The Writer’s Almanac for August 9, 2018

From “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth. Public domain. (buy now)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it has been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more!
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.


On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon officially resigned from the presidency. At 11:35 a.m., his resignation letter was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald Ford took the oath of office. Then, at 12:05 p.m., exactly half an hour after Kissinger accepted Nixon’s resignation letter, Gerald Ford gave his first speech as president of the United States. He was the only president in U.S. history who was never elected president or vice president.

In his inaugural address on this day 44 years ago, Gerald Ford said: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”


 It’s the birthday of the man the British voted (in 2003) their favorite poet of the past half-century: Philip Larkin, (books by this author) born in Coventry, England, on this day in 1922.

He was a librarian for 30 years and a lifelong stoic. He once said, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Critic Eric Homberger said that Philip Larkin had “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket.” Larkin wrote:

“I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.”

As a child he stammered, grew up in a house that friends or relatives never visited, had terrible eyesight and un-affectionate parents. Still, he had plenty of good friends and he seemed to have a good time with them. He hung out with Kingsley Amis and classmates he knew from his Oxford days, a group called “The Seven.” They got together and listened to jazz, read their poetry to each other, drank lots of beer, and talked about big philosophical and aesthetic matters.

Philip Larkin really liked nature and wildlife, and he was especially fond of toads. He wrote some famous poems about toads, and the lines “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? … “Something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too.”

Philip Larkin said, “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. After all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?”


Today is the birthday of the engineer and architect Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, born in Anet, France, in 1754. He studied art at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture for five years, and in 1776, he left school to volunteer for the colonial army in the American Revolution. He served under General Washington at Valley Forge, and would often sketch Washington and other soldiers. He eventually settled permanently in New York City and began working as an architect and civil engineer.

In 1791, he lobbied George Washington for a job designing the new nation’s capital, which was to be built on the banks of the Potomac River. Thomas Jefferson provided him with the maps of several European cities, and L’Enfant selected the best features of each. He first laid out a plan for the important capital buildings and connected them by broad avenues at diagonals. Over this, he laid a grid of rectangular blocks. This design created lots of triangles, circles, and squares where the streets intersected, and these were perfect places to put statues or small monuments. He also envisioned a long public walk, open to everyone, which he called the “Grand Avenue.” It eventually became the National Mall.

Jefferson wasn’t in favor of L’Enfant’s ambitious plan; he’d envisioned something a little less flashy. But the architect was stubbornly committed to his own design. He refused to listen to the city commissioners who were supposed to be overseeing him, and when one leading citizen built his house where an avenue was supposed to run, L’Enfant had the house torn down. Washington had no choice but to fire him in 1792, writing, “Having the beauty and harmony of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person and thing was obliged to yield to it.”

L’Enfant spent the next several years trying to collect payment for his services. He felt he was owed about $95,000 for the work he’d put in, but in the end, Congress paid him less than $4,000. Many of his plans for the capital were disregarded — a railway station sat in the middle of L’Enfant’s “Grand Avenue,” and cows grazed freely on its lawn. For most of the 1800s, the city was seen as a provincial backwater. There was even talk of moving the capital back to Philadelphia. But in 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of engineers and architects who revisited L’Enfant’s original plans, and finally, nearly a century after his death, most of his vision was realized.


Cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop made her debut on this date in 1930. She appeared in a Max Fleischer short called “Dizzy Dishes,” and she was a real dog. She’d been created as a counterpart to Bimbo, a little hound who was Fleischer Studios’ answer to Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Bimbo needed a girlfriend, so Fleischer drew a sexy French poodle. Eventually, her floppy ears evolved into hoop earrings, and Betty became a human, rather than a canine, flapper.

For her first four years, Betty Boop cartoons were pretty racy. But in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Betty’s skirts got longer, her neckline got higher, and she lost her trademark garter. Her storylines were also toned down and aimed toward a more juvenile audience. The studio received many complaints, and Betty’s popularity began to wane. Her series ended in 1939.


Today is the birthday of science fiction author Daniel Keyes (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. He wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a short story called “Flowers for Algernon,” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced. The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon, a janitor with an IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject. It was a story that had been stewing in Keyes’ mind for several years; his parents had pressured him to go into medicine, even though he wanted to be a writer. As he struggled with the difficult coursework, he wondered if it was possible to become smarter. And he became aware of the problems faced by the mentally disabled when he taught English to a class of special-needs students.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. Keyes later expanded the story into a novel by the same name, and though publishers wanted him to change the ending so that Charlie lived happily ever after, he resisted. The novel kept its original ending: Algernon the mouse dies, and Charlie, who becomes a tormented genius for a while, eventually loses his artificially enhanced intelligence and ends up in a home for disabled adults. The book is written as a series of Charlie’s journal entries and ends with a poorly spelled request for the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave. The novel was published in 1966 and has never been out of print. It’s been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times, including the feature film Charly (1968), for which Cliff Robertson won a Best Actor Oscar.


 

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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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

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

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