecture to talk about all the other writers that might have been chosen: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Willa Cather, and he ended the lecture by mentioning the younger writers he considered the future of American literature, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, each of whom had just published his first few books. Lewis said, "[These] young Americans ... are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them."

It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant, (books by this author) born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885), who, with his wife as researcher, wrote an 11-volume history of the human race, aimed at the general reader, called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). The books got terrible reviews from academic historians, but they were best-sellers, and the 10th volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The complete set was offered for sale by the Book of the Month Club for $29.95, or about one penny for every 1,500 words, and it sold more than 500,000 copies.

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Poem: "The Hour" by Michael Lind, from Parallel Lives. © Etruscan Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Hour

Maybe the moment recurs daily at six, when commuters,
freed from the staring computers,
elbow and bump in unsought intimacy on a station
      platform with you, and frustration
rots what is left of your strength. Maybe the hour comes after
      dinner, when televised laughter
seeps from a neighboring room; maybe the time is the dead of
      night, when you ponder, instead of
dreaming. Whatever the time, you will escape it—by sinking
      down with a book, or by drinking
secretly out in the dark studio, or by unbuckling
pants on a stranger, or chuckling,
one with a mob, in a deep theater. Soon, though, the hour
      comes to corrode all your power,
pleasure and faith with the damp dread that it daily assigns you.
      How you evade it defines you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected for his first term as president of the United States. 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, who had only served a single term as a congressional representative and made two unsuccessful runs for senator. Newspapers called him a "third-rate Western lawyer." Lincoln managed to win the nomination in part because he was from Illinois and the Republican convention was held in Chicago that year.

In the general election Lincoln got only 40 percent of the popular vote, but he won in the Electoral College without a single electoral vote from a Southern state. Most writers at the time thought Lincoln had won the presidency by a stroke of luck, and they expected him to be a failure. The Harvard professor James Russell Lowell wrote in 1863, "All that was known of him was that he was a good stump-speaker, nominated for his availability ... [and that] he had no history."

South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded from the Union before Lincoln had even been inaugurated. By the time Lincoln was getting ready to leave Springfield for Washington D.C., there had been multiple threats on his life. He told a group of Chicago journalists, "Well, boys, your troubles are over now; mine have just begun." He would spend all but the last few weeks of his life fighting to hold the country together.

It's the birthday of Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892), who founded The New Yorker magazine. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he'd only read one book in his life. But he had actually started out as a migratory newspaperman, traveling the country and filing hundreds of stories from California and Brooklyn and New Orleans and Panama. He later said of that period in his life, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

He settled in New York after serving in World War I, at a time when the city was suddenly filling up with smart, interesting people in their late twenties, and it occurred to him that there was no national magazine being written for this new generation. All the popular magazines at the time were either too intellectual or too middlebrow. Ross wanted to create a magazine that was funny and entertaining and unpretentious, and the result was The New Yorker, which came out February 21, 1925.

Ross knew right away that the magazine should have a distinctive look, and so he made sure that it was filled with cartoons. But at a time when most cartoons were caricatures of public figures or just one-line gags with a picture attached, Ross insisted that his artists draw real things and real situations — people at bars or in offices or at parties or at home with their families. In the end, he helped invent the kind of cartoon that The New Yorker still publishes today.

Ross's genius was in spotting talent in writers and hanging on to those writers. He personally hired E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. Some of his employees were driven crazy by his endless memos and writing suggestions, or the way that he would walk into the writers' office and shout that he wanted to hear fingers pounding typewriters. But most people said they never really knew him. James Thurber wrote, "You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off."

It's the birthday of the novelist Michael Cunningham, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati (1952), whose novel The Hours (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999. It was made into a movie in 2002.

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Poem: "Pushing Back" by David Lee Garrison, from Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems. © Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Pushing Back

Dad always took us
to see educational things—
dams, glass factories, paper mills,
the Smithsonian.
He would stop the car
and walk into a field
to ask a farmer
what he was planting
or have one of us
jump out and read
a historical marker out loud.
We went two hundred miles
out of our way one time
to take a guided tour
of America's largest
open pit copper mine,
and I remember
nothing about it.

