Sep. 22, 2011

Three-Legged Blues

by Jane Hirshfield

Always you were given
one too many, one too few.
What almost happens, doesn't.
What might be lost, you'll lose.
The crows will eat your garden.
Weeds will get what's left.
Your cats will be three-legged,
your house's mice be blessed.
One friend will take your husband,
another wear your dress.
No, it isn't what you wanted.
It isn't what you'd choose.
Your floors have always slanted.
Your roof has paid its dues.
Life delivered you a present—
a too-small pair of shoes.
What almost happened, won't now.
What can be lost, you'll lose.

"Three-Legged Blues" by Jane Hirshfield, from Come, Thief. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1692, eight citizens of the colony of Massachusetts were hanged for their supposed connections to witchcraft. Theirs were the last of the deaths caused by the Salem Witch Trials, preceded by 11 other hangings, plus five who died in prison, and one who was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea.

A period that roughly spanned the spring and summer of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials started when two young girls began displaying bizarre behaviors — convulsing, shouting blasphemy, and generally acting like they were possessed. The girls were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, a minister relatively new to town but already divisive. He'd moved from Boston, where an account of young children who were supposedly "bewitched" by a laundress was published. Parris had insisted on a higher salary and certain perks as the village reverend, and insinuated in his sermons that those who opposed him were in cahoots with the Devil.

After the girls' behavior gained attention and was pronounced the result of an evil spell, several other girls in town began acting strangely too ... and began naming individuals in town as the cause. The town was whipped into a frenzy, and soon dozens of people — women, men, and children — were accused of and often jailed for practicing or supporting witchcraft. Many of the accusations seemed to fall along the lines of existing feuds, or were directed at people who were — because they were poor, not upstanding members of the church, or marginalized in some way — not likely to mount a convincing defense.

By the time the final eight people were hanged on September 22, word about the trials was spreading throughout the state. Within weeks the governor of Massachusetts declared "spectral evidence," or visions of a person's spirit doing evil when in fact their physical body was elsewhere, was inadmissible. Soon after, he barred any further arrests, disbanded the local court, and released many of the accused. It wasn't until the following spring that he finally pardoned those who remained in jail. A full decade passed before the trials of 1692 were officially declared illegal, another nine before the names of the accused were cleared from all wrongdoing and their heirs given a restitution, and 265 years before the state of Massachusetts apologized for the events of that most infamous witch hunt.

It's the birthday of humorist and Algonquin Round Table wit Frank Sullivan (books by this author), born in Saratoga Springs, New York (1892). Sullivan began his writing career reporting for the local newspaper while he was still in high school; after he was discharged from service in WWI, he moved to New York City and began writing for the Herald, then the Sun, and finally the World. It was there that his comic gifts were noticed, and he was given a humor column. He continued writing it until the World folded in 1931; meanwhile, he'd begun writing humor pieces for a new magazine, The New Yorker. There, in addition to becoming a member of the Algonquin Round Table, the sharp-tongued group of literary notables that met regularly in the Algonquin bar, he became known for creating characters like "the forgotten Bach," a tone deaf member of the Bach family, and the star of his most famous recurring column, "the Cliché Expert," a chucklehead who speaks entirely in clichés and received wisdom. Sullivan also published 42 of the magazine's beloved annual "Greetings, Friends!" Christmas poems, a tradition that was taken up by Roger Angell.

In addition to writing humorous essays for many other publications, Sullivan published a dozen humor books over his lifetime, with titles like Broccoli and Old Lace, A Pearl in Every Oyster, and A Rock in Every Snowball.

It's the birthday of British novelist Rosamunde Pilcher (books by this author), born Rosamunde Scott in Cornwall, England (1924). The author of 27 books — romance novels and popular women's fiction — Pilcher is best known for her 1985 The Shell Seekers, a worldwide best-seller that described what it was like to live in Britain during WWII. Its success helped her 14 grandchildren go to college, but it didn't change her life "stupidly," as she said, with mink coats or Rolls Royces.

