Sep. 22, 2006

Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel

by George Bilgere

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Poem: "Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel" by George Bilgere from Haywire. © Utah State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel

Instead, we sit together beside the fountain,
the important novel and I.

We are having coffee together
in that quiet first hour of the morning,
respecting each other's silences
in the shadow of an important old building
in this small but significant European city.

All the characters can relax.
I'm giving them the day off.
For once they can forget about their problems—
desire, betrayal, the fatal denouement—
and just sit peacefully beside me.

In the afternoon,
at lunch near the cathedral,
and in the evening, after my lonely,
historical walk along the promenade,

the men and women, the children
and even the dogs
in the important, complicated novel
have nothing to fear from me.

We will sit quietly at the table
with a glass of cool red wine
and listen to the pigeons
questioning each other in the ancient corridors.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1776, patriot Nathan Hale was executed for espionage. At 11:00 a.m., he stood on the gallows and uttered the most famous last words in American history: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Hale graduated with honors from Yale, taught high school, and then joined the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War. The British were building up their forces on Long Island, and at the battle of Harlem Heights, George Washington asked for a volunteer to go behind enemy lines as a spy. Hale was the only soldier who stepped forward.

He disguised himself as a Dutch schoolmaster. For over a week he gathered information on the position of British troops, but while he was trying to return to the American side, he was captured with all of his maps and notes. He was 21 years old.

It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln announced one of the most important executive orders in American history, the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states free as of January 1, 1863. Since the Civil War had begun, various people had been urging Lincoln to free the slaves, but Lincoln wanted the war to be about secession, not slavery. He knew that the U.S. Constitution explicitly allowed slavery, but he believed that it did not allow secession, and he wanted to fight the war based on clear constitutional grounds.

But Lincoln had been having a hard year. He wasn't sleeping well or eating well. He'd been struggling for months with General McClellan, who refused to aggressively attack the Confederate Army. Volunteers for the military had grown scarce, and many Northern politicians claimed that Northerners didn't see the use of fighting a war over slavery that would leave slavery intact. Others, such as the former slave Frederick Douglass, argued that emancipation would encourage the slaves to join up with the North and fight for the Union Army.

And so, Lincoln changed his mind. He decided that he would issue the proclamation when his army secured a major victory. But the war only seemed to be getting worse. The Union Army was badly beaten at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the Confederate Army began to push into the North for the first time in the course of the war. Many Northerners suddenly began to worry that they were losing the war, and members of Lincoln's own party began to question his leadership.

Then, on September 17th, the Union Army beat back the Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. Five days later, on this day in 1862, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. His cabinet members made a few minor changes, and the proclamation was publicly announced and published that day.

The proclamation did not end slavery altogether, but it encouraged slaves to rebel against their masters and support the Union. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 slaves had fled to freedom behind Northern lines. About 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, many of them former slaves, served in the armed forces. They helped the North win the war.

It was on this day in 1961 that President John F. Kennedy (books by this author) signed legislation that created the Peace Corps. A group of 500 volunteers shipped out to nine foreign countries that first year, where they taught people to read and write, promoted effective farming techniques, and helped provide better health care. By 1965, the number of Peace Corps volunteers had grown from 500 to almost 8,000 worldwide. The following year there were more than 15,000.

The Peace Corps hasn't been as successful as Kennedy had hoped. He envisioned sending out 100,000 volunteers a year, whereas most years there have been fewer than 10,000. But over the past 35 years, a total of more than 178,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 137 countries. It's still going strong today.

It's the birthday of the English scientist Michael Faraday, born in Newington, Surrey, England (1791). In 1831, he found that when he moved a magnet through a coil of wire, an electric current was produced. The process was called electromagnetic induction, and Faraday's discovery led to the electric generator, the heart of the modern power plant.

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