May 30, 2011

I have no Life but this

by Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —

"'I have no Life but this'" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

Today is Memorial Day. It became a holiday after the Civil War, to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in battle, and after World War I it was extended to honor all United States soldiers who died in any war. It happens to fall this year on May 30, which was the original date for the holiday; Union general John Logan chose the 30th specifically because it was not the anniversary of any battle. But in 1968, Congress's Uniform Holidays Act severed the link between Memorial Day and the original date, changing it instead to "the last Monday in May" to allow for a three-day weekend. Some are opposed to the switch, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye; they believe people have lost sight of the original meaning of the holiday, a day for reconciliation and honor. It has lately become a holiday for families to remember anyone they have lost (veteran or otherwise), to lay flowers at gravesites, and, in later years, barbecue, shop, and watch the Indianapolis 500. For those unable to travel to the graves of their loved ones, there are websites like, where one can create a cyber-monument and leave a "virtual" note or bouquet.

Some choose to visit the grave of a favorite author. Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) served in the Red Cross during World War I and his grave, in the Municipal Cemetery, is one of the main tourist attractions of Ketchum, Idaho, where he was living at the time of his suicide in 1961. Fans leave bottles of liquor, and pennies, as though Papa could grant their wishes.

Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) once wrote: "I wouldn't mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some graveyard. That is really a happy thought, and not melancholy at all." He's buried in Rockville, Maryland, at St. Mary's Cemetery. As a nonpracticing Catholic, he was originally denied burial in the church graveyard, but his daughter, Scottie, appealed the diocese's decision, and his — and Zelda's — remains were moved from Rockville Union Cemetery in 1975. Their graves are occasionally adorned with packs of cigarettes, martini glasses, and gin bottles alongside the flowers.

John Keats (books by this author) was buried in Rome, and he wrote his own epitaph as he lay dying of tuberculosis. It reads, "Here lies One Whose Name was Writ on Water," and he wanted that line to be the only engraving on his nameless stone. He was disheartened by harsh criticism of his "Endymion," or so his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown believed, and so they added the following to his monument: "This Grave contains all that was mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone." Oscar Wilde was so taken with Keats and his final resting place that he wrote an essay — "The Tomb of Keats" — and a sonnet — "The Grave of Keats" — about it. "Thy name was writ in water — it shall stand: And tears like mine will keep thy memory green," wrote Wilde.

If you want to place flowers at Edgar Allan Poe's (books by this author) grave this Memorial Day, you have two choices, both in the same Baltimore cemetery. He's buried at Westminster Presbyterian Church, and at the back of the cemetery you will find a relatively modest raven-bedecked headstone with the inscription "Quoth the Raven, Nevermore." He's not buried there, though. In 1875, a local schoolteacher started a campaign called "Pennies for Poe" to build a more suitable monument, and so you'll find a handsome marble pillar right inside the cemetery gate. It's customary to leave a penny along with your flowers when you call on his monument.

Dylan Thomas (books by this author) is buried under a simple white cross in the seaside town of Laugharne, in Wales. He died in New York City in 1953, after a night of heavy drinking at the White Horse Pub in Greenwich Village, and that's where many of his fans go on pilgrimage; one of the pub's dining rooms has since been christened the "Dylan Thomas" room, and a large portrait of the poet casts a gimlet eye on the tipplers below. The White Horse has been a writers' hangout for years, serving Anaïs Nin, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, and Frank McCourt.

Tolstoy (books by this author) is buried in a small clearing in the woods of Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate. There's no grave marker, only a burial mound. For a while, there was a wooden fence around the grave, to keep visitors from getting too close, but it's disappeared, possibly because visitors kept writing messages on it. The Orthodox Church was concerned that Tolstoy would get the kind of veneration usually reserved for saints, and they discouraged any would-be pilgrims from visiting his burial place, but people came anyway, in droves. During World War II, the Nazis occupied the Tolstoy House — now a museum — for 45 days. They turned it into a hospital, and any German soldiers who died there were buried around Tolstoy's grave. Tolstoy asked to be buried here in these woods, where he played as a child; the clearing is known as "the place of the green wand" because his older brother Nikolai once told him a green stick, on which was written the secret to happiness and long life, was buried there.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, boasts not one, but four, famous American authors' graves. Emerson (books by this author), Thoreau (books by this author), Hawthorne (books by this author), and Louisa May Alcott (books by this author) all rest on its "Authors' Ridge." Emerson delivered the opening address at the cemetery's consecration in 1855, saying, "When these acorns, that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise, and the great will have left their names and virtues on the trees." Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the statue of Lincoln inside his Washington, D.C., monument, is also buried in Sleepy Hollow.

On this day in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. The monument was first proposed in 1867, but construction didn't begin until 1914; the cornerstone was set in 1915. Architect Henry Bacon designed it to resemble the Parthenon, believing that a defender of democracy should be memorialized in a building that pays homage to the birthplace of democracy. The monument has 36 marble columns, one for each state in the union at the time of Lincoln's assassination. On the south wall is inscribed the Gettysburg address, and on the north, his Second Inaugural address. There's a persistent myth that one of the words in the Inaugural Address is misspelled, but it's not true. Stonemasons did accidentally carve an "E" where they meant to carve an "F," but it was filled in immediately and no evidence remains.

The marble and granite chosen for the monument came from Massachusetts, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama. Bacon intended to show the divided nation coming together to build something of lasting significance.

Sculptor Daniel Chester French studied photographs of Lincoln for years; his Lincoln appears somber, even care-worn, one hand closed in a fist and the other in a more relaxed position. Though it's commonly thought that the sculpture's hands are forming the American Sign Language letters "A" and "L," the National Park Service reports that this was French's way to show Lincoln's strength and compassion. There's also a rumor that the profile of Robert E. Lee — or Ulysses S. Grant, or Jefferson Davis — can be seen in the locks of the sculpture's hair, but the National Parks Service insists that these are merely wayward strands.

The monument was dedicated in front of an audience of more than 50,000 people. Even though Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, the audience was segregated; keynote speaker Robert Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute and an African-American, was not permitted to sit on the speakers' platform. Just over 40 years later, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. would give his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of an audience of 200,000.

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