Apr. 14, 2011

What I Know

by Lee Robinson

What I know for sure is less and less:
that a hot bath won't cure loneliness.

That bacon is the best bad thing to chew
and what you love may kill you.

The odd connection between perfection
and foolishness, like the pelican
diving for his fish.

How silly sex is.
How, having it, we glimpse
our holiness.

What I know is less and less.
What I want is more and more:

you against me—
your ferocious tenderness—

love like a star,
once small and far,
now huge, now near.

"What I Know" by Lee Robinson, from Hearsay. © Fordham University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck's (books by this author) novel The Grapes of Wrath was published. His wife, Carol, came up with the title, from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a family of "Okie" sharecroppers who leave their home in Oklahoma for the promise of a better life in California. Steinbeck was inspired to write the book after he was sent on assignment by Fortune magazine to visit the tenement camps in California, an assignment he soon gave up, saying, "I don't like the audience." He agreed to go around with a photographer for Life because he liked the idea of photographs. On March 7th, 1938, he wrote to his agent, Elizabeth Otis: "I'm sorry but I simply can't make money on these people. That applies to your query about an article for a national magazine. The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it. I hope this doesn't sound either quixotic or martyrish to you. A short trip into the fields where the water is a foot deep in the tents and the children are up on the beds and there is no food and no fire, and the county has taken off all of the nurses because 'the problem is so great that we can't do anything about it.' So they do nothing. And we found a boy in jail for a felony because he stole two old radiators because his mother was starving to death and in stealing them he broke a little padlock on a shed. We'll either spring him or the district attorney will do the rest of his life explaining. But you see what I mean. It is the most heartbreaking thing in the world. If Life does use the stuff there will be lots of pictures and swell ones. It will give you an idea of the kind of people they are and the kind of faces. I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person's effort can't really do anything doesn't seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money. I can't rationalize it for myself anyway. So don't get me a job for a slick. I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this."

For a while, he thought his best chance of delivering that tag of shame was through newspapers. But they were only so effective, and Life didn't publish the piece. So Steinbeck started to work on a novel. He gave himself a deadline of 100 days, and he stuck to it. He kept a journal as he worked, and in his 97th entry he imagined that his main character, Tom Joad, was there with him — he wrote: "'Tom! Tom! Tom!' I know. It wasn't him. Yes, I think I can go on now. In fact, I feel stronger. Much stronger. Funny where the energy comes from. Now to work, only now it isn't work any more." But by the 100th entry, he wrote: "I am so dizzy I can hardly see the page." And then, later in the day: "Finished this day — and I hope to God it's good." That was October 26th, 1938.

Steinbeck reworked The Grapes of Wrath over and over, and it was published on this day in 1939. Plenty of people objected to its political agenda, especially the Associated Farmers of California, who called it "a pack of lies," and not all critics appreciated it either — one called it a "mess of silly propagands [...] and scatagorical talk," another complained that "social awareness outruns artistic skill." In The New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman insisted that the ending was terrible, but then he declared that it might be the Great American Novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize and it was a huge best seller. By the end of April, it was selling 2,500 copies a day, and it was the highest-selling book of 1939, with about half a million copies sold by the end of the year.

Steinbeck didn't expect the book to be popular — he told Otis, "It is a mean, nasty book and if I could make it nastier I would." In the ending, after the Joad family has fallen apart and the pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby, she breastfeeds a starving man. When his editor suggested he changed the ending, Steinbeck was furious. He said: "I am sorry but I cannot change that ending. It is casual — there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other part of the book — if there is a symbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. To build this stranger into the structure of the book would be to warp the whole meaning of the book. The fact that the Joads don't know him, don't care about him, have no ties to him — that is the emphasis. The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. [...] You know that I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been too carefully chosen and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing — I am not writing a satisfying story. I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied."

It was on this day in 2003 that the Human Genome Project was completed. It was an attempt to map out the DNA structure of humans. Each molecule of DNA contains two strands of material, called nucleotide bases, in some combination of four different chemical units: adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine. The Project aimed to map all 3 billion of those DNA pairings, and determine all human genes. Through mapping out the DNA structure of humans, scientists discovered that humans have between 25,000 and 30,000 genes, fewer than expected — a roundworm, for example, has 19,098 genes, and yeast more than 6,000. The Human Genome Project was a collaboration between scientists in many different countries. It began in 1990 and was expected to take 15 years, but the group actually finished two years ahead of schedule.

In 2000, Bill Clinton said of the Human Genome Project: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life." The Scottish poet Gillian Ferguson was so struck by that statement that she decided to spend the next four years writing poems about genetics, and that became The Human Genome: Poems on the Book of Life. She wrote: "DNA — or, deoxyribonucleic acid — / a mouthful which should be a poem; / adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, / which should be the names of angels — / creative bond of adenine with thymine, / cytosine with guanine; A to T, C to G, / which is love, / as chemistry."

It was on this day in 1865 that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while he was watching a comedy called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was just five days after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to the Union Army. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, snuck up behind Lincoln in his theater box and shot him in the head from behind. The bullet lodged behind his right eye, and he was paralyzed and died nine hours later, in the morning of April 15th.

Booth had wanted to assassinate Lincoln for years. He was present at his second inauguration, in 1865, and said afterward: "What an excellent chance I had to kill the president, if I had wished, on inauguration day!" But it was Lee's surrender that drove Booth to action. He had several co-conspirators, and two accomplices were in charge of killing Lincoln's secretary of state, William Henry Seward, and the vice president, Andrew Johnson. One of the men snuck into Seward's home and slashed his throat where he lay in bed recuperating from a carriage accident — luckily for Seward, he was wearing a metal neck brace, and he was wounded but survived. The accomplice in charge of Andrew Johnson's murder chickened out and never even tried.

Abraham Lincoln's body was laid out in state in the East Room of the White House, where 25,000 people came to pay their respects on the first day alone. After the funeral, Lincoln's body was put on a funeral train that retraced his steps from Springfield to Washington. Seven million people turned out to see the train go by over the course of the trip — some crowded on city sidewalks, others standing in their farm fields.

Walt Whitman deeply admired Lincoln — he said, "After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else." In 1856, four years before Lincoln's inauguration, Whitman had written: "I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies, and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man, possessing the due requirements, before any other candidate." Sure enough, Abraham Lincoln turned up, and Whitman immediately recognized that the president had what he called "a good soul." Whitman wrote some of his most beloved poems about Lincoln's death, including "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!"

He wrote:
"Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep — for the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands ... and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim."

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




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