The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

Friendship After Love by Ella Wilcox Wheeler. Public domain. (buy now)

After the fierce midsummer all ablaze
Has burned itself to ashes, and expires
In the intensity of its own fires,
There come the mellow, mild, St. Martin days
Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze.
So after Love has led us, till he tires
Of his own throes, and torments, and desires,
Comes large-eyed friendship: with a restful gaze,
He beckons us to follow, and across
Cool verdant vales we wander free from care.
Is it a touch of frost lies in the air?
Why are we haunted with a sense of loss?
We do not wish the pain back, or the heat;
And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete.


It was on this day in 1892 that the Pledge of Allegiance was recited en masse for the first time, by more than 2 million students. It had been written just a month earlier by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy, who published it in Youth’s Companion and distributed it across the country. It was recited on this day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It was slightly shorter in its 1892 version: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

After that, it got revised twice, and both revisions made the Pledge wordier. The first was in 1923, when it was changed from “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.” This change was made to ensure that immigrants were pledging to the American flag and not the flags of their home countries. The second change was to add the words “under God.” A few determined preachers worked for years to get it changed, but it wasn’t until 1954 that it was amended. President Eisenhower attended a sermon by the Reverend George Docherty, who said: “Apart from the mention of the phrase, ‘the United States of America,’ this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity.” Eisenhower was convinced and within a few months the Pledge was amended to include “under God” as a way to distinguish this country from the Soviet Union.


It’s the birthday of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1910). His parents were Irish-Catholics who met as actors in a play called The Sign of the Cross. His mother died when he was three, but for a few years he enjoyed life with his father and younger brother. He wrote: “My small brother and I spent the early years in an old-fashioned country. The foliage of the tree at our window, dusky in summer or thrashing wet in summer storms, brought living nature into the room on which we closed and opened our eyes. […] Close by was the smooth texture of wallpaper tinted with pale leaves and flowers. Downstairs the windows of the entrance hall, facing south, had panes of colored glass, and sumptuous lights of purple or red gold would be found brightening or fading here and there in the room. Outside there was the quietude of the street, shady or snowy, broken by wagons, by a rare automobile, and by the slow heavy meter of the freight trains clanking by at the corner, by day or by night — one of the great sounds the world made.” Then his brother, his only sibling, died when Fitzgerald was seven. His father, an invalid, was bedridden and required constant care from his son. Despite it all, Fitzgerald excelled as a student and an athlete, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was also from Springfield, took the boy under his wing.

When Fitzgerald was 17, he finished high school and his father died. He didn’t feel ready for college, so he went to the Choate School in Connecticut, and there he met the classics teacher and translator Dudley Fitts. Fitzgerald was in awe of his new teacher, and he decided to go to Harvard because Fitts had gone there. At Harvard, he started publishing poems in Poetry magazine. He graduated with honors. After graduation, he worked as a journalist, for the New York Herald Tribune and Time. He started collaborating with Fitts to translate Greek drama.

Fitzgerald was married three times. His second wife was Sally Morgan, whom he met while serving in the Navy during World War II. Sally was a stylish, smart young woman, a devout Catholic, and a naval intelligence officer, just like Fitzgerald. She had planned to become a nun, but changed her mind and married Robert instead. He re-embraced the Catholicism of his youth. They settled in Connecticut, and had a wide circle of literary friends, including Robert Lowell. In a letter to John Berryman, Lowell wrote: “Fitzgerald is good on the classics, and good (very strident Catholic, though) on religion. Terribly patient and earnest and somehow surprisingly subtle at times — and completely unselfish. […] I think you’d have hit it off, if he’d talked.” It was Lowell who introduced the Fitzgeralds to a young writer, also Catholic, named Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor and the Fitzgeralds hit it off immediately. She was looking for somewhere to stay while she finished her first novel, so the Fitzgeralds invited her to stay with them in Connecticut. She lived with them for almost two years. She worked on her novel writing in the mornings, and helped take care of the Fitzgerald children in the afternoons. In the evenings she and Robert and Sally would sit around the kitchen table, drinking martinis and talking about writing, movies, and theology. The Fitzgeralds made O’Connor the godmother of their daughter Maria — the editor Robert Giroux was Maria’s godfather.

O’Connor became very ill with lupus, the disease that would eventually kill her, and she moved back to Georgia. But she wrote the Fitzgeralds constantly. Soon after leaving, she wrote to them: “I hope this one will be a girl & have a fierce Old Testament name and cut off a lot of heads. You had better stay down and take care of yourself. Your children sound big enough to do all the work. By beating them moderately and moderately often you should be able to get them in the habit of doing domestic chores.”

After Flannery O’Connor died, Robert Fitzgerald became the executor of her literary estate. In 1965, he became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard. When he was appointed, Time magazine wrote: “Last week Harvard assigned the chair to methodical, elegant, harmonious, dignified, energetic Robert Stuart Fitzgerald, 54, poet, journalist, anthologist and translator of the classics.”

Robert Fitzgerald’s books include translations of The Iliad (1974) and The Aeneid (1983); books of poems: A Wreath for the Sea (1943), Spring Shade (1972); and The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs and Selected Writings (1993). He died in 1985 at the age of 74.

He said, “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.”


It’s the birthday of author and psychologist Robert Coles (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1929). He’s the author of more than 60 books. Coles was in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement, planning to lead a low-key life as a child psychologist. But one day, during a visit to New Orleans in 1960, he saw a white mob surrounding a six-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges, who was kneeling in her starched white dress in the middle of it all to pray for the mob that was attacking her. Coles decided to begin what would become his work for the next few decades, an effort to understand how children and their parents come to terms with radical change. He conducted hundreds of interviews on the effects of school desegregation, and he shaped them into the first volume of Children of Crisis (1967), a series of books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

When Coles was 66, he co-founded a new magazine about “ordinary people and their lives.” It was called DoubleTake, and it featured photography and writing in the documentary tradition. The magazine was printed on fine paper with big, beautiful photo reproductions, and it won lots of awards.

Robert Coles said, “We should look inward and think about the meaning of our life and its purposes, lest we do it in 20 or 30 years and it’s too late.”


It’s the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress (books by this author), born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). Childress was primarily a playwright, and her plays included Trouble in Mind (1955), Wedding Band (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969). But she’s best known for her novels A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973) and A Short Walk (1979).

Childress said, “Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.”

 


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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.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

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.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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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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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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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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