Nov. 16, 2010

As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods

by Walt Whitman

As toilsome I wander'd Virginia's woods,
To the music of rustling leaves kick'd by my feet, (for 'twas
I mark'd at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier;
Mortally wounded he and buried on the retreat, (easily all
      could I understand,)
The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose—yet
      this sign left,
On a tablet scrawl'd and nail'd on the tree by the grave,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering,
Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life,
Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt,
      alone, or in the crowded street,
Comes before me the unknown soldier's grave, comes the
      inscription rude in Virginia's woods,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

"As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods" by Walt Whitman. Public domain. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1849 that 28-year-old Fyodor Dostoyevsky (books by this author) was sentenced to death for plotting against the Russian state. The evidence: He'd been part of a group of young intellectuals who got together and discussed utopian socialist ideas and read books that had been specifically banned by the Imperial Court of Czar Nicholas. In addition, they disagreed with the political system of absolute monarchy in Russia, and they also thought that the economic system that upheld Russian serfdom was a bad one.

The Revolutions of 1848, which swept through France, Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe during the previous year, had made the czar nervous. So he rounded up progressive thinkers and put them in prison. Dostoyevsky, already a famous writer, was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, one of the groups that met to discuss radical liberal ideas. In the spring, he and other members of the circle were put in jail, and on this day 161 years ago he was condemned to death.

The following month, Dostoyevsky was taken out to face the firing squad. It was the middle of winter, December 22nd, a few days before Christmas, and he and his fellow condemned were taken to a public square. He wrote that day: "There the sentence of death was read out to us, we were all made to kiss the cross, a sword was broken over our heads, and we were told to put on our white execution shirts. Then three of us were tied to the posts to be executed. I was the sixth, and therefore in the second group of those to be executed. [...] Then the retreat was sounded on the drums, those tied to the posts were taken back, and an order from His Imperial Majesty was read to us granting us our lives. Afterwards our sentences were read out to us."

His death sentence was commuted to eight years of hard labor in a Siberian work camp, though in the end served only four years. He lived in crowded, filthy barracks, and told his brother that he felt like he was "shut up in a coffin" during that time. He wrote about his prison experiences in The House of the Dead (1862).

The story of Dostoyevsky's last-minute reprieve was a story that American writer Raymond Carver loved to retell, said Carver's friend Tobias Wolff. Wolff said, "I always had the sense he was talking about himself, too. ... He had been there himself ... had come very close to suffering not only physical death but also moral and spiritual annihilation." Raymond Carver even wrote a screenplay, along with Tess Gallagher, about the life of Dostoyevsky, and his screenplay centered on the moment when Dostoyevsky was pardoned in front of the firing squad and granted his life.

Dostoyevsky lived for more than three decades after the day he appeared in front of his executioners, writing novels like Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872),and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

In The House of the Dead (1862)he wrote,"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

It was on this day in 1913 that the first volume of Marcel Proust's (books by this author) In Search of Lost Time was published. He'd begun work on it in 1909, after taking a nibble of a French pastry cookie dipped in tea. He took it to several publishers, and it was turned down by each one of them. The editor of a prestigious French literary magazine advised that it not be published because of syntactical errors. And one editor said, "My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep."

So in the end, Proust had to come up with the money himself to self-publish the book, and the first volume appeared in print on this day 97 years ago. He worked on the story for the rest of his life. It was published in seven volumes, and in total it's about 1.5 million words long.

There's a new English translation out of Proust's work, published in 2002, a collaboration among seven different translators. It's edited by Christopher Prendergast and part of the Penguin Classics series.

The novel begins: "For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself, 'I'm falling asleep.' And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me. ... I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke. ... Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit."

It was on this day in 1907 that Oklahoma joined the Union, becoming the 46th state. It's one of the top natural gas-producing states in the U.S. There are 25 Native American languages that are spoken in Oklahoma, which is more than any other state in America. It's one of most tornado-prone areas of the world, averaging more than 50 tornadoes a year. And it's the setting for the opening of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the playwright George S. Kaufman, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889), who inherited a terrible case of hypochondria from his mother. She wouldn't let him play with other children, for fear of germs, and she wouldn't let him drink milk either. The only beverage he was allowed was boiled water. By the time he was an adult, he was terrified of being touched and he never shook hands. He was so afraid of dying in his sleep that he often didn't sleep for days. He once said, "The kind of doctor I want is one who when he's not examining me is home studying medicine."

But despite his quirks, Kaufman managed to co-write more hit plays than anyone else in the history of Broadway, including Animal Crackers (1928), Strike Up the Band (1930), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). His various partners through the years all said that he was a meticulous rewriter and polisher, that he was never satisfied with a script even up till the last minute. Even on the most triumphant of opening nights, he could always be found backstage, pale and terrified that the play would be a flop.

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




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