Apr. 9, 2004


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Marengo," by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cartoonist Frank King, born in Cashton, Wisconsin (1883). He was working as a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in 1918 when he began drawing a cartoon strip called "Gasoline Alley" about a group of characters named Walt, Doc, Avery, and Bill who got together every week to talk about their cars. At the time, just after the end of World War I, the United States was experiencing a "car craze," and automobiles had become a popular topic of conversation among men.

The strip ran for a few years, and then in 1921, the editor of the paper decided that it needed to appeal more to women, so King drew a strip for Valentine's Day in which a baby was left on the doorstep of the bachelor Walt Wallet. From then on, the strip focused on the growing baby, named Skeezix, and Gasoline Alley became the first comic strip in which the characters aged. Skeezix grew up, served in World War II, got married to a girl named Nina Clock and had children of his own.

Frank King died in 1969, but Gasoline Alley continued without him and became one of the longest-running cartoon strips in history. The first collected edition of King’s cartoons, called Gasoline Alley: Book One, came out in 2002.

It's the birthday of satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer, born in New York City (1928). He started writing songs for his own amusement while working on his degree in mathematics at Harvard. When he got a job working at Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, he wrote a song called "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be," with the lines: "Mid the yuccas and the thistles / I'll watch the guided missiles, / While the old F.B.I. watches me."

He spent 715 dollars of his own money to record his first record, Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953), with songs like "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz" and "The Old Dope Peddler." It became a cult classic among beatniks and college students, and Lehrer began performing his songs in public at college campuses across the country. He went on to record four more albums, including More of Tom Lehrer (1959), with songs such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango." In 1981 he published his complete lyrics in his book Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, With Not Enough Pictures by Ronald Searle.

Lehrer wrote: "Make a cross on your abdomen, / When in Rome do like a Roman, / Ave Maria, / Gee it's good to see ya, / Gettin' ecstatic an' / Sorta dramatic an' / Doin' the Vatican Rag!"

It's the birthday of poet Charles Baudelaire, born in Paris (1821). He was one of the first poets to believe that in order to be a good poet he had to live much of his life on the city streets. He spent most of his adult life in the worst neighborhoods of Paris, moving from apartment to apartment so that he could get away from creditors. He drew his inspiration from the streets, where he met beggars and prostitutes and robbers. At a time when most poets were disgusted by the increasingly crowded, dirty cities of Europe, Baudelaire embraced the city and wrote about its seamy beauty.

He left behind only one major book of poetry, The Flowers of Evil (1857), but when it became the subject of an obscenity trial, it made him famous. He kept adding to the book for the rest of his life. His poems celebrated free love and drunkenness, boredom and despair, and his work has gone on to influence generations of future bohemian writers and rock stars, anyone who believes that there is artistic purity in a life of squalor.

It was on this day in 1865 that General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. In the year leading up to the surrender, the Northern blockade of the South had made it almost impossible for the Confederate army to get proper supplies. Confederate soldiers were fighting without decent food, without proper clothing, in some cases without even shoes. Confederate numbers were also dwindling as many soldiers began to desert.

By 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman had already marched through Georgia, destroying almost everything in his path, and had begun to march through the Carolinas. The Union Army had been laying siege to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. At the beginning of April in 1865, Grant launched an offensive that finally captured the city. President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Richmond on April 3rd to see the stars and strips flying above the Richmond capital building. Lincoln said, "Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid nightmare for four years, and now the nightmare is over."

Lee's army of about 25,000 fled to the west, without rations, surviving on dried corn that was meant to feed horses. They were followed by Grant's army of more than 100,000. On April 5, Grant sent a message to Lee that said, "General: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle." Lee wrote back to say, "Though not entirely of the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer, on condition of its surrender."

Lee and Grant met at the McLean house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, Palm Sunday, just after noon. Lee was wearing his best gray Confederate uniform, with a sword at his side, while Grant showed up in a private's shirt, splashed with mud. The two men talked briefly, remembering that they had met during the Mexican War, and then discussed the terms of surrender. After it was over, Grant said, [I felt] sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, the worst for which people ever fought." When the Union soldiers began to cheer and celebrate, Grant ordered them to stop.

Lee rode back to his camp, and crowds of Confederate soldiers along the road began to weep as he passed. One man called out, "I love you just as well as ever, General." When he reached his tent, Lee said to the crowd, "Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you. Goodbye, and God bless you all."

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