May 16, 2012

People Who Live

by Erica Jong

People who live by the sea
understand eternity.
They copy the curves of the waves,
their hearts beat with the tides,
& the saltiness of their blood
corresponds with the sea.

They know that the house of flesh
is only a sandcastle
built on the shore,
that skin breaks
under the waves
like sand under the soles
of the first walker on the beach
when the tide recedes.

Each of us walks there once,
watching the bubbles
rise up through the sand
like ascending souls,
tracing the line of the foam,
drawing our index fingers
along the horizon
pointing home.

"People Who Live" by Erica Jong, from Becoming Light. © Harper Perennial, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet Adrienne Rich (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1929. Both her parents loved books, and her father, a doctor, encouraged her to write poems even when she was just a young girl. So she studied the poets in her father's library—all of them men—and she adopted their conventional, formal style to write about feminism and sexuality and identity.

Rich wrote two dozen volumes of poetry, including A Change of World (1951), and Diving Into the Wreck (1973). She also published several books of prose. She passed away this March, from complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

Rich said, "You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it." And "Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone."

On this date in 1763, James Boswell (books by this author) and Samuel Johnson (books by this author) met for the first time. Johnson, 53, was a well-known man of letters, and he had recently finished a momentous project: a 42,000-word dictionary of the English language, which he produced almost single-handedly. Boswell, who was 22, admired Johnson immensely. He began frequenting the author's favorite bookshop and one day the two were introduced. They got off to a rocky start, as Johnson could be prickly, but Boswell persisted. Over time Johnson began to warm to the young man.

A big journal-keeper, Boswell took meticulous notes in shorthand whenever the two were together, and would often provoke Johnson into talking about himself. At one point Johnson, annoyed, said, "Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both." They still enjoyed each other's company, and in 1773, Johnson joined Boswell for a tour of the Scottish Highlands. After Johnson died, Boswell published an account of their trip, called The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). The journal ended up being the first installment of Boswell's magnum opus, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). It's been called the greatest biography in the English language.

It's the 100th birthday of the man who called himself "a guerilla journalist with a tape recorder": Louis "Studs" Terkel (books by this author). He was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1912, just three weeks after the Titanic sank. His family moved to Chicago when he was 11, where his father opened a boarding house. It was there that young Louis met the kinds of people—workers, drifters, and activists—that would become so influential on his life's work. "It was those loners — argumentative ones, deceptively quiet ones, the talkers and the walkers — who, always engaged in something outside themselves, unintentionally became my mentors," he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Touch and Go.

Terkel studied law at the University of Chicago, and he picked up a nickname: Studs, after the hero of James T. Ferrell's "Studs Lonigan" trilogy. Terkel never practiced law, but he wrote plays for the Federal Writers' Project, and worked as a radio producer, a disc jockey, and even an actor. He had his own TV show for a while, called Studs' Place, but was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with Senator McCarthy's investigation.

When he was 55, a British publisher approached him about producing a book of interviews with ordinary Americans. That book, Division Street: America (1967), launched a new career for Terkel as an oral historian. He ended up writing several books in that same style—books on race, the elderly, faith, and working. In 1985, he won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II (1984).

He died in October 2008, at the age of 96. His last book, P.S. Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was published the following month. Before his death, he said he wanted his epitaph to read, "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

The United States Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 on this date. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer spearheaded the law expanding on of the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a federal crime to pass along information that would interfere with the military's involvement in the first World War. The series of amendments called the Sedition Act took this a step further, making it illegal to "willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, [...] or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States." It also gave the Postmaster General permission to refuse to deliver mail that was similarly seditious.

One high-profile prosecution under the Sedition Act of 1918 was that of Eugene V. Debs. He was a socialist and a labor organizer, and had run for president on four occasions. In June 1918, a month after the Sedition Act passed, Debs gave an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio. He was promptly arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction on the grounds that he had knowingly acted to impede the war effort. The court ruled that in certain circumstances, First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly could be restricted. The act was repealed on December 13, 1920. Debs was released the following year, after President Harding commuted his sentence.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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