Feb. 23, 2006


by William Butler Yeats

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Poem: "Politics" by William Butler Yeats. Public Domain.


How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the greatest diarists in the English language, Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633). He managed to work his way up from poverty when it was almost impossible to do so in England. His parents were a tailor and a washerwoman, but he had an upper-class cousin who helped him get into good schools and got him government jobs.

His constant fear of losing his position made him an extremely hard worker, and he eventually worked his way up to the top of society. Pepys began his diary in 1659, and he would keep it for almost ten years. No one knows what inspired him to start it, but he was a great collector. He collected ship models, scientific instruments, portraits, ballads, money and women, and some critics see his diary as an attempt to collect his whole experience of the world.

It wasn't uncommon at the time for well-educated men to keep a journal, but most of these men wrote dry descriptions of their travels, politics and public affairs. As far as we know, Pepys was the first Englishman to fill his diary with descriptions of his most personal and ordinary experiences: his aches and pains, what he liked to eat, going to the bathroom, his marital love life, and his extramarital affairs, graphic details that novelists wouldn't start incorporating into their work for more than two hundred years.

Pepys was brutally honest about himself and often wrote about his failed attempts to seduce servant girls and bar maids. During the height of the Plague, as many as 10,000 Londoners died every week. Pepys wrote: "The nights (though much lengthened) are grown too short to conceal the burials of those that died the day before ... my brewer's house shut up, and my baker with his whole family dead of the plague."

Pepys wrote: "The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it."

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist William Shirer, born in Chicago (1904). He graduated from college in the spring of 1925 and he had a steady job waiting for him the following autumn, so he decided to spend his last summer before becoming a real adult traveling in Paris. He borrowed $200 from his father, which he figured would last about two months, and took off to the bohemian capital of the world.

Once he got there, he found that he loved European life. He became friends with writers and artists and began to think that he didn't want to go home. He tried to get a job with one of the local newspapers, but nobody would take him. So at the end of two months, he went to his own going away party, assuming he'd be leaving the next day for America. That following morning, he got a job offer from the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

He went on to become one of the foremost American foreign correspondents to cover the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II. His first book was Berlin Diary (1941), and then The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1961), which was the first historical overview of Nazi Germany for general readers.

It's the birthday of the sociologist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (1868). He grew up in New England and didn't experience racial inequality until he went to college at Fisk University in Nashville. He did his graduate studies at Harvard; he was the first African American to get his Ph.D. there.

He became an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and for his first sociological study he personally surveyed five thousand African Americans living in Philadelphia about their background, family structure, employment, income, social activities and other aspects of their lives. It was the first serious sociological study of blacks in America and it was the first time that someone had attempted to prove that poverty and crime in black communities was the result not of racial inferiority but of racial barriers and in education and employment.

He's best known for his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). It was a collection of essays, and one of the first attempts by an African American to describe the experience of racism in post-slavery America. Du Bois wrote, "It is a peculiar sensation ... this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois went on to found the N.A.A.C.P., and he grew more and more alienated from the United States. He eventually joined the communist party and moved to Africa, renouncing his American citizenship. He died in Ghana on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington.

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