Aug. 21, 2004


by Robert Frost


Poem: "Unharvested" by Robert Frost from The Poetry of Robert Frost © Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Reprinted with permission.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the boy who inspired his father to write the children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Christopher Robin Milne, born in London (1920). His father, A.A. Milne was an extremely prolific author who wrote plays, novels, mysteries, poetry, and essays. It wasn't until after Christopher Robin was born that A.A. Milne began to write for children.

His father based the Winnie-the-Pooh books on Christopher's actual toys and games and the places where he played in East Sussex, England. His toys were later copied and manufactured in the millions by the Walt Disney Co. After he grew up and bought a bookstore, parents would take their children to the counter of his bookshop to say hello to the real Christopher Robin.

He did not appreciate the attention, and in 1974, he published a memoir called The Enchanted Places about the difficulty of growing up as a kind of mythical child. He resented the fact that his father had used him for literary material, even though they'd never had a very close relationship. For much of his life, he and his father weren't on speaking terms, and he claimed to dislike the Pooh books, but, in 1980, he went back to his hometown of Sussex to help stop developers from buying the Ashdown Forest where, as a child, he'd played with his bear.

It's the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy, born Joseph Charles Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He added an X to his name the first time he sent out a poem for publication, because he had served in the Navy on the U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, and he was tired of the association. The New Yorker published that poem, so he felt that the X had brought him luck and kept it.

He originally wanted to be a cartoonist, but he had trouble drawing the same character twice. So he switched to poetry. At a time when most poets had given up rhyme and meter for free verse, he continued to write in traditional forms, and he specialized in humorous poems. He published several collections of poetry, including Breaking and Entering (1971) and Emily Dickinson in Southern California (1973), but he wasn't having much success selling books until an editor suggested he write for children.

He is now better known for his nonsense children's poetry in books such as One Winter Night in August (1975), The Phantom Ice Cream Man (1979), and Drat These Brats! (1993). His most recent book is The Lords of Misrule (2002).

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, born in Brooklyn, New York (1937). He's the author of many novels, including Dog Soldiers (1974) and Children of Light (1986).

Robert Stone said, "I think [as a writer] you have to take your work from your life, but people live intense lives in all sorts of unlikely places ... You can write a perfectly powerful novel about working in a shoe store. You don't have to shoot lions in Africa ... Desperation is universal."

It was on this day in 1858 that Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln began a series of seven debates during the Senate campaign for the state of Illinois. At the time, the country was deeply divided over the expansion of slavery. One Washington D.C. newspaper said, "The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois."

Stephen A. Douglas was the incumbent Senator and a nationally known spokesman for the Democratic Party, which supported expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was a former state congressman who was running for Senate as the member of the brand new Republican Party, which opposed slavery expansion. Lincoln had made a name for himself in a speech that June when argued that the country's crisis would only grow worse until all the states came together in agreement about slavery. He famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Each debate lasted three hours. The opening speaker addressed the crowd for 60 minutes, without notes. Then his rival offered a 90-minute reply, and finally the opening speaker returned for a 30-minute rebuttal.

The candidates met seven times, outdoors, in village squares, county fairgrounds, college campuses, and vacant lots. An estimated ten to twenty thousand people showed up at each debate. At the first debate, on this day in 1858, the huge crowd kicked up so much dust that the newspaper said the village resembled a vast smoke house. People in the audience cheered for their candidates, and occasionally fired off canons after an especially good point was made.

Most people agreed that Douglas won the first debate. He had the advantage of a loud voice, which was important in the age before microphones. Lincoln's voice was shrill and high pitched, but he spoke in simpler language, and used shorter sentences, and after that first debate the two candidates were evenly matched. By the end, many observers thought Lincoln was the winner.

Douglas ended up winning the election by a slim margin, but the debate made Lincoln a national figure. Two years later, Lincoln ran for president. His campaign collected and published the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which became a national bestseller and helped Lincoln win the election in 1860 that started the Civil War.

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