May 31, 2014

Sins of the Fathers

by Mark Vinz

My daughter wants the car tonight, no,
needs the car tonight—to go somewhere,
to do some things, you know, be back
before it gets too late, of course,
if I say so, which I always do,
of course. I trust her—it's the others
I don't trust, the others I worry about,
and round we go again.

Headlights pass the driveway—
I study every shadow on the wall,
each voice from the dark street,
and laughter—faint, familiar
laughter, rising and falling
on every breath of wind.

"Sins of the Fathers" by Mark Vinz from Mixed Blessings. © Spoon River Poetry Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission.

On this day, George Washington signed into law the Copyright Act of 1790, the first federal copyright act in the United States. Development of copyright law wasn't a priority in the primarily agrarian colonies, but in 1783 several authors petitioned the Continental Congress, saying, "Nothing is more properly a man's own than the fruit of his study, and the protection and security of literary property would greatly tend to encourage genius and to promote useful discoveries." The Copyright Act of 1790 granted copyrights to American citizens for books, maps, and charts for a term of 14 years, with a possible extension of another 14 should the author still be living when it ran out.

It's the birthday of comedian Fred Allen, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894. He worked nights at the Boston Public Library when he was in high school in Boston, and one night he came across a book about comedy that fascinated him. So, he began to collect jokes and also taught himself to juggle, and that was his start in vaudeville as a comic juggler. He got into radio with an hourlong show of his own, Town Hall Tonight, 1934, which was later renamed The Fred Allen Show. He wrote most of his own material and was famous for his satire and for poking fun at his corporate sponsors.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Jonis Agee (books by this author), born in Omaha in 1943. Her first collection of short stories was Pretend We've Never Met (1989), which introduces the reader to the fictional town of Divinity, Iowa, which is also the setting of her novel Sweet Eyes (2003). Her most recent novel is The River Wife (2007).

It's the birthday of writer Bailey White (books by this author), born in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1950. She was a first-grade teacher in her hometown when she started doing commentaries for NPR's All Things Considered. She has published two memoirs, Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living (2009) and Sleeping at the Starlite Motel, and Other Adventures of the Way Back Home (1996). She also has a collection of Thanksgiving stories called Nothing with Strings (2008).

It was on this day in 1669 that Samuel Pepys (books by this author) wrote in his diary for the last time after keeping it regularly for 10 years. Pepys ended the diary because he thought he was going blind. His eyesight got better after a few months, and he lived another 33 years, but he never wrote in his diary again.

It's the birthday of the man who said: "The public is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you're there." That's the poet Walt Whitman (books by this author), born in West Hills, New York (1819). Throughout his long career as a poet, Whitman constantly revised and republished his great work, Leaves of Grass —a total of nine editions were published during his lifetime. In the original 1855 edition, his name did not appear on either the cover or the title page. Instead, he included an engraving of himself, wearing work clothes, one hand on his hip and his head cocked. Scholars have discovered that there are two versions of the engraving, and in one of them the bulge of Whitman's crotch is noticeably larger. He identified himself partway through the first poem: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual ... eating drinking and breeding." He also wrote: "I [...] make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipped."

Whitman designed, published, and paid for the first edition. It contained 12 poems and was 95 pages long. The type was handset, and Whitman set some of it himself. He stopped the press twice during the printing to make corrections — he changed a typo, and a third of the way through the printing, he changed "And the night is for you and me and all" to "And the day and night are for you and me and all." Since he had to pay for them, he sold the uncorrected versions as well. Sometimes the type jostled around or even fell off. For 150 years after the publication, literary critics debated Whitman's decision to end "Song of Myself" with no period, and interpreted it as a metaphor. But it turns out that the period was there when Whitman proofread the book, and it fell off sometime during the printing.

Leaves of Grass was sold at the "Phrenological Cabinet" of Fowler and Wells. Phrenology was a phenomenon in which peoples' skulls were "read" for information about their intelligence, personality, etc. A few years before, Whitman had gone to Fowler and Wells to have his skull read, and he was delighted by the results, which deduced that the poet had high quantities of Amativeness, Self-Esteem, Individuality, and "animal will." Throughout his life, he quoted from the analysis as a way to promote his writing. Fowler and Wells published the second edition of Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass got some excellent reviews, many of which were written by Whitman himself. In one anonymous review, he wrote: "An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old." In another: "Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint from top to toe [...] ample limbed, weight a hundred and eighty-five pounds, age thirty-six years — never dressed in black [...] face not refined or intellectual, but calm and wholesome — a face of an unaffected animal — a face that absorbs the sunshine and meets savage or gentleman on equal terms."

Whitman freely quoted from his own reviews in future editions of Leaves of Grass. His crown jewel was not his own reviews, but a letter received from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Although Emerson intended his letter to be private correspondence, Whitman reprinted Emerson's entire letter in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, and he had a phrase from the letter printed in gold leaf on the spine: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career."

One of the most famous photos of Whitman appeared in the 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass, showing the white-bearded poet sitting in a lawn chair, wearing a cardigan sweater, and marveling at a butterfly that has landed on his finger. Fifty years later, a scholar discovered that the butterfly was cardboard, wrapped on Whitman's finger with some twine.

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