Jan. 4, 2011

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House

by Emily Dickinson

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today --
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have -- alway --

The Neighbors rustle in and out --
The Doctor -- drives away --
A Window opens like a Pod --
Abrupt -- mechanically --

Somebody flings a Mattress out --
The Children hurry by --
They wonder if it died -- on that --
I used to -- when a Boy --

The Minister -- goes stiffly in --
As if the House were His --
And He owned all the Mourners -- now --
And little Boys -- besides --

And then the Milliner -- and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade --
To take the measure of the House --
There'll be that Dark Parade --

Of Tassels -- and of Coaches -- soon --
It's easy as a Sign --
The Intuition of the News --
In just a Country Town --

"There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1943). She's the author of the highly acclaimed biographies Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987), and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005).

When she was 20 years old, she landed an internship at the State Department in Washington, and a couple of years later she interned with Congress. At 24, she was working at the White House for the Labor Secretary under Lyndon Johnson's administration. On the side, she was writing, and one of the articles she co-wrote was called "How to Remove LBJ in 1968." It was a scathing attack of President Johnson's Vietnam War policy, and it was published in The New Republic.

And then she met the president at a fancy ball at the White House. He knew that she had written and published harsh things about him. But he asked her to dance anyway. At the end of the evening, he asked her to work for him, as a personal assistant.

She taught government at Harvard and helped Johnson write his memoirs. Three years after he died, she published Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976). Reviewers raved, and the book was a huge commercial success — a New York Times best-seller. Soon afterward, Simon & Schuster asked her to write a biography of John F. Kennedy. In the meantime, she'd married a former Kennedy speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, and had access to all sorts of new material, including the personal letters of JFK's father, Joseph Kennedy.

After writing about the Kennedys, she wrote about the Roosevelts, focusing on the marriage of the president and first lady in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — The Home Front in World War II (1994). For that book she won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She thought she would write a similarly focused book on Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary. But when she started doing research for the book, she found that "during the [Civil] war, Lincoln was married more to the colleagues in his cabinet —in terms of time he spent with them and the emotion shared — than he was to Mary." She decided to write a book about Lincoln and some of the men he had appointed to his Cabinet. Specifically, she was interested in men he appointed who before the election had been his political opponents and had campaigned against him. She focused on William Seward, who became Lincoln's secretary of state; Edward Bates, who became Lincoln's attorney general; and Salmon P. Chase, who became the secretary of the Treasury.

Her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, was published in 2005. The 944-page book was widely talked about around Washington, and during the next presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama mentioned Goodwin's book in interviews, saying that it's essential reading for the Oval Office. After he won the Democratic nomination, he named former opponent Joe Biden as his running mate, and after he was elected, he appointed a handful of former rivals to his Cabinet — including Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture. The Chicago Tribune reported that "in Obama circles," the principle of appointing former adversaries to Cabinet positions "goes by the shorthand 'Team of Rivals,' from the title of Goodwin's book."

Team of Rivals begins:
On May 18, 1860, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early. As he climbed the stairs to his plainly furnished law office on the west side of the public square in Springfield, Illinois, breakfast was being served at the 130-room Chenery House on Fourth Street. Fresh butter, flour, lard, and eggs were being put out for sale at the City Grocery Store on North Sixth Street. And in the morning newspaper, the proprietors at Smith, Wickersham & Company had announced the arrival of a large spring stock of silks, calicos, ginghams, and linens, along with a new supply of the latest styles of hosiery and gloves.
... Lincoln's shock of black hair, brown furrowed face, and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring, his partner William Herndon recalled. He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel. "His legs," another observer noted, "seemed to drag from the knees down, like those of a laborer going home after a hard day's work."
His features, even supporters conceded, were not such "as belong to a handsome man." In repose, his face was "so overspread with sadness," the reporter Horace White noted, that it seemed as if "Shakespeare's melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois."
Doris Goodwin said, "To be a historian is to discover the facts in context, to discover what things mean, to lay before the reader your reconstruction of time, place, mood, to empathize even when you disagree. You read all the relevant material, you synthesize all the books, you speak to all the people you can, and then you write down what you known about the period. You feel you own it."

And she said, "Once a president gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, (books by this author) born in Ganzhou, China (1940), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2000. He was educated in Chinese schools before the revolution, and was once forced to burn a suitcase full of manuscripts when he was sent to a re-education camp. He started writing again after his release, but his plays and stories still aroused concern from party officials. In 1986, his play The Other Shore was banned. He fled the country and settled in Paris, where he still lives today. In addition to his plays, Gao Xingjian has authored the books Soul Mountain (1999) and One Man's Bible (2002), and he also exhibits his ink paintings around the world.

It's the birthday of Louis Braille, born in Coupvray, France (1809). When he was three years old, he was blinded in an accident. He invented a system of six raised dots that could be read by fingers, so that blind people could read easily. His idea didn't catch on during his lifetime, but it eventually became a worldwide phenomenon.

It's the birthday of Jacob Grimm, (books by this author) born in Hanau, Germany (1785), one of the men responsible for collecting fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Snow White," "Rapunzel," and "Hansel and Grethel." He and his younger brother, Wilhelm, collected more than 200 German folk tales and published Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1812.

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