Oct. 3, 2011

The Old Oaken Bucket

by Samuel Woodworth

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
    When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood,
    And every loved spot which my infancy knew;
The wide-spreading pond, and the mill that stood by it;
    The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy-house nigh it,
    And e'en the rude bucket which hung in the well!
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket
    The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.

"The Old Oaken Bucket" by Samuel Woodworth, from The Old Oaken Bucket. Public domain. (buy now)

On this date in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) was found unkempt and delirious outside a pub in Baltimore. He had been en route from Richmond to Philadelphia on a business trip, and stopped off in Baltimore on September 28 for reasons known only to him. He was found on Lombard Street, outside Ryan's Tavern, and he appeared to be dressed in someone else's clothing. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness — occasionally lucid but often delirious or combative — until he died four days later. He was never able to tell how he came to be in such a state; newspapers reported "congestion of the brain" as the cause of death, but there was no death certificate and no autopsy, and the reason for his demise remains a mystery, though his biographers have put forward several theories.

Because he was found outside a tavern, many people assumed he'd gone on a bender, even though he'd sworn off alcohol six months earlier. The temperance movement was quick to point to Poe as a cautionary tale. Another theory holds that Poe was the victim of "cooping," in which political gangs would kidnap people, imprison them, drug them, beat them, and force them to vote repeatedly at polling places all over the city, wearing an assortment of disguises. Ryan's Tavern was also a polling place, and Poe was found on election day; what's more, his clothes were ill-fitting, dirty, and threadbare, which didn't jive with Poe's reputation as a natty dresser.

Much of the Poe legend — namely that he was a drunk and a madman with few friends and no morals — originated with an obituary and memoir written by Rufus Griswold, a literary rival and the subject of one of Poe's scathing reviews. Griswold spread rumors about the recently deceased Poe in an attempt to scuttle sales of Poe's books, but the rumors had the opposite effect. Griswold is now remembered as Poe's first biographer; his own literary output has long since been forgotten.

Poe was buried at the Westminster Hall and Burial Ground in Baltimore. In 1949, 100 years after his death, a stranger paid a visit to the cemetery in the wee hours of January 19, which was Poe's birthday. The stranger, presumed to be a man, was dressed in a black coat and hat, and his face was obscured with a scarf; he drank a cognac toast to Poe and left the rest of the bottle, along with three meticulously arranged red roses, on his grave. Thus began a tradition that lasted 60 years. The "Poe Toaster," as he became known, would slip in surreptitiously, leave his tribute, and disappear into the night. Although onlookers occasionally glimpsed him, his identity was never revealed. He died in 1998, after passing the tradition on to his son, according to a note that was left with the bottle and roses. The last visit by the Poe Toaster was in 2009; he may have died, or perhaps the ending was planned to mark the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth in 1809. Other fans, known as "faux Toasters," have carried on the tradition for the last two years, but the original Toaster appears to have retired.

Today is the birthday of novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900) (books by this author). He was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children. His father was a stonecutter; his mother ran a boardinghouse and had a knack for real estate speculation. Wolfe's parents appeared in his novels as Oliver and Eliza Gant, the parents of his literary alter ego, Eugene. Wolfe originally wanted to be a playwright, and he wrote and acted in several plays at the University of North Carolina and, later, at Harvard. He moved to New York in 1923 and taught playwriting at New York University's Washington Square College; it was on a trip abroad in 1926 that he first turned to fiction, and began what would become his most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). The book, like his later work, was a thinly veiled autobiography, and his depictions of people and places caused a fair amount of turmoil in his family and among the citizens of Asheville.

Wolfe's novels — like his plays before them — were often excessively long. Wolfe gained a reputation, only partially deserved, for being a rambling, disorganized writer whose novels demanded the firm hand of an editor. A hundred pages of Look Homeward, Angel were excised by the time the book went to press, and Wolfe was grateful — at first — to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, for taking it on. Later, he grew resentful that Perkins was given much of the credit for his books' success, and he left Scribner's for a new publisher, Harper Bros.

Wolfe was on a trip to Seattle in 1938 when he came down with pneumonia, which turned into miliary tuberculosis of the brain. He died 18 days before his 38th birthday. An unsigned article that appeared in The New York Times the next day said, "There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression which might have carried him to the heights and might equally have torn him down." He left behind enough material for two new novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940).

He wrote: "'Give us back our well-worn husk,' they said, 'where we were so snug and comfortable.' And then they tried word magic. 'Conditions are fundamentally sound,' they said  — by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, forever and ever, amen. But they were wrong. They did not know that you can't go home again."

It's the birthday of Gore Vidal (1925) (books by this author). He was born Eugene Luther Vidal at the West Point Academy in New York, where his father was an instructor. He changed his first name when he was a teenager, to honor his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist senator from Oklahoma. Eugene grew up in his grandfather's house near Washington, D.C., after his parents divorced, and it was from his grandfather that he inherited a keen interest in politics and history.

He published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946, at the tender age of 20. He wrote it in the spare style of Hemingway, and it was inspired by his experiences as first mate on an Army supply ship. Critics loved it, but they were less enthusiastic about his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), whose frank depiction of homosexuality shocked many mid-century readers. The New York Times refused to review his next five novels, and he's never forgiven the paper, saying it "never found a well it could not poison." It didn't stop him writing, though, and over the next 10 years he continued to produce novels with subjects as diverse as medieval legend, Central America, and classical antiquity. He's well known for his works of historical fiction — such as Julian (1964), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984). And his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, a satire about a transsexual, was an international best-seller. The New York Times grudgingly called it "witty"; it also called it "repulsive" and "a funny novel, but it requires an iron stomach."

In the mid-1950s he branched out even further, writing a series of potboiler mysteries under the pen name "Edgar Box." He also proved himself as a successful television writer, penning 20 dramas and literary adaptations for the small screen. He adapted one of his original teleplays, Visit to a Small Planet (1955), for the stage, and it became a hit on Broadway; he also wrote several original and adapted screenplays in Hollywood. And he began publishing essays of social and political criticism, which have been gathered every decade or so into best-selling collections. In recent years, he's announced that he's given up the long-form novel, preferring to focus on nonfiction. He's written two memoirs (Palimpsest in 1995 and Point to Point Navigation in 2006), and several book-length essays on American history and politics.

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