Sep. 25, 2011

Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday

by Jane Piirto

the 3-year-old, wanting to know what day
it is asks everyday what day it is
we tell her Tuesday or Saturday etcetera
then she asks what day it will be
tomorrow and we go through the naming
of tomorrows in order
chanting the future like a litany

tomorrow is when she wakes up
in the morning and when we tell her
we'll go shopping tomorrow she
remembers yesterday and informs us
that it is tomorrow that today is
yesterday that therefore the time is
always now to do what we plan to do

"Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday" by Jane Piirto, from Saunas. © Mayapple Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of William Faulkner (books by this author), born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). Faulkner was named for his great-grandfather, a Civil War colonel who'd been killed in a duel, but the family name he inherited was indeed Falkner, spelled with no "u." He permanently adopted the additional vowel when applying for the Canadian Royal Air Force, believing it made his name look British. Having already been rejected by the U.S. Army Air Corps because of his height of only five feet six inches, he also lied about his birthplace, for good measure, and adopted a phony British accent.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner was still in training when the First World War ended. This didn't stop him from returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, the town where he'd grown up, sporting an officer's uniform and claiming to have a silver plate in his head. He went to Ole Miss for a few semesters as a war veteran, even though he'd never finished high school, but dropped out of that, too.

It was, perhaps, one of the last times Faulkner pretended to be something other than what he was. Of the 19 novels he eventually wrote, 18 were set in the South; 14 of those were set in a fictionalized version of Oxford, the town that he strayed from but always returned to. Many of his characters and their exploits were based on his real-life neighbors and family members — like his great-grandfather.

As much as the rest of the world would always associate Faulkner with the American South, the South didn't always appreciate his representation; Oxford residents alternated between being angered by recognizable depictions in his fiction and disappointed when they weren't included. But it might have been Faulkner's stance on segregation that stirred up the most trouble. He condemned it, putting him at odds even with his own brother, but he also rejected the idea of federal intervention on the issue, putting him at odds with nearly everyone else. The South, he argued, needed time to get used to the idea of integration. When W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a debate on the topic in 1956, Faulkner declined, saying, "I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically." Faulkner believed that a slow and moderate approach to integration was simply a matter of practicality.

He said, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things. ... The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

He also said: "It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago and, like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: he made the books, and he died." His obituaries, when they were written upon his death in 1962, were substantially longer. The epitaph on his grave doesn't mention his books. It reads simply, "Belove'd/ Go With God."

On this day in 1957, 1,000 troops secured Little Rock Central High, allowing nine black students to enter and attend school. It was a historic day in the Civil Rights movement not because it was the first school to desegregate, but because it was the first time federal intervention was used to do so.

When the Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine in 1954, banning segregated public schools, it left up to individual states and communities the issue of how and when integration would proceed. Little Rock had approved a gradual approach; the high school would integrate first, then the middle schools, then elementary. But when the time came for black students to enroll in Central High, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus reneged on the deal, surrounding the school with National Guard troops on the first day of the year to protect people, he claimed, from the caravans of protestors on their way to Little Rock. In fact, the Guard denied entrance to the nine black students who attempted to enroll as a crowd of about 300 people gathered. Within days, the spectacle was over, but the Guard remained, napping on the school's lawn and reading newspapers to pass the time. The approach that Southern moderates like William Faulkner had preached was quickly turning from "go slow" into "don't go."

More than two weeks passed before a federal injunction withdrew the National Guard from the school. When Little Rock police officers escorted the nine black students into school on the morning of September 23, crowds of protestors outside became so menacing that administrators had the students slip out a side entrance before noon.

And so two days later, President Eisenhower ordered the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division stationed in Kentucky to escort the nine black students back in — and ensure they were able to stay. By then, the national media attention on Little Rock had become intense, drawing massive crowds — although, as the school newspaper reminded students, the protestors represented less than 1 percent of the town's population.

