Apr. 30, 2011

Clay County

by John Hodgen

Just past Kellie Mae's Klip 'n' Dip Beauty Salon
and the cement slab, cinder blocks, and rusty tin roof
of the Lawtey Grace Community Evangelical Church,
and behind the saw grass and scrub brush along Pitchkettle Road,
a young black girl stands dawdling with one foot behind the other,
her toe digging rhythmically into the red clay of her driveway,
her heel wagging cozily like a cat's tail, a metronome,
as she talks to a young man on a motorcycle,
his red helmet still on, true biker of love.

And just before the buckwheat field that opens lonely as grace,
the field with the massive trees in the middle, shattered by
a slender roan horse feeds under its basilica of broken branches,
because he knows that is the place
where the soft tufts of grass
taste the sweetest.

"Clay County" by John Hodgen, from Grace. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president of the United States. He chose to follow the oath with an inaugural address, as every president since then has done. He kept to generalities and concluded with a request for "divine blessing" on this fledgling nation.

Washington is the only president to receive 100 percent of the Electoral College votes, and he reluctantly left his retirement at Mount Vernon to take the office that he never sought. He was very conscious that his every act would set a precedent for the nation, and he also rejected any ceremony or protocol that resembled the royal courts of Europe. He insisted on the modest title "Mr. President."

Almost every American schoolkid can tell you about Washington's wooden teeth — it's the most enduring story about him, after the cherry tree incident. He started losing his teeth in his 20s, and while he did have at least four sets of dentures, there wasn't a wooden set among them. Forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian determined that they were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth. They were also highly uncomfortable, and the brevity of his second inaugural address, as well as his expression on some of his portraits, are probably due to mouth pain.

On this day in 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from the French. More specifically, the United States bought France's "claim" to the Louisiana Territory. The actual land belonged to the various Indian nations that lived on it, and the U.S. government acquired it gradually, through purchase and war, over the rest of the 19th century.

The Louisiana Purchase cost $15 million — less than three cents an acre — which we borrowed from European banks at 6 percent interest. It was a smoking deal, since Jefferson had been willing to pay $10 million for the port of New Orleans alone. The territory covered 828,000 square miles, stretching from present-day Louisiana north to Canada, and as far west as the border of Idaho, doubling the geographical area of the United States.

Today is the birthday of Alice B. (for Babette) Toklas (1877) (books by this author). Though she is best known as Gertrude Stein's partner, she also wrote three books, none of which is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — that was the title Gertrude Stein gave her own autobiography, written from the point of view of her lover. And the term "lover" is unduly limiting: Toklas was also Stein's typist, cook, secretary, editor, critic, housekeeper, and co-host of a series of salons that included such luminaries as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Matisse.

A love of Henry James inspired her to visit Europe, and that's where she met Stein, who was living in Paris, in 1907. They were together until Stein's death in 1946. Toklas published The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954; it was a collection of recipes gleaned from her friends, seasoned liberally with reminiscences of her life with Stein. Its most notorious recipe was donated by avant-garde artist and poet Brion Gysin, and in his introduction to the recipe he promises "euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better." The recipe was for "Haschich [Hashish] Fudge," and though Toklas claimed she never tested it, it led some readers to speculate about the role that cannabis had played in Stein's more abstract verses."

And it's the birthday of author John Boyne (books by this author), born in Dublin in 1971. He knew he wanted to be a writer ever since he was about 14, and after college, where he studied literature and creative writing, he took a job at Waterstone's bookstore in Dublin. He'd write for a few hours each morning, and then edit between customers at the cash register. After publication of his third novel, he was able to quit his bookselling job and write full-time.

He's published about 70 short stories and eight novels, including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), which he wrote a draft of in two and a half days. He told an interviewer, "On Tuesday night I had the idea. On Wednesday morning I started writing, and by Friday lunchtime I had the first draft."

His ninth novel, The Absolutist, will be published later this year.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of John Crowe Ransom (books by this author), born in Pulaski, Tennessee (1888). He started out as a passionate literature professor whose students included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. At first, his students thought he was a terrible teacher because he forced them to read literature so slowly, sometimes spending an entire hour looking at a single line of poetry. He went on to found The Kenyon Review, and he became one of the most important literary critics of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of nature writer Annie Dillard (books by this author), born Ann Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). She got married and then settled down in suburban Roanoke, where she started writing and publishing poems. In the backyard of her house, there was a tiny stream called Tinker Creek. After she survived a near fatal case of pneumonia, she started sitting by the creek every day, watching the ordinary bugs and birds and frogs and minnows, and writing about them in her journal. Along with her observations of the creek, she also began jotting down odd bits of information, interesting quotations, scientific data, and theological speculations. She eventually combined all of the bits and pieces in the book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).

Dillard considered Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a work of theology; she said, "I thought forty monks would read it." But it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a best-seller. Dillard was in the kitchen washing lettuce when a friend called to tell her that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. She said, "What I felt at the time was that I had to finish washing the lettuce."

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