Mar. 15, 2004


by Marie Howe

MONDAY, 15 MARCH, 2004
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Poem: "Reunion," by Marie Howe, from What the Living Do (W.W. Norton).


The very best part was rowing out onto the small lake in a little boat:

James and I taking turns fishing, one fishing while the other rowed
the long sigh of the line through the air,

and the far plunk of the hook and the sinker--
lily pads, yellow flowers

the dripping of the oars
and the knock and creak of them moving in the rusty locks.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the ides of March. In the Roman Calendar, each month had three division days: kalends, nones, and ides. For months that had thirty-one days, the ides occurred on the fifteenth of the month. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March in 44 B.C. A group of Roman senators, led by Cassius and Brutus, thought Caesar was becoming arrogant and tyrannical, and they devised a plot to assassinate him at a senate meeting on March 15. Many of the conspirators were close friends of Caesar, including Brutus. At the meeting, the group of senators circled around Caesar and pretended to submit a petition. Suddenly, one of them grabbed Caesar's robe and yanked it off his neck, which was the signal to begin the attack. All of the conspirators were hiding daggers, and they each stabbed him as he staggered across the floor.

It's the birthday of Andrew Jackson, born in the Waxhaw settlement on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina (1767). He began his political career as a Tennessee congressman, but he wasn't nationally known until the War of 1812. After he led the defeat of the pro-British Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend, he was placed in command of the defense of New Orleans, which was expecting an invasion by the British Army. The city was racked with malaria and dysentery, and Jackson fell sick soon after he arrived. When the British invaded on January 8, 1815, he was barely able to stand up without assistance. Still, he led the American troops to a decisive victory. He had his soldiers dig fortifications on short notice so they could fire on the British without being hit themselves. Over two thousand British soldiers were killed, compared to just eight Americans. As it happened, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed two weeks before that, and the British had already agreed to stop fighting, but news of the treaty had not reached New Orleans. Jackson became a national hero, and his victory helped to establish America as a legitimate international power.

He ran for president in 1824 and won a plurality of votes, but since no one got a majority the vote went to the Congress, and they chose John Quincy Adams. Jackson spent the next four years building a team of supporters and campaigning for the 1828 presidential election. He portrayed himself as a champion of the common man and appealed to working class voters, especially frontiersmen who were settling in the West. The election drew more than three times as many voters to the polls as the previous election, and Jackson won in a landslide. The 1828 election was what split the Democratic-Republican Party into two separate parties. John Quincy Adams became the leader of the Republican Party, and Andrew Jackson became the leader of the new Democratic-Republican Party, which we know today as the Democratic Party.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Ben Okri, born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). He lived mainly in England until he was seven years old, when his family moved back to Nigeria. He grew up surrounded by story-tellers; he said, "We are a people who are massaged by fictions; we grow up in a sea of narratives and myths, the perpetual invention of stories."

After secondary school, Okri worked at a paint store, where he would write stories and poems on his lap under his desk when he was supposed to be writing letters to paint distributors. In the evenings, he wrote for Nigerian newspapers and magazines. He would see people laughing and arguing about his stories on the subway on the way home from work, and he thought that if he published a work of fiction he could move people even more. He finished his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), by the time he was eighteen years old. He moved to London in 1977, living for a time in subway stations and with friends. He published more novels and short stories, but he didn't really get much attention until his novel The Famished Road came out in 1991. It's about a Nigerian child who hovers between the real world and the world of spirits, and it describes the horrible poverty and oppression in modern Nigeria. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Britain's best novel in 1991.

Okri said, "Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer. . . . The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens's characters are Nigerians. . . . Literature may come from a specific place, but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."

It's the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann, born in Detroit, Michigan (1918). He's best known for his biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. He was also the first American to teach English literature at Oxford University. His father and both of his brothers were lawyers, but he decided to study literature at Yale. He became interested in William Butler Yeats, and at the end of World War II he went to Dublin to visit Yeats's widow, who gave him access to stacks of letters and manuscripts. He spent the next year writing a biography of Yeats, which was published in 1948.

One of the documents that Yeats's widow gave Ellmann was an account Yeats had written about his meeting in 1902 with a young writer named James Joyce. Joyce supposedly ended the meeting by saying, "You are too old for me to have any effect on you." Ellmann was intrigued; he began reading all of Joyce's works and researching his life. He spent ten years tracking down documents and interviewing friends of Joyce, and in 1959 he published a biography, James Joyce. It won the National Book Award in 1960, and it's been called the greatest literary biography ever written. He spent the last twenty years of his life working on a biography of Oscar Wilde. Ellmann suffered from Lou Gherig's disease and pneumonia during the last few months of his life, but he continued to work on the biography on his deathbed, using special machines to type out revisions. Oscar Wilde was published in 1986.

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