Mar. 20, 2011

A Ghost Story

by Ted Kooser

Her life was plain, her death
a common death—a girl
sewn into the watery shroud
of pneumonia. She was only
another Mary, there
in Illinois, and it was only
another April—the buds
of the honeysuckle folded
in prayer. Forgotten eyes,
forgotten smile, the cowlick
in her hair forgotten;
everything gone. Yet for
seventy years her grave
gave off the scent of roses.

"A Ghost Story" by Ted Kooser, from Weather Central. © The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the first day of spring. The vernal equinox occurs today, the time when the earth's axis is not turned toward the sun (summer, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), or away from it (winter), but is aligned with the center of the sun. The word equinox comes from Latin: aequus means equal, level, or calm; nox means night, or darkness. The equinox, in spring or fall, is a time when the day and night are as close to equal as they ever are, and when the hours of night are exactly equal for people living equidistant from the equator either north or south.

Margaret Atwood (books by this author) wrote: "Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."

Henry David Thoreau (books by this author) wrote: "This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards. True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver, lights, and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry. I know of nothing more purgative of winter fumes and indigestions. It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling-clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side. Fresh curls spring from the baldest brow. There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is "in full blast" within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree."

Today we celebrate the birthday of dime novelist Ned Buntline (books by this author), born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Stamford, New York (1813) — probably, but not certainly, on this day. As a boy, he got in a fight with his father and ran away to sea. He started out as a cabin boy, but as a teenager he rescued the drowning crew of a boat, and President Van Buren was so impressed that he appointed the young man a midshipman, a low rank of officer. Some of the other officers refused to eat or socialize with him because he had been a regular sailor. In response, he challenged 13 officers to a duel in one day, and seven of them accepted. He wounded four of them and was completely unhurt himself, and after that, everyone accepted him.

After a few years at sea, he decided to take up writing sensational adventure stories. He took his pseudonym, Ned Buntline, from the "buntline" knot that went at the foot of a square sail. He started out writing about gangs and violence in New York — he had firsthand knowledge of that world, being involved in gang wars himself.

After years of setting his popular dime novels in the seedy underbelly of New York, he took a trip out West, and realized that it was the ideal setting for the type of stories he wanted to tell. He met Buffalo Bill Cody, and adapted his adventures into wildly popular and exaggerated stories, a series called Buffalo Bill Cody — King of the Border Men. It was so successful that he made the stories into a play, Scouts of the Prairie, and he managed to convince the reluctant Buffalo Bill to come play himself in the play. Buffalo Bill and Ned himself were terrible actors, and the critics weren't impressed — the drama critic for the Chicago Times wrote: "On the whole, it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time — even Chicago." A critic for The New York Herald wrote that Buntline played his part "as badly as is possible for any human being to represent it." But despite the opinions of the critics, Scouts of the Prairie was a commercial and financial hit, and it toured all over the country. Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill parted ways after that, but Buntline had made the western hero so famous that he was able to open his own show, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," and Bill's story had set Buntline on his path to earn more money from his writing than any other author in the country.

Buntline's life was one big adventure, and he didn't slow down even after he became wealthy and famous. He fought in the Everglades in the Second Seminole War, and was an officer in the Civil War until he was given a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness. He went around preaching temperance despite his own outrageous drinking habits — he interrupted every show of Scouts of the Prairie for a temperance lecture, and he was frequently drunk during those lectures. He was thrashed in public in the streets of New York City by a woman who was the target of gossip in his magazine. He incited several riots. He got in plenty of trouble with women, too — he was married seven times, and was jailed for bigamy. At one point he was flirting with a married teenager named Mary Porterfield. Her husband, Robert, challenged Buntline to a duel, which of course he accepted, and he killed Robert Porterfield. The angry townspeople attempted to lynch Buntline, and in fact they strung him up hanged him from an awning post. At the last minute, his friends cut the rope and he managed to survive.

As Ned Buntline lay dying, he wrote a poem, which ends:
"Counting time by ticking clock,
Waiting for the final shock —
Waiting for the dark forever —
Oh, how slow the moments go,
None but I, me seems, can know
How close the tideless river."

He died in 1886, by which time he had already sent out several false obituaries, further exaggerating his life and claiming that he had been a colonel in the Civil War. At least three of his wives or ex-wives attempted to claim that they were his official widow.

It's the birthday of the playwright Henrik Ibsen (books by this author), born in Skien, Norway (1828). One of his best-known plays is A Doll's House (1879), the story of a woman named Nora who is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage. The play ends with Nora slamming the door and walking out on her husband. Ibsen was so well-known, and his ending was so shocking to 19th-centry viewers, that it was known as "the door slam heard around the world."

But he almost didn't make it as a writer. He had a love-hate relationship with his home country — as he said in a letter to the playwright Olaf Skavlan: "Men with such slave-souls as ours cannot even make use of the liberties they already possess. Norway is a free country, peopled by unfree men and women." He left Norway in 1864 for a life of self-imposed exile. But life abroad was still hard. He and his wife were living in poverty. Ibsen wrote constantly, but his plays weren't getting noticed, and he couldn't support his family. He had appealed to the king for a pension, but his request was denied. It got to the point where he couldn't even afford postage stamps to put on his business letters. He was depressed and exhausted.

In the winter of 1865, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he became seriously ill with a high fever. Too poor to afford decent medical treatment, he almost died. The next spring he was waiting for his play Brand (1866) to appear in Norway, a drama about a priest grappling with issues of God and free will. He expected the worst, and just before its publication he sent a letter to his friend Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, also a playwright. He wrote: "My book will appear in a day or two, I expect. About my present position — waiting, worn out with anxiety and suspense — looking forward to the appearance of the book and to the possibility of its producing strife and attacks of all sorts — unable in such circumstances to begin something new, which, nevertheless, is already fully developed within me — about all this I will say no more. Dear Bjørnson, it seems to me as if I were separated from both God and men by a great, an infinite void. [...] There is nothing so enervating and exhausting as this hopeless waiting. I dare say this is only a transition period. I will and shall have a victory some day. If the powers that be have shown me so little favor as to place me in this world and make me what I am, the result must be accordingly. [...] Is it not strange — up there in the north the day is dawning, the song-birds are twittering, there are gleams of light; levers, powerful, and flower-garlanded, such as are offered to no other people, are offered to ours with which to raise themselves; but they do not rise. I have a terrible foreboding that our life as a nation will not be eternal, but definitely terminable. When I read the news from home, when I gaze upon all that respectable, estimable narrow-mindedness and worldliness, it is with the feeling of an insane man staring at one single, hopelessly dark spot. [...] You are my one and only trusted friend; you do not know what it means to have only one."

He sent off the letter with a postscript apologizing that he could not afford to prepay the postage. Less than two weeks later, Brand was published and got great reviews. Finally Ibsen got the literary victory he was dreaming of, and King Carl of Sweden and Norway granted Ibsen his request for a "poet's pension." He went on to write many plays, including Peer Gynt (1887), A Doll's House, An Enemy of the People (1882), and Hedda Gabler (1890).

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe's (books by this author) novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. She lived with her husband in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. She was upset by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced both authorities and private individuals in the Northern free states to cooperate with the slave states to track down and return slaves. So she decided to write a book about slavery. She couldn't figure out a plot, until one day, while she was in church, she had a vision of an old slave. He became Uncle Tom, and she started writing. In 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, selling 10,000 copies in its first week, and about 2 million copies by 1857.

Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot all loved it. But it was not so well received in the South. One Southern publisher told his reviewer: "I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume."

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