The Writer’s Almanac for September 7, 2018

L’Envoi by Willa Cather. Public domain. (buy now)

Where are the loves that we have loved before
When once we are alone, and shut the door ?
No matter whose the arms that held me fast,
The arms of Darkness hold me at the last.
No matter down what primrose path I tend,
I kiss the lips of Silence in the end.
No matter on what heart I found delight,
I come again unto the breast of Night.
No matter when or how love did befall,
‘Tis Loneliness that loves me best of all,
And in the end she claims me, and I know
That she will stay, though all the rest may go.
No matter whose the eyes that I would keep
Near in the dark, ’tis in the eyes of Sleep
That I must look and look forever more,
When once I am alone, and shut the door.


It was on this day that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was thrown into jail in Paris for stealing the Mona Lisa, which had gone missing from the Louvre two and a half weeks earlier.

Only Apollinaire was not the thief. Parisian authorities were at a loss for leads, and Apollinaire was an easy scapegoat: He was a foreigner, born in Rome to a Polish mother, and he was a radical who ran with a bunch of Bohemians. Besides, he was a brazen art critic, and he professed contempt for traditional art. He even once said that the entire Louvre should be burned to the ground.

So on this day in 1911, Parisian police arrested the poet for theft of the Mona Lisa and they threw him in jail. They held him there under interrogation for a week. He said that maybe his friend Pablo Picasso was the thief. The authorities arrested Picasso and brought him in for interrogation. Both men were soon released, with no evidence against them.

The Mona Lisa remained missing for more than two years, and then the an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia called an art dealer in Italy and offered to sell him da Vinci’s lost painting. When arranging the meeting, Peruggia told the art dealer that he only wanted to bring the Mona Lisa back to Italy, where it rightfully belonged. That, and he wanted $100,000.

The art dealer notified authorities, Peruggia was arrested, and the Mona Lisa made its way back to the Louvre in Paris.


It’s the birthday of Modernist poet Edith Sitwell (books by this author), born in Scarborough, England (1887). Her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, were baffled by their daughter. While Lady Ida was a beauty, Edith was not. She was extremely tall and thin, with a curved spine and a hooked nose. Her parents forced her to wear an iron brace on her back and a contraption on her nose in an attempt to make her more conventionally attractive. Edith was a bright and curious child, but her father decided that formal education made women less womanly, so he refused to let her go to school. When she was a teenager and it came time for her to make her debut in society, she engaged a man in a debate over his classical music preferences, and her parents were horrified and pulled her back out of social gatherings. She left her family on such bad terms that she didn’t even attend her mother’s funeral.

Instead, she made her own life as a Modernist poet and a notable public personality. She published many books of poems, including Rustic Elegies (1927), The Song of the Cold (1948), Gardeners and Astronomers (1953), and The Outcasts (1962). Her poetry has generally been overshadowed by her colorful personality. To accentuate her dramatic features, she wore enormous rings, turbans, and old-fashioned gowns. She said, “I can’t wear fashionable clothes. If I walked round in coats and skirts, people would doubt the existence of the Almighty.” She befriended T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, and later in her life, championed Dylan Thomas. She considered Marilyn Monroe a soulmate, and the two women read poetry aloud together.

Sitwell’s best-known work is Façade, a series of poems that she set to music — each poem was meant to be read in a specific rhythm. The composer William Walton wrote the music and conducted a live orchestra during the performance. All the audience could see was a curtain painted like a huge face, with a hole in the center for a mouth. Sitwell sat behind the hole, reciting her words through a megaphone. Apparently the first London performance of Façade went so badly that an old woman in the audience waited outside the curtain afterward to hit Sitwell with an umbrella; Noel Coward walked out; and even Virginia Woolf didn’t understand the poetry. Woolf wrote: “So I judged yesterday in the Aeolian Hall, listening, in a dazed way, to Edith Sitwell vociferating through the megaphone. […] I should be describing Edith Sitwell’s poems, but I kept saying to myself ‘I don’t really understand … I don’t really admire.’ The only view, presentable view that I framed, was to the effect that she was monotonous. She has one tune only on her merry go round.” When Sitwell performed Façade in New York more than 20 years later, it was extremely popular.