But I remember the town
where the miners lived,
those grayish wooden houses
pushing back
against the mountain.
Stairs to the roofed porches sagged;
here and there, a gutter
flopped in the wind.

A girl about my age
rode a tricycle
on the sidewalk,
pedaling barefoot
with her head down,
singing as she watched
her thin legs pump
and the concrete go by.

The car windows were open,
and our eyes teared up
from the dust in the air.
My father drove slowly
and said nothing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, (books by this author) born in Boston (1943), who founded a school of literary criticism called New Historicism, which is the idea that the only way to really understand a work of art is to examine everything that was going on in the world of the artist at the time the work of art was created. Greenblatt had only written works of academic scholarship when he saw the movie Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and that inspired him to write a book about Shakespeare for the general reader, piecing together everything we know about his life and the world he lived in, and making guesses about why he wrote what he wrote. Greenblatt said, "[I wanted] to throw the windows open and see what was outside the room that he was working in, and what he descended to when he descended onto the street." The result was Greenblatt's book Will in the World (2004), which became his first best-seller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Stephen Greenblatt said, "I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed — personally and intimately — to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."

It was on this day in 1917 that the Russian Revolution took place. In the years leading up to it, hundreds of thousands of Russians had died in World War I, there'd been a series of food shortages, and prices of available goods had risen by more than 700 percent in just three years.

The revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin, who had been in exile in Switzerland, plotting to overthrow the Russian government. In April 1917, he crossed the border back into Russia for the first time in 10 years and went underground. He had to sneak through the streets in a disguise to attend a meeting of the Bolsheviks in late October of that year, but he persuaded a majority of his party to launch an armed takeover of the country. The coup met almost no resistance on this day in 1917, and the next day, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of the new Soviet Government. Overnight, he had gone from a fugitive in hiding to the leader of the largest country in the world.

Lenin believed that a Communist country would need to be ruled at first by a military dictatorship, but that once Communism took hold, people would be so happy with the new system that the police state would wither away, and society would become a classless stateless paradise. But Russia remained a totalitarian police state for more than 70 years.

It's the birthday of writer Albert Camus, (books by this author) born in Mondovi, Algeria (1913), whose father was killed in the First World War when Camus was just a baby. He grew up in poverty, raised by his single mother, and almost died of tuberculosis when he was in high school. But when he moved to Paris in 1940, he began writing The Stranger (1942), about a man who kills an Arab on a beach for no apparent reason. The Stranger made him famous almost overnight, and he went on to write other novels, plays, and essays that became associated with existentialist philosophy, including The Plague (1947) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957, just 15 years after his first book was published. He was killed in a car accident in 1960.

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Poem: "The Necessary Brevity of Pleasures" by Samuel Hazo, from A Flight to Elsewhere. © Autumn House Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Necessary Brevity of Pleasures

Prolonged, they slacken into pain
  or sadness in accordance with the law
  of apples.
           One apple satisfies.
Two apples cloy.
                 Three apples
      Call it a tug-of-war   between enough and more
  than enough, between sufficiency
  and greed, between the stay-at-homers
  and globe-trotting see-the-worlders.
Like lovers seeking heaven in excess,
  the hopelessly insatiable forget
  how passion sharpens appetites
  that gross indulgence numbs.
      The haves have not
  what all the have-nots have
  since much of having is the need
  to have.
           Even my dog
  knows that - and more than that.
He slumbers in a moon of sunlight,
  scratches his twitches and itches
  in measure, savors every bite
  of grub with equal gratitude
  and stays determinedly in place
  unless what's suddenly exciting
           Viewing mere change
  as threatening, he relishes a few
  undoubtable and proven pleasures
  to enjoy each day in sequence
  and with canine moderation.
They're there for him in waiting,
  and he never wears them out.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1864 that Abraham Lincoln was elected to his second term as president of the United States, one of the few elections in world history to be held in the middle of a civil war. Lincoln might have tried to cancel or postpone the election until the war was over, but he said, "If the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us."

