Jul. 26, 2014

You Were Asleep

by James Laughlin

when I came to bed all
curled up like a child

under the blanket and
when I slipped in be-

side you as quietly as
I could you stirred but

didn't really wake and
stretched out a hand to

cup my face as if you were
holding a bowl or a ball.

"You Were Asleep" by James Laughlin, from The Collected Poems of James Laughlin. © New Directions, 2014 . Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of humorist Jean Shepherd (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1921). He's remembered for the autobiographical stories he told on the radio about a boy named Ralph Parker growing up in Hohman, Indiana. One of his stories was made into the movie A Christmas Story (1983), which he narrated. It's about a boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas, even though every adult in his life says that he'll shoot his eye out.

The stories Shepherd told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote them down and published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (1967) and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1972).

Jean Shepherd said: "Some men are Baptists, others Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man."

It's the birthday of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin (1856). He's the author of dozens of plays, including Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923).

It's the birthday of Carl Jung (books by this author), born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that myths and fairytales from all kinds of different cultures have certain similarities. He called these similarities archetypes, and he believed that archetypes come from a collective unconscious that all humans share.

It was on this day in 1775 that the Continental Congress established the Postal System. In the early days of colonial America, there was no centralized system for transporting correspondence — merchants or slaves carried letters between towns, and taverns or inns collected overseas mail. Early American settlements were coastal and relatively isolated from each other. Most mail was transatlantic, going from colonists to friends or relatives back in Europe. Mail that needed to be transported within the colonies was carried by postal riders, who rode alone through dense wilderness, marking the way by slashing marks into trees with axes.

In 1707, the British Crown officially took over the North American postal system, and appointed a series of postmasters general. One of these was Benjamin Franklin, who worked hard to make the system more organized and efficient. He went on a 1,600-mile journey to inspect post offices. He established a weekly mail wagon between Philadelphia and Boston. Mail was delivered by employees on horseback, and Franklin had them ride in shifts and continue through the night, by lantern light, so that mail took only half as long to reach its destination as it had before. He coordinated postal routes all the way from Maine to Florida, and transatlantic mail moved on a schedule. Under his leadership, the postal system finally made a profit.

In January of 1774, Franklin was fired from his post for being sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. By that point, revolutionaries had set up alternative systems to deliver mail without the Crown's knowledge. These systems were invaluable for secret correspondence, but also as a way to publicize revolutionary materials to a wider audience — otherwise, when the revolutionaries published anti-British newspapers and pamphlets, the Crown post simply refused to deliver them. Americans supported the alternative mail systems as one more way to boycott England — the Crown mail service came to be seen as a form of taxation. Soon, this alternative system became the more popular and profitable of the two. A British surveyor-general wrote: "It is next to impossible to put a stop to this practice in the present universal opposition to every thing connected with Great Britain. Were any Deputy Post Master to do his duty, and make a stir in such matter, he would draw on himself the odium of his neighbours and be mark'd as the friend of Slavery and oppression and a declar'd enemy to America."

In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress formed a committee to determine the best way of organizing this new alternative system. The six committee members, including Franklin and Samuel Adams, spent two months deliberating, and delivered a report on July 25th. The following day — on this day in 1775 — it was approved by the Congress, and the Postal System was established. Franklin was unanimously elected as postmaster general, with an annual salary of $1,000.

In 1782, a man named Ebenezer Hazard was named as the United States postmaster general. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "My own Attention has been so constantly necessary that I have not had time for proper Relaxation; & in three years past have not been to the Distance of ten miles from this City. I once hired a Clerk, but found my Salary was not equal to that Expence in addition to the support of my Family, & was obliged to dismiss him." By 1789, there were about 4 million people living in the new United States, using 75 post offices and 2,400 miles of postal roads.

Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey (1894). He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist and man of letters who was known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley wrote a few novels that satirized English literary society, and these established him as a writer; it was his fifth book, Brave New World (1932), which arose out of his distrust of 20th-century politics and technology, for which he is most remembered. Huxley started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford's assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

Brave New World is often compared with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. ... In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us."

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