Sitwell said: “I am not an eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.”

And, “It is as unseeing to ask what is the use of poetry as it would be to ask what is the use of religion.”


It’s the birthday of journalist and novelist Joe Klein (books by this author), born in Queens in 1946. He was a respected political reporter when he decided to write a novel based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Although it was fiction, the characters were very thinly disguised. Clinton became Jack Stanton, and Hillary became Susan. Klein called the novel Primary Colors (1996), but he published it under the name “Anonymous,” generating fevered speculation over the identity of the author. Washington insiders and experts pointed to Klein as the author, but he denied it over and over. Finally, when The Washington Post published a forensic handwriting analysis that linked Klein to the manuscript, Klein — wearing Groucho Marx glasses — held a press conference and admitted that he had written the novel and then lied about it. His fellow journalists were furious, but Primary Colors was a best-seller and made Klein a multimillionaire.


It’s the birthday of writer Margaret Landon (books by this author), born in Somers, Wisconsin (1903). When she was 23, she and her husband signed up to be missionaries in Thailand, which was known as the Kingdom of Siam. For 10 years, Landon lived in Thailand, ran a school, and raised her three children. While she was living there, she came across a book by a woman named Anna Leonowens, a Welsh governess who had tutored the King of Siam’s many wives and children during the 1860s. Landon was intrigued by her story, and she fictionalized it in a novel she titled Anna and the King of Siam (1944). Landon’s book became a best-seller in 20 languages, selling more than a million copies. The story became even more famous when it was even more fictionalized into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956). Margaret Landon wrote one other novel, called Never Dies the Dream (1949), a fictionalized account of her own experiences in Thailand — but her own story was never as popular as Anna’s.


It was on this day in 1927 that the first successful television image was demonstrated, by the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a Mormon farm boy from Utah, and he grew up in a log cabin. When the family moved to a house in Idaho, Farnsworth was amazed that the house had electricity — he had never seen it before.

Farnsworth was a star science student. At the age of 13, he won a national competition for inventing a thief-proof lock. He was particularly fascinated by something called television. The basic premise of television existed, but the only technology used rotating discs, and it was basically a failure. Farnsworth was convinced that there was a better way. One day, when he was 14, he was plowing the family potato field with a team of horses. He looked back at his parallel lines of soil and was struck with an inspiration: What if he could scan an image in a similar way, with parallel lines of electrons, and reproduce it electronically? He approached his high school chemistry teacher with a set of complex drawings, his blueprint for electronic television. The teacher encouraged Farnsworth to pursue his idea, and filed away his student’s drawings.

Farnsworth finished high school in a couple of years, then started college at Brigham Young University. But after his father died, he dropped out to support his family. He couldn’t shake his television idea, so a few years later, the 19-year-old inventor approached two California businessmen and convinced them to lend him money to build a model. He moved to California, submitted a patent in January of 1927, and began building that summer.

On this day in 1927, he transmitted the first electronic television image: a straight line. When the line appeared on a separate receiver, his assistants just stared at it, speechless. Finally, Farnsworth announced: “There you are — electronic television!”

He continued to refine his technology. But he was not the only inventor who had been working on electronic television, and the powerful RCA (Radio Corp of America) tried to claim that its own chief engineer, a Russian-born scientist with a Ph.D., had invented it. The patent battle lasted many years, and the key piece of evidence to determine who had invented the television first turned out to be the teenaged Farnsworth’s old sketches, which had been kept all that time by his high school chemistry teacher. The court sided with Farnsworth, but even though he had legally won, RCA’s publicity totally overshadowed his, and he never made much money on his patents. He was actually ambivalent about television in general, which he thought was generally a waste of time.

Farnsworth died of pneumonia in 1971. His final years had been marred by alcohol abuse and debt, and he died virtually unknown. The average television set sold that same year included about 100 items that had been first patented by Farnsworth.

 


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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.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

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.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

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.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

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Writing

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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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

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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.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

Read More

An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

Read More

Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

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