The Confederate Army had recently gotten so close to Washington, D.C., that Lincoln himself was able to watch a battle, standing on top of a parapet with field glasses. On July 30, 4,000 Union soldiers were killed in a disastrous attempt to invade Petersburg, Virginia. The army needed 500,000 more soldiers, Lincoln would probably have to call for another draft, and the war debt was becoming unsustainable. On August 23, Lincoln wrote a memo to his cabinet that said, "This morning, and for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected."

The Democratic Party was running on a platform of ending the war. But this turned out to be a huge mistake when news arrived in early September that the Union Army had captured Atlanta and Mobile. Suddenly, the Democratic Party looked like the party of surrender when Union forces were winning the war. Lincoln carried every state except New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky.

It's the birthday of the author of the most popular novel ever written about the Civil War, Margaret Mitchell, (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1900), who spent about 10 years writing Gone with the Wind. The book came out in 1936 and broke all publication records. It sold 50,000 copies sold in one day, a million copies in six months, and 2 million by the end of the year, all in the middle of the Great Depression.

Many critics in the North thought the book was melodramatic, but critics in the South praised its realism. It became assigned reading in many public schools in the South, and perhaps not coincidentally, a year after Gone with the Wind came out, a Confederate flag was flown over the city center in Atlanta for the first time since the Civil War.

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, (books by this author) born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954), but he grew up in Great Britain. His novel Remains of the Day (1989) won the Booker Prize and was made into a movie in 1993. His most recent book is Never Let Me Go (2005).

It's the birthday of Bram Stoker, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1847), who wrote his novel Dracula (1897) after he had a strange dream about a woman trying to kiss him on the throat. The novel was not a success. When Stoker died in 1912, not a single obituary mentioned his authorship of Dracula. But the first Dracula movie came out in 1922, and since then some version of Dracula has appeared in more than 250 movies.

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Poem: "The Minor Prophets" by Michael Lind, from Parallel Lives. © Etruscan Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Minor Prophets

     None of the minor prophets
knew that he was minor, of course. Habakkuk, I imagine,
     thought that his visions earned him
standing as Ezekiel's peer, if not indeed Elijah's.
     Then there was Obadiah,
who could be forgiven if he thought he might be a Moses.
     How they would be remembered
Providence concealed from them all, though they could see the future.

     Maybe it doesn't matter.
If you're on a mission from God, sent to rebuke a city
     or to redeem a nation,
where by canon-makers you're ranked may be inconsequential.
     Nor is the voice within you
any less authentic for not having a distant echo.
     Seers of the world, be heartened.
Even minor prophets can have genuine revelations.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Carl Sagan, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1934), who did more to promote space exploration than almost any other single person. He was a young astronomer advising NASA on a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus, when he learned that the spacecrafts would carry no cameras, because the other scientists considered cameras to be excess weight. Sagan couldn't believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He lost the argument that time, but it's largely thanks to him that cameras were used on the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions, giving us the first real photographs of planets like Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

Sagan also persuaded NASA engineers to turn the Voyager I spacecraft around on Valentine's Day in 1990, so that it could take a picture of Earth from the very edge of our solar system, about 4 billion miles away. In the photograph, Earth appears as a tiny bluish speck. Sagan later wrote of the photograph, "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives... [on] a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Carl Sagan, who created the TV show Cosmos, which is still the most popular science program every produced for television. He actually never used the phrase "billions and billions of stars," which is often attributed to him, but Billions and Billions is the title of his last collection of essays, which came out in 1997, the year after he died.

It's the birthday of the poet Anne Sexton, (books by this author) born Anne Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts (1928), who had a horrific childhood. She once said that she was locked in her bedroom until she was five years old. She ran away from home, eloped when she was 19, never went to college, became a suburban housewife, and then had a nervous breakdown when she was 28. After a suicide attempt, her psychiatrist advised her to try to writing poetry as therapy. She did, and within a few years of producing her first poems, she had published her work in more than 40 magazines, including The New Yorker.

