Apr. 14, 2004

Classic Ballroom Dances

by Charles Simic

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Poems: "Classic Ballroom Dances," by Charles Simic, from Selected Poems 1963-1983 (George Braziller Publishers).

Classic Ballroom Dances

Grandmothers who wring the necks
Of chickens; old nuns
With names like Theresa, Marianne,
Who pull schoolboys by the ear;

The intricate steps of pickpockets
Working the crowd of the curious
At the scene of an accident; the slow shuffle
Of the evangelist with a sandwich-board;

The hesitation of the early morning customer
Peeking through the window-grille
Of a pawnshop; the weave of a little kid
Who is walking to school with eyes closed;

And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
On the dancefloor of the Union Hall,
Where they also hold charity raffles
On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1775 that the first American society for the abolition of slavery was founded. It was called the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negros Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Most of the ten original members of the group were Quakers, but Thomas Paine also attended the first meeting, held in the Rising Sun Tavern in Philadelphia.

Over the next ten years, only eight more people joined the society, but in 1784 the group reorganized and started expanding rapidly. Within two years, nearly a hundred people joined, including Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin became president of the society in 1787, there were nearly a thousand members, and other abolition groups began to form in New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

On this day in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was at the theater with his wife to see a comedy called "Our American Cousin." During the third act, while the audience laughed at a funny line, Booth snuck behind Lincoln and shot him in the head at point-blank range. Lincoln never regained consciousness and died early the next day.

The country went into mourning as soon as they heard the news. Stores closed, flags were raised at half mast, and people all across the country held spontaneous gatherings to share their grief.

It was on this day in 1912 that the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the fifth night of ship's maiden voyage, on its way from Southampton, England to New York City. The night was clear and windless, with no moon. It had been an especially warm winter, and many icebergs had broken off from glaciers farther north, so the lookout men had been told to keep an eye out for them. At about 11:40, one of the lookouts, Frederick Fleet, saw a huge dark object floating in the water in front of the ship. He yelled, "Iceberg right ahead," and rang an alarm bell. A few minutes later, the Titanic ran into the iceberg. It sank early the next morning, killing about 1,500 people.

The Titanic had a double-bottomed hull that was divided into sixteen compartments. Four of these compartments could be flooded without affecting the ship's ability to float, so many newspaper and magazine articles about the Titanic had advertised it as "unsinkable." But when the ship hit the iceberg, five of the compartments were ruptured, and so it sank.

It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath was published. The novel tells the story of three generations of the Joad family, who lose their farm in Oklahoma and set off across the country for the paradise of California, only to encounter extreme poverty and corrupt corporations trying to make a profit off of them. Steinbeck interspersed the story of the Joads with chapters describing the migration as a whole, to give the impression of a social history as well as a personal story.

Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck spent several weeks in the valleys of southern California, observing the horrible conditions of the migrant farmers there and doing his best to help them. He saw entire families living in tiny tents flooded with more than a foot of water, with almost no food and no medicine. Sometimes he worked so hard bringing food and supplies to the farmers that he would collapse in the mud at the end of the day.

He began writing about what he saw in a 1936 article for the Nation. Between 1936 and 1938 he wrote several newspaper articles, the draft of an unfinished novel, and then a draft of another novel, a satire called L'Affaire Lettuceberg. He was about to send it off to his publisher when, at the last minute, he decided against it. He said it was a "smart-alec book" that was "full of tricks to make people ridiculous. . . . I had forgotten that I hadn't learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. . . . I'm not ready to be a hack yet. Maybe later."

In May of 1938, Steinbeck started work on The Grapes of Wrath. He wrote the novel at an incredible rate—about two thousands words a day—in a tiny outhouse that had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a gun rack and a bookshelf. He finished it in about five months.

The novel became a sensation as soon as it was published. It sold out an advance edition of 20,000 copies in just a few days, and eventually became the best-selling book of 1939, with over 400,000 copies sold. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a successful movie by John Ford. It eventually led to congressional hearings on migrant camp conditions and influenced FDR's labor policy.

Many people were offended by the novel. Steinbeck got angry letters from people who accused him of being a communist, and he was brought under FBI surveillance. Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren called it "a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind," and Kern County in California banned the book for several years. Steinbeck wrote, "I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy." These days, it still sells over 100,000 copies each year, and since Oprah selected Steinbeck's East of Eden for her book club last year, sales have gone up even more.

The title for the novel came from Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of The Republic": "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored." Steinbeck wrote in the novel, "There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a failure here that topples all our success. . . in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."

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