The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

“The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key. Public domain.

Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh, thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


Today is Flag Day here in the United States. On this day in 1777, the government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag. No one knows for sure, but it was most likely designed by Congressman Francis Hopkinson and sewn by a seamstress in Philadelphia named Betsy Ross.


It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons — and counterculture icons — of the past half century: Che Guevara (books by this author), born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928), to parents of Irish and Spanish descent. His family was affluent and believed strongly in socialist ideals. He swam competitively, played rugby, and learned to speak French fluently before heading off to medical school. At 23, he took a year off from medical school and set out on a motorcycle ride with a friend of his. For nine months, he traveled around, traversing 8,000 miles by motorcycle, steamship, horseback, hitchhiking, river raft, and cargo plane. The journey became the basis for his New York Times best-selling book The Motorcycle Diaries.

He finished medical school, traveled to Guatemala to promote his ideas of land reform and peasant revolt, and went on to Mexico, where he became friends with Raúl Castro. Raúl decided that Che had a lot of ideas in common with his older brother Fidel Castro, who was living in exile in Mexico after leading a failed uprising in Cuba. In 1955, Che and Fidel had a series of meetings in a house in Mexico City in which they planned to invade Cuba and overthrow the corrupt Batista regime. They gathered other Cuban exiles into their ranks, and Fidel put Che in charge of training the soldiers for combat.

Guerilla fighters set out from Mexico on a wobbly old yacht, called the Granma, and landed on Cuba’s east coast, where they began inciting revolt. In late December 1958, Che led a crucial victory in the town of Santa Clara, boarding and overtaking a railroad train full of Batista’s soldiers and weapons. And a few days later, on January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro marched victoriously into Havana, where he began setting up the new revolutionary government — the one that still rules Cuba today. Che held various internal ministry posts in the new government, including director of the national bank. He also oversaw the execution of war criminals, and he served as ambassador to a number of nations around the world. It was Che Guevara who orchestrated the close ties between revolutionary Cuba and the Soviet Union. He set up massive trade agreements — in one deal, the USSR would buy 3 million tons of sugar from Cuba — and arranged for the Soviets to provide military support if Cuba should be threatened by hostile neighbors.

Che was captured in Bolivia in October 1967, while training guerilla fighters for an uprising. He was executed at a schoolhouse the next day. His famous last words: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.” He was 39. 


 It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (books by this author). Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Congregationalist minister, and he was a great proponent of education. The family moved to Cincinnati in 1832, and Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe in 1836; he was a clergyman and scholar, and he encouraged her to continue writing, which she had already enjoyed doing for several years.

Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati was separated from Kentucky slave-owners only by the Ohio River, and Stowe was very aware of conditions through her encounters with fugitive slaves. She also read a great deal of abolitionist literature, and when her husband took a teaching position in Maine, she began writing a long tale of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), which caused a national sensation. When she later met President Lincoln in 1863, he reportedly remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.”

In 1996, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Harper’s: “Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it. Smiley wrote, “Personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery.” In Huck Finn, she writes, “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity.” She concludes: “I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”


Today is the birthday of screenwriter and blogger Diablo Cody (books by this author), born Brooke Busey in Lemont, Illinois, in 1978. She majored in media studies at the University of Iowa, and her first few jobs in and around Chicago were secretarial. She moved to Minneapolis to join her boyfriend Jonny, whom she met on the Internet, and took a job with an ad agency, though she didn’t particularly care for the work. She wrote a couple of blogs — one, called “Red Secretary,” was a quasi-fictional account of an Eastern bloc office worker that she used to complain about her job. After she went to an amateur night at a strip club, the Skyway Lounge, she quit to become a full-time stripper, and she blogged about that experience as well. In 2002, when she was 24, she wrote a memoir: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.

She came up with her pen name after listening to the Arcadia song “El Diablo” while driving through Cody, Wyoming. It may have been a spur-of-the-moment choice, but she’s stuck with it now: “The name fuse followed me from the book to the screenplay, and now I have to live with the name, which I chose in 30 seconds with no thought about how it might sound or what it might imply. It was just a funny thing.”

Her manager asked her to write a sample screenplay that he could take around to producers in an attempt to sell the screen rights to her memoir. The sample she produced was Juno, a story about a quippy but tenderhearted pregnant teenager. Plans to adapt her memoir were scrapped in favor of producing Juno, and the movie won several awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2007. She’s since written a few more screenplays, an original series for Showtime (The United States of Tara), and is set to adapt the popular young adult series Sweet Valley High into a movie. She has also been a contributing writer to Jane magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and the alternative weekly City Pages in Minneapolis, and she hosts a YouTube-based series called Red Band Trailer. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Dan Maurio, and their son, Marcello. “I’ve been told that I’m incompetent, socially retarded, maladjusted,” she said. “I still know that I couldn’t function in reality. Los Angeles is a good place for me.”

 


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