The Writer’s Almanac for September 9, 2018


To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain.  (buy now)

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfum’d sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The agate lamp within thy hand,
Ah! Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land!


It’s the birthday of an early writer of the American Southwest, Mary Hunter Austin (books by this author), born in Carlinville, Illinois (1868). As a nine-year-old girl, she decided to be a writer. She also loved geology — she collected fossils, and at the age of 12, she studied geology in an adult education program for rural Americans. She went to college in Illinois, then moved with her family to California when they set out to homestead there.

She spent most of her life in California, in the desert on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. She was fascinated by everything: the geology, the plants and animals, the Native people, the weather, and the intense landscape of the desert. She wrote The Land of Little Rain (1903), a book of sketches about that part of the California desert. She said, “I was only a month writing … but I spent 12 years peeking and prying before I began it.”

The Land of Little Rain was a big success, and Austin wrote many more books — novels, plays, and essays, including The Arrow Maker (1911), Experiences Facing Death (1931), and One-Smoke Stories (1934).

The Land of Little Rain ends with a description of a town called El Pueblo de Las Uvas, or the town of grapes: “Come away, you who are obsessed with your own importance in the scheme of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for, come away by the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing days, to the kindliness, earthiness, ease of El Pueblo de Las Uvas.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author), born into nobility near Tula, Russia (1828). Besides the pain of losing his mother as a young boy, his childhood was one of relative ease: He read books from his father’s extensive library, went swimming and sledding, listened to stories, and played in the fields and woods on his family’s large estate. After his father died, he lived with relatives and then enrolled at the University of Kazan. His teachers thought he wasn’t very bright, and although he managed to teach himself about 12 languages, he was less interested in studying than he was in gambling, drinking, and women. He dropped out of college and spent years without direction — visiting brothels, binge drinking, and racking up such huge gambling debts that he had to sell off part of his estate. Finally Tolstoy’s brother suggested that he needed a change and encouraged him to sign up for the army. He agreed, joining his brother’s artillery unit in the Caucasus in the spring of 1851. The following winter, 23-year-old Tolstoy wrote his first novel, Childhood (1852). It was praised by Turgenev and established Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer. Over the next few years, he published two more novels in the same vein, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856).

In 1854, he was promoted and sent to the front to fight in the Crimean War. He was horrified by the violence of war, and in 1857, he witnessed a public execution in Paris, which affected him deeply as well. He wrote: “During my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I.”

A couple of years later, his beloved brother Nikolai died of tuberculosis. He wrote: “Another instance of a realization that the superstitious belief in progress is insufficient as a guide to life, was my brother’s death. Wise, good, serious, he fell ill while still a young man, suffered for more than a year, and died painfully, not understanding why he had lived and still less why he had to die. No theories could give me, or him, any reply to these questions during his slow and painful dying.”

Armed with these new thoughts, Tolstoy met Victor Hugo in France in 1860, and was impressed by Les Misérables (1862), which Hugo had recently finished but was not yet published. Inspired, Tolstoy went back to Russia and began to write. By 1863, he had finished a draft of what would become the first part of a novel he was calling 1805. It was set during the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russia, but he channeled his experiences in the Crimean War. A version of 1805 was published in 1865, but Tolstoy did not like it, so he went to work rewriting and expanding the novel. He gave it a new name: War and Peace. In 1867, the first three sections of War and Peace were published, and sold out in a matter of days. Tolstoy began writing furiously, publishing the sections as he wrote them, and finally, in December of 1869, he published the sixth and final volume. He said, “What I have written there was not simply imagined by me, but torn out of my cringing entrails.”

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.” In the article, he wrote: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

Tolstoy published Anna Karenina between 1873 and 1877, and he declared that it was his first novel.


It was on this day in 1830 that the first American aeronaut, a man named Charles Durant, completed his first balloon flight. He took off from Castle Garden in New York City and landed in Perth Amboy, New Jersey — a trip of about 25 miles.

Americans were late to embrace hot-air balloons. The first manned balloon ride had taken place in Paris in 1783 — almost 50 years before Durant’s flight. Within a year of the Paris flight, a group had crossed the English Channel. The first flight in America actually occurred in 1793, and it was observed by a crowd that included President Washington; but the aeronaut was French, and despite a number of fundraising schemes, he was unable to pay off the debt from his flight, and he returned to France.

So when Durant took off from Manhattan in 1830, ballooning seemed new and exciting to Americans. A huge crowd gathered to watch. The New York Post reported: “The spectacle drew many persons to the Battery, which was literally covered with an immense multitude of every age, sex, condition and color, whose faces were all turned upwards. It is estimated that upwards of twenty thousand persons were collected to see a man risk his neck for their amusement and for their money.”

Durant dressed up for the occasion, wearing a top hat and tails. From the air, he dropped copies of poems praising the joys of flight. The flight took about three hours, and he landed in a farm field, surprising a New Jersey farmer by the name of Johnson.

In 1831, Durant published an essay in the Journal of Commerce called “A New York Balloon Ascension,” describing one of his flights. He wrote: “Here burst upon my sight one of the most imposing views I have ever beheld. Call it majestic, splendid, or sublime, — invoke a Shakespeare’s mind to describe, or a painter’s to portray it, — they, and even thought must fail to conceive the rich downy softness and white fleecy accumulation of clouds piled in waves as far as the eye could reach, covering the earth, and closing to my sight the land, water, and everything, animate or inanimate, that I had so long and often viewed with delight. Above me nothing but a clear, cerulean expanse, — the golden sun-beams spreading over the vast ocean of clouds, and extending through immensity of space where sight is bounded, and from whence even thought returns, unable to traverse the confines of the vast field beyond. Here was a scene sufficient for the writer to fill volumes, and the painter to exhaust his skill, in trying to delineate the infinitely delicate and mellow tints reaching to boundless extent.”

 


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

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

The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of prolific horror writer Stephen King (Portland, Maine, 1947), who said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald called This Side of Paradise.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

On this day in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. 🙂

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

Today is the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935), author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Curious George creator H. A. Rey, who escaped Paris on a pair of bicycles with wife and collaborator Margret Rey just before the Nazi invasion in June 1940.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. It was originally written for the Easter season, but became a Christmastime favorite.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. His friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality, and Gage became a famous patient in neuroscience.

Read More
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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

Read More

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?

Read More

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.

Read More

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

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message