May 16, 2004


by Jo McDougall

SUNDAY, 16 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Homeplace," by Jo McDougall, from Towns Facing Railroads. © University of Arkansas Press.


Awake while you sleep,
I tie and untie the strings of what went wrong:
the farm auctioned, my father buried in Minnesota,
you and I alone
in a rented room.

I remember my father when I was six
pushing open a gate on the farm road,
stirring the dust of August.
The locusts sizzling in the grass,
a hum of dragonflies hanging sleepy above us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1717 that the French playwright and poet Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for insulting the government. He was a young man at the time, and a relatively unknown writer. His father had encouraged him to become a lawyer, but Voltaire hated practicing law, so he spent all his time writing satirical poetry instead, poking fun at his political enemies, including the Duke of Orleans. When the Duke read one of the privately circulated poems, he had Voltaire thrown into prison for eleven months.

Voltaire used the opportunity to begin writing his first play, and when he got out of prison a year later, he produced a series of successful plays that made him one of the most popular writers in Europe. He spent the rest of his life in and out of exile from France, speaking out against political and religious repression.

It was on this day in 1868 that President Andrew Johnson was acquitted in his impeachment trial by only one vote. The trial took place in the wake of the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction. The Republican congress, still reeling after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a few years before, was infuriated when President Johnson readmitted southern states to the Union and refused to punish southern politicians for participating in secession.

When news of Johnson's impeachment trial reached Philadelphia, Republicans celebrated by firing a fifty-gun salute, while Democrats threatened to send armed men to defy Congress. Many people feared that the trial would bring about a second civil war, that Johnson might use the army to defend his right to be president. Iowa's governor announced that if Johnson used troops to defend himself, then Iowa's militia would fight back. During the trial, some congressmen called for Johnson's execution. There were rumors that Johnson had helped plan the assassination of Lincoln. One congressman said, "[The president is a] despicable, besotted, traitorous man."

The final vote came down to one person, Edmund G. Ross, a freshman senator. He didn't like Johnson and had received hundreds of letters urging him to convict him, but he worried that a conviction would damage the office of the presidency forever. He still hadn't decided what to do on the day of the vote, and sat at his desk, nervously tearing pieces of paper into shreds. When he was finally called he stood up and voted "Not Guilty." He later said, "I almost literally looked into my open grave."

It's the birthday of poet Adrienne Rich, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1929). Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World (1951), came out when she was only twenty-one years old. She has gone on to write many books of poetry, including Diving into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language (1978).

It's the birthday of journalist Studs Terkel, born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, New York City (1912). In the 1960s, he decided to start interviewing ordinary people for a book called Division Street (1967), about the changing demographics of Chicago. One of the first people he interviewed for the book was a mother of four children, living in poverty. After the interview was over, the woman's children wanted to hear their mother's voice, so Terkel played the tape back. The mother was shocked to hear her own opinions expressed out loud, and she said she'd never even known she felt that way until Terkel had asked her. At that moment, Terkel decided to devote himself to interviewing as many ordinary people as he could for the rest of his life.

Terkel went on to publish a series of books in which he interviewed ordinary people about different subjects. In 1974, he published Working (1974), a collection of interviews of working class people, everyone from steelworkers to prostitutes, talking about their jobs. His other books of interviews include "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II (1984), RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession (1991), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001).

His most recent book, Hope Dies Last, came out in 2003. Terkel, who is now in his nineties, has said that he wants his epitaph to read, "Curiosity never killed this cat."

It was on this day in 1763 that James Boswell first met Samuel Johnson, the man who would become the subject of his life's work. Boswell was twenty-three years old at the time, bumming around London, going to parties and brothels, and feeling like he was wasting his life. He kept a very detailed diary and wanted to be a writer, but he didnít know what to write about other than himself. His literary hero was the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson. Boswell had heard that Johnson sometimes stopped by a particular bookshop in London, so Boswell began to spend time there in hopes of running into the great man.

Boswell was drinking tea at the bookshop on this day in 1763, when his friend Thomas Davies told him that Johnson had just come into the shop. Boswell got incredibly nervous when Johnson came into the room. He later wrote, "Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to [Johnson]. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the [Scottish], of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, 'Don't tell where I come from.' 'From Scotland,' cried Davies roguishly. 'Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.' [Johnson] retorted, 'That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.'Ē

They got into an argument about a man they both knew, and the meeting ended poorly, but Boswell wouldn't give up. He went to a party at Johnson's house a few weeks later, and after the party was over Johnson asked him to stay a little longer to talk. Boswell ended up telling Johnson the story of his life and his struggle to find a vocation. The two men became close friends, and Boswell began to write a book about Johnson that would become his obsession.

Boswell tried to write down everything Johnson did and said in his presence, in order to preserve it for posterity. Boswell's attention occasionally irritated Johnson, and Johnson once said to Boswell, "You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I'm sick of both."

Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson came out in 1791, after Johnson;s death, and it became a bestseller. By 1825, all of Samuel Johnson's writings were out of print, and they didn't come back into print for another hundred years. But Boswell's book about Johnson went through forty-one English editions in the nineteenth century alone. Boswell managed to write a book about Johnson that is more interesting to us today that the books that Johnson wrote.

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