For the rest of her life, she was in and out of mental institutions, on and off psychiatric drugs, and she said that poetry was the only thing that kept her alive. She said, "My fans think I got well, but I didn't: I just became a poet." Her collections include To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), and Live or Die (1966), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She committed suicide in 1974. Anne Sexton said, "Poetry is my love, my postmark, my hands, my kitchen, my face."

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Hitler ordered a series of supposedly spontaneous attacks on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The idea was to make the attacks look random, and then accuse the Jews of inciting the violence. In all, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. The event was used to justify barring Jews from schools and most public places, and forcing them to adhere to new curfews. In the days following, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. The event was called Kristallnacht, which means, "Night of Broken Glass." It's generally considered the official beginning of the Holocaust. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.

It was on this day in 1906 that Teddy Roosevelt went against more than a century of tradition and became the first American president ever to leave the country while in office. He went to view the construction site of the Panama Canal, and when he saw a steam shovel for the first time, he stopped his train and hiked through the mud to take a turn at the controls.

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Poem: "Toast" by Susan Deborah King, from The One-Breasted Woman. © Holy Cow! Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It's worth getting up for.
Just at dawn, on a dead-of-winter walk,
I could smell it wafting from homes
all around the lake as they
emerged from the dark like loaves
from an oven, steaming.
Is there an aroma more divine
than that of bread warming, bread
browning, crisping for the spread
of butter and marmalade, the sprinkling
of sugared cinnamon? Whatever
terrors the night might harbor,
how bad can it get, if hot slices
stack our morning plate, the white
ones patterned with cobalt blue?
It's what in the current vernacular
we'll all eventually be: a pleasant
redolence rising and haloing
a roughed up, frozen expanse –
for such days, we make
not-too-burnt offerings of thanks;
we raise our glasses of juice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483). He was a priest who did not enjoy performing mass, because he was always getting nervous and knocking things over in front of the congregation. But he did enjoy teaching, and instead of giving lectures he often asked his students to explain the scriptures to him.

He didn't have any really radical ideas about theology until 1517, when the Church in Rome began a big push to sell indulgences to raise money for rebuilding St. Paul's Basilica. Luther couldn't believe that the Church in Rome, with all its money, was preying on the fears of poor parishioners to raise funds, and he thought the whole concept of indulgences should be the subject of an academic debate. He wrote up his famous 95 Theses merely as a way of calling for this debate, but the pamphlet was so controversial that people began passing it around and it wound up in the hands of the Church authorities, who asked Luther to recant and accused him of heresy.

At that point, he had only objected to indulgences, but the experience of being attacked by the Church authorities made him question the whole idea of the pope's authority and the Church hierarchy. The more he thought about it, the more he thought that the Bible was the only real authority anyone should pay attention to. The result was that he was excommunicated, he had to go into hiding, and all his writings were officially banned. But that didn't stop him from writing more than 60,000 pages of religious commentary. It's estimated that his published writings made up one-fifth of all the literature published in Germany at the time.

Luther actually didn't take a big part in the creation of a new Christian Church, but he was the first person to produce a complete translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into a modern European language. His Bible captured the German vernacular of the era, and it is now cited as the beginning of modern German.

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay, (books by this author) born in Springfield, Illinois (1879), who got his first break as a poet when Poetry magazine published his poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and he became one of the leaders of a movement to revive poetry as an oral art form.

It's the birthday of American novelist John Phillips Marquand, (books by this author) born in Wilmington, Delaware (1893), who made his own fortune writing adventure stories about a Japanese special agent named Mr. Moto, but his masterpiece was The Late George Apley (1937), a fictional biography of a New England gentleman, inspired by Marquand's family history. It just came back into print in 2004.

It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman, (books by this author) born in Portchester, England (1960), who fell in love with American comics when he was a kid. He said, "[In England], American comics were like postcards from Oz. They had fire hydrants, pizza parlours, and skyscrapers in them. For us fire hydrants and skyscrapers were every bit as strange as super-heroes flying through the air."

