Apr. 27, 2005

Getting the Machine

by Joyce Sutphen

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Poem: "Getting the Machine" by Joyce Sutphen from Naming the Stars. © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Getting the Machine

It was good to hear
my own voice again
when I called, after
being gone for weeks.
I sounded the same.
I hadn't changed my name;
didn't have a foreign accent.
I just said I couldn't
come to the phone right then,
exactly the way I'd been
saying it for years,
and so I left myself
a little message
saying how sorry
I was I wasn't there,
and that I'd be
home soon. I tried to
think of what I'd want
to hear myself saying
and say it right.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the author of the "Madeline" books, Ludwig Bemelmans, born in the Tyrol, Austria in 1898. He wrote five of them, the first in 1939, that begins, "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines."

It's the birthday of the playwright, August Wilson, born Pittsburgh (1945). He grew up in a poor section of town in an apartment with no hot water, the only African-American kid in a private school. He dropped out of school, worked a series of menial jobs, but started going to the library every day, and there he fell in love with the works of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

He bought his typewriter in 1965, moved to St. Paul; in 1982, wrote his first play, Jitney, and two years later came Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

And today's the birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, born in Point Pleasant, Ohio (1822). He was the commander of the Union Armies at the end of the Civil War. He was the 18th president of the United States, and he was the author of his Personal Memoirs, in 1885: one of the few books ever written by an American president that qualifies as great literature.

After leaving the White House, President Grant went on a world tour with his wife, came back to this country, not sure what he wanted to do. His son was involved in banking. There was a financial boom at the time in the country and President Grant was persuaded to join his son in an investment banking scheme, which was profitable for a few years, and then the bubble burst. One of the partners had been embezzling money. Grant, who had thought he was a millionaire, found out that he was several millions dollars in debt. And less than ten years after he left the White House, he was completely broke.

He was desperate to earn money. He wrote two articles for Century magazine, one about the battle of Shiloh, the other about the capture of Vicksburg. After the first article appeared, Century gained 50,000 new subscribers, the number of advertising pages doubled, and the magazine's profits went up by about $100,000, of which President Grant was paid $500 per article.

So he set out to write a book of his memoirs, and Mark Twain gave him a great offer. He offered him 75 percent of the profits if Grant would publish with Twain's new publishing house. Grant signed the contract, hoping that the profits would help support his family after his death. At the time, he'd been diagnosed with throat cancer, and his health was deteriorating rapidly. He knew he didn't have long to live. He wrote as fast as he could, though he was in extreme pain. In a daze from pain medication, still he wrote 275,000 words in less than a year.

In the last few weeks of life, though he could not speak, he kept writing and revising and checking everything. Grant finished the book in July 1885, and died four days later.

Personal Memoirs was sold not in bookstores, but by subscription, door-to-door. Former Union soldiers in uniform sold it across the country. It was a huge success. The book eventually sold more than 300,000 copies, provided President Grant's family with $450,000 in royalties—the biggest payment for any book at that point in history.

And for years thereafter, critics and writers were surprised at how well President Grant had written. His memoir is now considered one of the greatest military memoirs ever written by an American.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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