Pilcher's most recent book was Winter Solstice, published in 2000. She told the trade publication Book Reporter then that she was unlikely to write another book, adding, "But we shall see." Pilcher turns 87 today.

She said, "Budding authors, be self-disciplined. It is a lonely job. And LISTEN to experts."

It's the birthday of author Fay Weldon (books by this author), born Franklin Birkinshaw in Worcestershire, England (1931). Weldon grew up in New Zealand until the age of 14, when, some years after her parents' divorce, she moved with her mother and sister to live with her grandmother in England. She never saw her father again, and believed until she went to college that "the world was peopled by females." She attended St. Andrews in Scotland, where she studied Economics and Psychology; her acceptance, she believes, was based on the fact that the school assumed, given her Christian name of Franklin, that she was male. After graduation she married, divorced, and worked as an advertising copywriter to support herself and her young son.

Her early life set her up, perhaps, to write books that are famous for their investigation — and criticism — of a modern society still under the sway of an antiquated patriarchal structure. Often referred to as a feminist icon, Weldon is revered for cultural commentary that is sharp, funny, and highly intelligent, meaning books like The Fat Woman's Joke (her first), The Life and Loves of a She Devil (her best known), and Chalcot Crescent (her most recent) that successfully straddle the divide between mainstream and literary, receiving both critical and popular acclaim.

Weldon said: "I see myself as someone who drops tiny crumbs of nourishment, in the form of comment and conversation, into the black enormous maw of the world's discontent. I will never fill it up or shut it up; but it seems my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to attempt to do so, however ineptly. See me as Sisyphus, but having a good time."

On this day in 1888, the newly established National Geographic Society began producing the National Geographic magazine, a scientific journal with no photographs, for their 165 members. The small group of men had as their mission "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge."

In spite of its global interests, National Geographic was rather a family affair when it started. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, an early investor in the first telephone company, was the first president of the Society; when he died, his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, took over. Bell personally financed the expansion of the magazine, hiring Gilbert Grosvenor, the man who would soon become his son-in-law, as the editor-in-chief. Grosvenor eventually took over as the Society's president ... and then his son held the position ... and then his grandson.

Along the way, the magazine transformed from a dry, scholarly periodical with a dull brown cover to one renowned for its coveted maps and pioneering photography, and the Society grew from a small, elite group to one with millions of members, funding projects like Jane Goodall's studies of chimps and Jacques Cousteau's underwater exploration. All of which suggests, given the five consecutive generations of family members at its helm, that nepotism isn't always a bad thing.

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that put the Confederacy on notice of his intention to free their slaves. They had until January 1, he said, to lay down their arms; after that, any slave within a rebelling state would be "then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although he didn't make a point of it, his proclamation — both this preliminary one, and the official one he made at the first of the new year, when the deadline arrived — did not free all slaves; those living in border states, for example, would remain enslaved. Nor did Lincoln have, of course, any way to actually enforce a liberated slave's freedom; other than promising to no longer aid in the capture of fleeing slaves, his promised emancipation relied entirely on the Union eventually winning the war.

But continuing to fight was exactly what Lincoln hoped to avoid with his announcement. The preliminary document emphasized his wish for the reunification of the United States; as such, he hoped to pay slave owners some kind of restitution for their voluntary adoption of either an immediate or a gradual abolishment of slavery. Any state that had seceded had 100 days to accept Lincoln's offer — to give up slavery in return for monetary compensation. None had any interest in his proposed compromise, and so, as promised, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1.

The official executive order carried a huge philosophical and moral weight, confirming that the war was and had been one that centered on freedom, and is considered perhaps the most important milestone in the struggle to end American slavery. But the political maneuvering in that preliminary document did not go unnoticed or unremarked. Its other signer was Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, who complained, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

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