The Writer’s Almanac for October 3, 2018

Straightpins by Jo McDougall, Poet Laureate of Arkansas, from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems. © University of Arkansas Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Growing up in a small town,
we didn’t notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker’s floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss—
our days filled with open fields,
football,
turtles and cows.

One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we’ve become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we’ve seen a turtle
or a cow?


It’s the birthday of historian and statesman George Bancroft, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1800). George Bancroft lived to be 90 years old, so he saw most of the 19th century. He taught Greek at Harvard. Then President Polk appointed him Secretary of the Navy, and during his tenure, Bancroft established the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was later appointed the U.S. diplomat to Britain. While he was there, he wrote his 10-volume History of the United States.

He said, “By common consent gray hairs are a crown of glory; the only object of respect that can never excite envy.”

And he said, “The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another.”


It’s the birthday of Emily Post, born in Baltimore (1873), whose marriage broke up when her husband lost his fortune in a stock panic, and then it came out that he was having an affair. Post became one of the first divorcées in her high-society circle, and she started writing to support her two children. She published several novels, and an editor suggested that she write an etiquette manual when he noticed that her novels were full of observations about etiquette. She thought etiquette manuals were awful, so she set out to write a different kind of etiquette manual, more about treating people decently than just following rules. The result was her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922), and she wrote about etiquette for the rest of her life — Emily Post, who said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”


On this day in 1932, Iraq gained independence from Britain. Iraq had been under British control for the past 13 years, from 1918 to 1932. Before that, Iraq was under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had sided with Germany during World War I — and after the war, victorious Britain took control of Iraq.

When the U.K. granted Iraq sovereignty on this day in 1932, Iraq officially became the “Kingdom of Iraq” and was governed by an Iraqi family called the Hashemite dynasty. Britain kept military bases there and some other land use rights.

But in 1941, just nine years after independence, there was a coup. It was led by a group of Iraqi military officers called the “Golden Square” who disliked the British influence on Iraq’s ruling monarchy. Britain was fighting World War II, and invaded Iraq in May 1941 because it was worried that the new Iraqi regime would align itself with Germany and cut off oil supplies to Britain.

That conflict, called the Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941, was over within a month. The Golden Square coup leaders fled, and the Iraqi monarchy that had been ousted was now restored. Britain occupied Iraq for most of the rest of the decade.

Then, in 1958, there was another coup by the Iraqi military, called the 14 July Revolution. Once and for all, it overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, which many Iraqis saw as puppets of the British government. Iraq became a republic, led by a military general. A new constitution for the new nation was written up right away.

But in 1963, that Iraqi government was overthrown by a different Iraqi military leader, and then, five years later, that new government was overthrown by the Arab Socialist Baath Party. In July 1979, Baath Party member Saddam Hussein seized the presidency, even though his own party was in power. He stayed in power until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A new constitution for Iraq was approved in 2005; it replaces the 1958 constitution written up when Iraq first transitioned from monarchy to republic.


On this date in 1849Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) was found unkempt and delirious outside a pub in Baltimore. He had been en route from Richmond to Philadelphia on a business trip, and stopped off in Baltimore on September 28 for reasons known only to him. He was found on Lombard Street, outside Ryan’s Tavern, and he appeared to be dressed in someone else’s clothing. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness — occasionally lucid but often delirious or combative — until he died four days later. He was never able to tell how he came to be in such a state; newspapers reported “congestion of the brain” as the cause of death, but there was no death certificate and no autopsy, and the reason for his demise remains a mystery, though his biographers have put forward several theories.

Because he was found outside a tavern, many people assumed he’d gone on a bender, even though he’d sworn off alcohol six months earlier. The temperance movement was quick to point to Poe as a cautionary tale. Another theory holds that Poe was the victim of “cooping,” in which political gangs would kidnap people, imprison them, drug them, beat them, and force them to vote repeatedly at polling places all over the city, wearing an assortment of disguises. Ryan’s Tavern was also a polling place, and Poe was found on election day; what’s more, his clothes were ill-fitting, dirty, and threadbare, which didn’t jive with Poe’s reputation as a natty dresser.

Much of the Poe legend — namely that he was a drunk and a madman with few friends and no morals — originated with an obituary and memoir written by Rufus Griswold, a literary rival and the subject of one of Poe’s scathing reviews. Griswold spread rumors about the recently deceased Poe in an attempt to scuttle sales of Poe’s books, but the rumors had the opposite effect. Griswold is now remembered as Poe’s first biographer; his own literary output has long since been forgotten.

Poe was buried at the Westminster Hall and Burial Ground in Baltimore. In 1949, 100 years after his death, a stranger paid a visit to the cemetery in the wee hours of January 19, which was Poe’s birthday. The stranger, presumed to be a man, was dressed in a black coat and hat, and his face was obscured with a scarf; he drank a cognac toast to Poe and left the rest of the bottle, along with three meticulously arranged red roses, on his grave. Thus began a tradition that lasted 60 years. The “Poe Toaster,” as he became known, would slip in surreptitiously, leave his tribute, and disappear into the night. Although onlookers occasionally glimpsed him, his identity was never revealed. He died in 1998, after passing the tradition on to his son, according to a note that was left with the bottle and roses. The last visit by the Poe Toaster was in 2009; he may have died, or perhaps the ending was planned to mark the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth in 1809. Other fans, known as “faux Toasters,” have carried on the tradition for the last two years, but the original Toaster appears to have retired. 


It’s the birthday of Gore Vidal (1925) (books by this author). He was born Eugene Luther Vidal at the West Point Academy in New York, where his father was an instructor. He changed his first name when he was a teenager, to honor his grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a populist senator from Oklahoma. Eugene grew up in his grandfather’s house near Washington, D.C., after his parents divorced, and it was from his grandfather that he inherited a keen interest in politics and history.

He published his first novel, Williwaw, in 1946, at the tender age of 20. He wrote it in the spare style of Hemingway, and it was inspired by his experiences as first mate on an Army supply ship. Critics loved it, but they were less enthusiastic about his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), whose frank depiction of homosexuality shocked many mid-century readers. The New York Times refused to review his next five novels, and he’s never forgiven the paper, saying it “never found a well it could not poison.” It didn’t stop him writing, though, and over the next 10 years he continued to produce novels with subjects as diverse as medieval legend, Central America, and classical antiquity. He’s well known for his works of historical fiction — such as Julian (1964), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984). And his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, a satire about a transgender person, was an international best-seller. The New York Times grudgingly called it “witty”; it also called it “repulsive” and “a funny novel, but it requires an iron stomach.”

In the mid-1950s he branched out even further, writing a series of potboiler mysteries under the pen name “Edgar Box.” He also proved himself as a successful television writer, penning 20 dramas and literary adaptations for the small screen. He adapted one of his original teleplays, Visit to a Small Planet (1955), for the stage, and it became a hit on Broadway; he also wrote several original and adapted screenplays in Hollywood. And he began publishing essays of social and political criticism, which have been gathered every decade or so into best-selling collections. He wrote two memoirs (Palimpsest in 1995 and Point to Point Navigation in 2006), and several book-length essays on American history and politics.

 


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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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November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

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Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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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

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.

Read More

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

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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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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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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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