Of the "Little Rock Nine," as the black students became known, only three graduated from Central High. Five finished their education elsewhere; one was expelled for responding to the constant harassments of her classmates, once by overturning a bowl of chili on a tormentor. (The bullies went largely unpunished.) All nine credited their parents for encouraging them to enroll — and attend class — despite intense scrutiny and racism.

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Shel Silverstein (books by this author), born Sheldon Allen Silverstein in Chicago (1930). As a youngster himself, he wanted to play baseball or be popular with girls, Silverstein once said, but he couldn't play ball and he couldn't dance. So he wrote and drew to occupy himself, developing a signature style and wit that would delight children all over the world.

It was never his intention. He began his career as a cartoonist while serving in the Korean War, publishing in the military's daily paper; when he returned from duty, he got a job as a staff cartoonist for Playboy magazine, where he also contributed several poems. It wasn't until a fellow illustrator who was finding success publishing for kids put Silverstein in touch with his editor that he was convinced to try writing for children. The blend of witty and wistful that would later become his trademark was initially off-putting to some, who told him his work was too mature for kids, but not enough so for adults. He proved them wrong by publishing four children's books in two years, including his most enduring — and category-defying — The Giving Tree.

Silverstein's playful rhymes and dark humor achieved success for him in another arena too: songwriting. Of his many songs, his most popular may be "A Boy Named Sue." About a man whose deadbeat dad named him "Sue" before he skipped town, the song was quintessential Silverstein: both silly and sad. When Johnny Cash sang it at his famous San Quentin State Prison concert, he was so unsure about whether people would like it he hadn't even bothered to memorize the lyrics. The convicts went wild for the song, as did Cash fans all over the world. It remains pretty popular with kids too.

Silverstein avoided press, refused to go on book tours, and even requested that his publisher not release biographical information about him. As he said in a rare interview with Publisher's Weekly, "I'm free to ... go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else — man, woman, child or dog." Silverstein died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home in Key West, Florida.

On this day in the fictional world of the book The Caine Mutiny, the WWII warship the U.S.S. Caine runs aground. Lieutenant Commander Queeg blames his mistake on his helmsman to avoid the responsibility, but it is the first in a series of mistakes and miscalculations that cause his crew lose respect for him. Eventually, they convince one another that Queeg needs to be relieved of his command: mutiny.

The novel, published by Herman Wouk (books by this author) in 1951, was based on Wouk's own experience at sea during the war. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart as the undermined Navy captain.

On this day in 1690, the colonies' first multipaged newspaper was printed in Boston, named Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. It was also its last printing; gossip about the immoralities of the King of France and a denouncement of the mistreatment of French captives in the French and Indian War angered the local government. Four days after the paper's distribution, the governor and council issued a statement that the paper be "Suppressed and called in," and decreed that any future publications must be first authorized. America's first paper was also its first to be censored.

On this day in 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States proposed 12 amendments to the recently ratified Constitution. Ten of them were ultimately adopted to become what's known as the Bill of Rights.

The amendments were the result of a major compromise between opposing factions, the Federalists — who thought the Constitution was a sound and sufficient document — and the Anti-Federalists, who worried that it gave far too much power to the central government and didn't protect individual freedoms. The two sides were at an impasse, and the Constitution was at risk of being rejected, until an agreement was reached that, if the Constitution was ratified, Congress would add on a bill of rights. The Federalists believed the addition was unnecessary, and the anti-Federalists believed it wasn't enough ... but both sides conceded for the sake of the common good.

The first two amendments, concerning the number of constituents and the payment for Congressmen, were rejected. The other 10, each a single sentence, provided for such rights as the freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, the right to a speedy trial by jury without cruel or unusual punishment, and the right of states to govern themselves in any way not expressly prohibited by the Constitution.

An additional 17 amendments have been added to the Constitution since then. The most recent one, passed in 1992, was that second article proposed and rejected back in 1789, delaying any change to Congress's pay until the following session. The very first article proposed is still pending before state legislatures.

As the anonymous saying goes, "Democracy is cumbersome, slow and inefficient, but in due time, the voice of the people will be heard and their latent wisdom will prevail."

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




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