The Writer’s Almanac for August 6, 2018

“Break, Break, Break” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Public Domain. (buy now)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.


It was on this day in 1964 during a speech in Congress that Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska said, “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy.”

Senator Gruening gave an impassioned plea before the House on this day, urging them to oppose further escalation. But the next day, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing expanded military action in Vietnam. Ernest Gruening was one of only two senators to oppose the resolution; the other one was Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon.

Biographies about Gruening include Robert David Johnson’s Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (1998) and Clause Naske’s Ernest Gruening: Alaska’s Greatest Governor (2004).


It’s the birthday of the man who wrote the famous words “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and also “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” That’s poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, (books by this author) born on this day in Lincolnshire, England (1809).

He’s one of the greatest poets in the English language. He’s the one who wrote “The Lady of Shalott,” that mesmerizing melodramatic ballad based on King Arthur legends, which begins:

“On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye, / That clothe the wold and meet the sky; / And thro’ the field the road runs by / To many-tower’d Camelot;”

He’s the author of “Tears, idle tears” and “Crossing the Bar” and “Break, break, break.” Many consider his masterpiece to be the poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” an elegy for his best friend, Arthur Hallam, whom he’d known since college days. The men were soon to be brothers-in-law, since Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister. But Hallam died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in 1833. Tennyson outlived him by nearly 60 years; he was grief-stricken for decades, and suicidal for long stretches.

He published “In Memoriam A.H.H.” in 1850; it was 17 years after he’d begun working on the poem. In it he writes about how his friend’s death, and his own grief, affected his belief in a Christian God. He wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”


Today is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin. He was born in Lochfield, Scotland, in 1881. He came into his lab one morning in 1928 to discover he’d left the lid off of a petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. The culture had become contaminated by a blue-green mold, and Fleming noted that right around the moldy spots, the bacteria were no longer growing. He isolated the mold and determined it was Penicillium notatum. His first thought was that it would be useful as a surface disinfectant, and he later proved that it was effective against bacterial influenza. He later said, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”


The first execution by electric chair happened on this date in 1890. For almost 10 years, the state of New York had been looking for a more humane method of capital punishment to replace hanging. Alfred Southwick, a dentist from Buffalo, was on the committee. He’s the first one to suggest using electric current, because he’d heard a story about a man who had accidentally touched an exposed power line and died quickly and painlessly.

The development of the electric chair was taking place right in the middle of the decade-long “War of Currents” currently raging in the new field of electrical power. Thomas Edison preferred direct current; Edison’s rivals, including George Westinghouse, favored alternating current. The two factions battled over which current was more effective and safe. When word got out that the state was considering using electricity for capital punishment, Edison quickly realized that no one would want the same kind of current running through their homes that was also being used to execute convicted felons. So he proclaimed that Westinghouse’s alternating current should be used for the electric chair because it was so clearly lethal. Harold Brown, an Edison employee, was hired to design a chair to restrain the condemned and deliver the fatal shock through alternating current. The committee selected the Edison design. Edison’s smear campaign against Westinghouse was so successful that, even though Westinghouse protested the electric chair, refused to supply any AC generators, and funded the appeals of death row inmates, being “Westinghoused” became a euphemism for death by electrocution.

The chair’s first victim was William Kemmler. The execution wasn’t an immediate success. The “state electrician” only gave Kemmler enough juice to knock him out, so they had to try again, but it took a while for the generator to build up enough power to deliver the lethal voltage. The execution took about eight minutes, and Westinghouse later said, “They would have done better using an axe.” 


On this day in 1786, Scotland’s beloved poet and bard Robert Burns (books by this author), best remembered for romantic classics like “Auld Lang Syne” and “A Red, Red Rose,” stood before his church a third and final time as public penance for “antenuptial fornication” with Jean Armour.

Pregnant with fraternal twins she would name after herself and Robert, Armour had been hustled off to stay with relatives in another town when her parents learned of her condition earlier that spring. Her father, hoping there was still time to snag a suitor with better prospects than the penniless Burns, destroyed a document the poet had given Armour promising marriage. But it was all for naught when the local church caught wind of the scandal. Armour officially acknowledged her pregnancy and named Burns as the father.

Whether or not Armour was coerced, Burns declared all this a “desertion” on her part, and stood before the church the required three times to receive a certificate declaring him a single man. Burns may have had motives beyond feeling jilted; letters he sent friends that summer suggested he’d already found a new paramour and may have impregnated her too. In any case, there was at least one other illegitimate child to provide for: “Dear bought Bess,” as Burns called her, a daughter born to a servant girl shortly before he’d taken up with Jean Armour. When the publication of his first book seemed likely, Burns, fearing the Armours would make a claim on his future earnings, turned his estate over to his brother to ensure Bess would be taken care of.

Burns left for Edinburgh and found success — with both poetry and women — in the months that followed the birth of the twins. He returned to town less than a year from the day he’d been declared a single man, and Jean Armour’s parents, impressed by his new wealth, received him with open arms. So did their daughter Jean, and she became pregnant with a second set of twins.

Eventually — despite claims that he would never again extend her the offer, despite calling her “ungrateful” and “foolish,” despite comparing her to a “farthing taper” next to the “meridian sun” of another woman he was busy wooing — Burns married Jean Armour. She bore his philandering with patience and apparent good cheer, just as she continued to bear him children — the ninth was born on the day of Robert Burns’ funeral in 1796. “Our Robbie should have had twa [two] wives,” she is said to have exclaimed upon taking in one of his illegitimate daughters to raise.

For all his affairs, Burns was also dealt with rather leniently by the church, which had the custom of making men in his circumstances sit on a “creepie-chair,” or a low stool reserved for public humiliation. When Burns reported for penance on this day 225 years ago, he was allowed to stand in his usual pew.


Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare (books by this author), died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare’s child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only “my second-best bed.” Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it’s an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare’s sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns — a Shakespearian favorite — that could identify the subject as his wife: “hate away” for “Hathaway” and “And saved my life” for “Anne saved my life.”

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

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