The Writer’s Almanac for July 27, 2018

“Happy the Man” by Horace, from Odes, Book III, xxix. Translation by John Dryden. Public domain. (buy now)

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.


On this day in 1783, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) wrote to a friend: “In my opinion, there never was a good war or a bad peace.”

Franklin had just helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which brought the Revolutionary War to an end. The treaty could not please everyone on both sides, of course, and there were British Loyalists and American revolutionaries alike who were complaining about the terms of the treaty, which included 10 articles that addressed things like land boundaries, fishing rights, debts, what to do with Loyalist property and prisoners of war, and access to the Mississippi River.

Exactly 115 years later — on this day in 1898 — Secretary of State John Hay remarked to Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt: “It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried out with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.”

He was talking about the Spanish-American War, which was originally Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain. The U.S. was paying close attention to the fighting, and many Americans were cheering for the Cuban revolutionaries, led by poet José Martí, who were fighting for independence from their European colonizer. It was, after all, what America had been doing a century before.

The U.S. stood ready to intervene, to help fight against the Spanish, and even sent a big ship full of sailors, the USS Maine, down to dock in Havana’s port in January 1898. Three weeks later, in mid-February, the ship mysteriously exploded, killing 261 American sailors on board. To this day, nobody agrees what caused the explosion. Spain says it was an internal combustion. The U.S. said that Spain blew up the ship with a mine.

At any rate, in April 1898 the U.S. entered the war, and Cuba’s war of independence became the Spanish-American War. The U.S. sent in 15,000 troops to eastern Cuba in early July and scored smashing land victories against Spain — then had to leave in August because yellow fever was destroying the U.S. Army. The U.S. also triumphed in naval battles all around the Caribbean and Pacific, where there were other Spanish colonies. In 10 weeks, the U.S. had won the war.

Soon after, the United States sat down to sign another treaty called the Treaty of Paris (both were called this because they were signed in Paris, considered neutral ground). The 1898 Treaty of Paris was between Spain and the U.S., and Cuba was allowed only to observe, not to take part in negotiations. With the treaty, Spain turned over its colonies to the United States, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Spain gave up the colony of Cuba, and Cuba was supposed to become an independent republic, but in effect it became an American colony.


It’s the birthday of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (books by this author), born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She moved to New York to study at Columbia. In 1946, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a party. He was in the middle of an ugly divorce from his first wife, the writer Jean Stafford, but Hardwick and Lowell reconnected at a writers retreat and married in 1949. During their honeymoon, Lowell had a manic depressive attack, and throughout their marriage, he had frequent affairs and breakdowns. She said: “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.”

In 1959, an editor at Harper’s named Robert Silvers put together an issue about the state of literature in America, and he asked Hardwick to write a piece. Her essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” sparked a huge controversy — even the owner of Harpers wrote a letter condemning it. She wrote: “In America, now … a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have ‘filled a need,’ and is to be ‘thanked’ for something and be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'”

In early 1963, Hardwick and Lowell were having dinner with Jason and Barbara Epstein, their friends and neighbors on West 67th Street. The New York Times was on strike, and Jason Epstein joked that life was nice and easy now that they had nothing to do, with no New York Times Book Review to read. They talked about starting their own book review, and realized that it actually was the perfect time to do it, since publishers were getting desperate without the Times. The next morning, Lowell went to the bank and took out a $4,000 loan secured by his trust fund. They called Robert Silvers, the editor at Harper’s, and asked if he would be interested in working as an editor for their not-yet-existent publication; he accepted immediately. They put together the first issue of The New York Review of Books at the dining room table in Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. It was published in February of 1963, featuring work by Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Mary McCarthy. They printed 100,000 copies, which sold out right away. Hardwick was not an official editor — that role went to Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers — but she was an editorial advisor. She helped shape the overall content and image of the review; Jason Epstein described Hardwick as “a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to satisfy.”

Hardwick’s books of fiction and essays collections include Sleepless Nights (1979), Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), and Sight Readings: American Fiction(1998).

She said, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Bharati Mukherjee (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1940). She said: “As a bookish child in Calcutta, I used to thrill to the adventures of bad girls whose pursuit of happiness swept them outside the bounds of social decency. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina lived large in my imagination.”

She went to college in Calcutta, and after graduation, she asked her father if she could go abroad and study to be a writer — afterward, she would come home for an arranged marriage with a nuclear physicist of her same caste and class. Her father agreed, thinking it would be a harmless way for her to pass a couple of years. Her family was hosting a group of UCLA professors and students for dinner, so her father asked them where he should send his daughter in America to learn to be a writer. They suggested the University of Iowa, so off she went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

She started dating someone in her program, a Canadian named Clark Blaise, and after just two weeks, they went downtown during their lunch break and got married in a lawyer’s office above a local coffee shop. She said: “Until my lunch-break wedding, I had seen myself as an Indian foreign student who intended to return to India to live. The five-minute ceremony in the lawyer’s office suddenly changed me into a transient with conflicting loyalties to two very different cultures.”

Mukherjee’s novels include The Tiger’s Daughter (1971), Jasmine (1989), Desirable Daughters (2004), and, most recently, Miss New India (2011).


The Atlantic Cable was completed on this day in 1866, making telegraphic communication possible between Europe and North America. The cable ran from Valentia Harbor, Ireland, to the little fishing village of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland: a distance of nearly 1,700 nautical miles. The first message was “A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and Russia.” Queen Victoria then cabled, “The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of Union between the United States and England.”

It was the third attempt to lay transatlantic cable between the two continents. Before, they had tried bringing cable on ships from Britain and America, meeting in the middle of the ocean and splicing the ends together. The cable kept snapping, and when they eventually did make a connection, the engineer used voltage that was too high, and the cable burned out. The third time was the charm, however, and this cable was laid with no trouble at all. The Great Eastern left Ireland with enough cable aboard to run the full distance; they spooled out about 120 miles a day. The mission completed, the Great Eastern turned around and steamed east to the point where the previous cable had snapped. They managed to retrieve the broken end and splice it successfully; they completed the second cable connection between the continents on September 8.

It still took about 24 hours to get a message from London to New York, due to a gap between Newfoundland and the mainland, but people didn’t complain. Prior to the laying of the cable, it had taken messages a week or more to cross the Atlantic. The telegraph opened for commercial use almost immediately but it was pricey: a dollar a letter, payable in gold.

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

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December 16, 2018

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5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

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Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

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Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

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What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

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The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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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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