He went on to create a comic book character for DC Comics called the Sandman, who can control both dreams and stories. The Sandman was a big success, the first modern comic book series to get a lot of attention from critics. The 75 issues were collected and published in 10 volumes, the first of which was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991). Gaiman has gone on to write dozens of story collections, novels, graphic novels, and children's books. His young-adult novel Coraline was a big best-seller in 2002. His graphic novel The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch came out last month.

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Poem: "Driving with Uncle Bailey" by David Lee Garrison, from Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems. © Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Driving with Uncle Bailey

Driving so slowly that a policeman
pulls him over and sniffs,
Uncle Bailey fumbles for his license,
then volunteers his social security card
and brags I've been collecting
benefits for over thirty years!

He survived the Depression
on his job as a rural postman,
now he jerks his old Ford to a stop
and rolls down the window
before he remembers
he has no mail to deliver.
Are you a Democrat or a Republican?
he asks, pretending
that he has halted to make sure
no liberals get a free ride.

Did I ever tell you I'm a war hero?
he laughs. Sworn in,
then discharged a few hours later
because World War I had ended,
he's the oldest veteran in the county,
grand marshal of the November parade.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. It's now considered one of the most wasteful and meaningless wars in human history, fought mainly because Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain got caught up in a tangle of alliances and none of them wanted to back down from a fight.

But nobody realized how the brutal the war would be, especially with the introduction of modern weapons like the machine gun, which could fire 600 bullets per minute. The machine gun turned the war into a long and intensely bloody stalemate. Most of the fighting took place along the Western front, stretching for 475 miles through Belgium and France, with about 10,000 soldiers per mile. Each side dug trenches for cover and then each tried to charge the other side, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire. There were numerous battles in which entire squadrons were wiped out in minutes. Some 260,000 French soldiers were killed in just the first month of fighting. On just one day in 1916, more than 50,000 British troops were killed without advancing a single foot. By the end of the war, on this day in 1918, 9 million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded.

It has long been thought that the United States helped end the war by getting involved in 1917, but most historians believe that all the armies involved were ready to collapse — especially after the flu epidemic hit in 1918 — and the Germans just happened to collapse first. Rudyard Kipling was one of the millions of parents to lose a son in the war, and he wrote a poem about it that consisted of two lines: "If any question why we died, / Tell them because our fathers lied."

It's the birthday of a writer who was also a veteran, Kurt Vonnegut, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1922). He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was forced to work in a Dresden factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. He slept in a meat locker three stories underground, and that was the only reason he survived the firebombing on the night of February 13, 1945, when British and American bombers ignited a firestorm that killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. When they walked outside, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were just about the only living people in the city. They were then forced by the Germans to help clean up the bodies.

Vonnegut spent the next two decades writing science fiction, but he knew he wanted to write about his experiences in Dresden, and finally did in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who believes that he experiences the events of his life out of order, including his service during World War II, the firebombing of Dresden, and his kidnapping by aliens. He decides there is no such thing as time, and everything has already happened, so there's really nothing to worry about.

Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and many other books. He once said, "If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again."

It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1821), whose career as a writer was just taking off when he was arrested for conspiring to publish socialist pamphlets. He and his friends were blindfolded and brought before a firing squad, assuming they only had moments left to live, only to be pardoned at the last minute by the Czar. Dostoyevsky spent the next four years doing hard labor in a Siberian prison, and it was there that he decided that all radical political ideas were essentially inhumane.

He struggled for years after he got out of prison, gambling and getting into debt, but he finally put all his ideas about radical politics into his first great novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), about a young intellectual named Raskolnikov who is struggling to get by and pay his bills and decides one day to murder an old pawnbroker woman, because he thinks he will do better things with the money than she will. But he winds up having to murder the woman's sister as well, and spends the rest of the novel trying to justify the murders to himself with various philosophical and political theories.

Dostoyevsky's went on to write many other novels, including The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He died in 1881, and it was only after the Russian Revolution in 1917 that people realized how accurately he had predicted the way the leaders of the Communist government would use their high ideals to justify the murder and imprisonment of innocent people. Joseph Stalin later said, "Nobody understands human psychology like Dostoyevsky, and that's why I've banned him."



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