Sep. 14, 2004

A Farm Picture

by Walt Whitman


by Walt Whitman

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Poems: "A Farm Picture" and "Reconciliation" by Walt Whitman, from Whitman: Poetry and Prose. © Viking. Reprinted with permission.

A Farm Picture

Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sunlight pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.


Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
        utterly lost,
That the hands of the sister Death and Night incessantly
        softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin - I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in
        the coffin.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of suffragist and journalist Alice Stone Blackwell, born in Orange, New Jersey (1857). She grew up in a family of abolitionists and feminists. Her father had a $10,000 bounty on his head, because he had helped smuggle a slave girl out of the south. Her mother was one of the founders of the suffrage movement. One of her aunts was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree and another aunt was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. She became a journalist and wrote for the Woman's Journal, a newspaper her parents had founded. She became the editor when her parents died, and remained editor until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women got the vote.

She said, "Justice is better than chivalry if we cannot have both."

It's the birthday of humorist Seba Smith, born in Buckfield, Maine (1792). He created the Yankee, cracker-barrel philosopher Jack Downing, one of the most popular literary figures of the early 1800s. Jack Downing was a fictional farm boy from the fictional town of Downingville, Maine. Smith created the character to write about politics in the Portland legislature. He said, "The plan [was] to bring a green, unsophisticated lad from the country into town ... let him blunder into the halls of the legislature, and after witnessing for some days their strange doings, sit down and write an account of them to his friends at home in his own plain language."

Jack Downing became so popular that Smith eventually sent him to Washington, D.C. to write about the presidency of Andrew Jackson. He was a new kind of American character, the country bumpkin who tells the truth about the world, the ancestor of characters like Huckleberry Finn and Forrest Gump.

It's the birthday of novelist Hamlin Garland, born in West Salem, Wisconsin (1860). He is best known for his autobiographical trilogy A Son of the Middle Border (1917), A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921) and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928). He grew up on a series of homesteads in Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. After he failed to make it as a farmer himself, he moved east and became a writer.

He was one of the first novelists to write realistically about American farmers, in books like Jason Edwards, An Average Man (1892). Where other writers had written about the farmer's noble taming of nature, he described the grasshopper plagues, the droughts and the blizzards, and the economic oppression that the average farmer experienced.

Hamlin Garland wrote, "There is no gilding of setting sun or glamour of poetry to light up the ferocious and endless toil of the farmer's [life]."

It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison, born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. When she was 19, she went to live in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. She gave up the faith three years later and got a job as a secretary.

She started writing journalism on the side, and in 1978, more than twenty years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the book, she described how she struggled with her memories of the Witnesses, because they had been controlling and oppressive, but also tremendously kind and courageous. She went on to write several more books of essays, including Off Center (1980) and The Astonishing World (1992).

She said, "To live exhilaratingly in and for the moment is deadly serious work, fun of the most exhausting sort."

And, "Beware of people carrying ideas. Beware of ideas carrying people."

It's the birthday of philosopher and educator Allan Bloom, born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1930). He's best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), about what he believed was the decline of higher education in the United States.

He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Cornell, and he witnessed the student protests in the 1960s that forced universities to stop teaching their required western civilization classes. He argued that by giving up on the Western canon of literature, Americans had given up on wisdom. He wrote, "We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. [We] play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part."

He called the book "a meditation on the state of our souls." Even though it was filled with difficult philosophical writing, the book became a bestseller. His friend, the novelist Saul Bellow, used him as the main character in a novel called Ravelstein, published in 2000.

Allan Bloom said, "The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is."

It was on this day in 1812 that Napoleon's army invaded the city of Moscow. Napoleon had hoped to conquer all of Europe, and he had almost succeeded. He had invaded Russia in June of 1812, but the Russian forces kept retreating, leading his army further and further into the country.

The Russians practiced a scorched earth policy of retreat, burning all the farmland so that the French army wouldn't have any food to draw on. Still, Napoleon pressed forward, hoping that if he took Moscow, the Russian Tsar would surrender. As he galloped toward the city, his men heard him chanting in time with the horse's movement, "Moscow! Moscow!"

The troops were exhausted and hungry by the time they reached Moscow on this day, in 1812. Napoleon's secretary later wrote, "A curious and impressive sight was this sudden appearance of the great city ... spreading out at the end of a naked plain, topped with its 1,200 spires and sky-blue cupolas, strewn with golden stars, and linked one to the other with gilded chains."

Napoleon was eager for battle, and he had hoped to capture shelter and provisions when they took the city. But as they approached, they found the gates standing open and the streets deserted. Then they noticed that all over the city, small fires had started. The Russians had set fire to their own city. By that night, the fires were out of control.

Napoleon's secretary described the burning of Moscow as, "One mighty furnace from which sheaves of fire burst heavenwards lighting up the horizon...masses of flame, mingling together, were rapidly caught up by a strong wind which spread them in every direction."

The French writer Stendhal was among the troops that day, and he watched the city burn. He wrote in his diary, "It was a splendid spectacle, but it would have been better to be alone, or else surrounded by intelligent people in order to enjoy it."

Napoleon watched the burning of the city himself from inside the Kremlin. His second in command watched him standing at the windows, watching the red glow of the city, muttering, "What a dreadful sight! Their own work! So many places! How stupendous a decision!" He refused to leave the Kremlin even as the flames approached and it grew difficult to breathe. He stood there in front of the hot windowpanes, sweating. He finally fled when a fire broke out inside the Kremlin itself, and barley escaped the city alive.

Since it was impossible to spend the winter in the ruined city, Napoleon began his retreat on October 19 across the snow-covered plains. It was one of the great disasters of military history. Thousands died of starvation and hypothermia. Of the nearly 500,000 men who had set out in June, fewer than 20,000 ragged, freezing, and starving men staggered back across the Russian frontier in December.

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