The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 14, 2019


Up-Hill
by Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you waiting at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

 

“Up-Hill” by Christina Rossetti. Public domain (buy now)


It was on this day in 1832 that the world’s first streetcar, named the John Mason, began operation in New York City, running between Prince and 14th Streets in Lower Manhattan.

In 1832, 23-year-old John Stephenson received a commission from John Mason, a wealthy banker and one of the biggest landowners in the city to build an omnibus, basically a stagecoach on rails, but with the rails laid in the street. Stephenson adapted the omnibus and modeled it on railway cars, but he dropped the body of the car so that the seats were above the wheels but the floors were in between the wheels, which made it easily accessible from the street, without a railway platform.

Each streetcar was operated by two people: the driver and the conductor. The driver sat in front, on an open platform no matter what the weather was like — the thinking was that the driver would be more alert out in the open than in the comfort of an enclosed compartment. He controlled the horses and had a brake handle to stop the streetcar. The conductor sat in back and helped passengers board the train, took their money, and rang a bell to signal to the driver when to stop and go.

By 1870, New Yorkers made 100 million trips a year in horse-drawn streetcars. By 1880, there were at least 150,000 horses in the city. But each of those 150,000 horses was producing 22 lbs. of manure each day, and soon the city was a mess. One citizen wrote: “In hot weather the city stank with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting of comminuted horse dropping, smelling to heaven and destined in no inconsiderable part to be scattered in fine dust in all directions, laden with countless millions of disease breeding germs.” One writer guessed that by 1930, the manure would reach the third story of Manhattan’s buildings. But in just a few decades, cars took over as the primary form of transportation, and in 1917 horse-drawn streetcars ceased to operate in New York City.


On this day in 1851Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (books by this author), about a ship captain named Ahab who is obsessed with hunting the great white sperm whale that took his leg. The book had been published in Great Britain in October with the title The Whale; Melville’s decision to change the title didn’t get there in time. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how the narrator lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. Melville never fully recovered from the disappointment.


It’s the birthday of the woman who wrote about the adventures of a girl named Pippi Långstrump, or, as we know her in English, Pippi Longstocking: Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (books by this author), was born Astrid Ericsson on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907). One day in 1944, Lindgren sprained her ankle, and while she was stuck in bed she wrote down the Pippi Longstocking stories she’d been telling her children for years. She wanted to give a copy to her daughter, Karin, for her 10th birthday. Astrid Lindgren was so happy with her work that she sent it to a publisher, and in 1945, Pippi Longstocking was published. Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with no parents who lives in a red house at the edge of a Swedish village with her horse and her pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson. She has red pigtails, and she wears one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. She eats whole chocolate cakes and sleeps with her feet on the pillow, and she’s the strongest girl in the world. The sequels to Pippi Longstocking include Pippi Goes on Board (1946) and Pippi in the South Seas(1948). Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books are her most popular, but she wrote more than 115 others, including detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy novels, and realistic fiction. Her books have sold 80 million copies and have been translated into Arabic, Armenian, Vietnamese, and Zulu. Lindgren died in Stockholm in 2002. She was 94. When she was asked what she wanted for her 94th birthday, she said, “Peace on earth and nice clothes.”


It’s the birthday of cartoonist and author William Steig, (books by this author) born in New York City (1907), a cartoonist for The New Yorker for many years. He’s best known for his children’s book Shrek! (1993), about an ugly green ogre who hears the prophecy of a witch that he will marry a princess even uglier than he. It was made into an animated movie in 2002. William Steig said, “If I’d had it my way, I’d have been a professional athlete, a sailor, a beachcomber, or some other form of hobo, a painter, a gardener, a novelist, a banjo-player, a traveler, anything but a rich man.”


It’s the birthday of one of the first Impressionist painters, Claude Monet, born in Paris (1840). He said, “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”

 

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

Now and then some statues need replacing

When I heard that the statue of Stonewall Jackson had been pulled down in Richmond, I wondered why it was in Richmond when Stonewall was from North Carolina and made his career in Nashville, then I remembered that in addition to the country singer, there had been a Confederate general.

In fact, the singer had been named for the general, which was no problem in country music in the Fifties. I used to sing a song of his, “Don’t be angry with me, darling, if I fail to understand all your little whims and wishes all the time. Just remember that I’m dumb, I guess, like any foolish man, and my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine,” which, in the annals of love poetry, doesn’t rank with “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” or “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night” nor even “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,” but still I sang it, I admit, not considering its Confederate connections.

Not enough people are aggrieved over Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s statue falling to reelect the president, which he will find out in due course, and my only question is: whom can we replace Jackson with, and Beauregard, Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the other heroes of the Lost Cause? It’s good to have statues that give old people like me a chance to stop and rest, while out for a walk with a young person, and tell about who that bronze figure on the pedestal is. Nobody in Richmond knew enough about General Jackson to say much about him, and that’s why he and his horse were dismantled. He said, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees,” which, as dying words go, is very elegant. Too bad Lincoln never had the chance to utter dying words, he was watching a fourth-rate comedy and Booth waited for the laugh line, “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap” and fired the gun on the laugh and that was Lincoln’s last line.

As replacements for generals that nobody much remembers, I’d propose Little Richard, a fascinating character who swung back and forth from “Good Golly, Miss Molly” to “How Great Thou Art,” from raunch to gospel, and Miss Flannery O’Connor who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” She said, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” She said, “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” Any one of the three would make a terrific inscription on a statue and I say there are enough statues of men on horses, there need to be more statues of slight women in plain dresses wearing glasses and looking intently down at their visitors.

For New Orleans, instead of Beauregard, you’ve got King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino to choose from. In Richmond, you can put up the satirist Tom Wolfe (“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” ). Memphis could have Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon and as you approach the statue, you’d step on a steel plate and they’d sing to you, “Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care. Speaking of bad luck, people, you know I’ve had my share.”

The smartest thing General Stonewall Jackson said was, “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit, for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number.” And that is what Joe Biden should do. The current Confederate president is starting to panic and it’s time to rout him and bring out the Bolton information, the Mary Trump revelations, the Mattis denunciation, the video of Ivanka praising her father from a script as he listens, the Trump tax returns, and let’s get this wide-ride on the run, his hair flying in the wind, chase him down the road with Mr. Pence hanging on to his coattails. Goodbye, Queens, and hello, Delaware.

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

In the opera, Aida is locked in a tomb with her lover, Radamès, which is like quarantine but without grocery deliveries and no Zoom. Saturday I did a Zoom chat with fellow workers from back in our touring days, doing shows, and we reminisced about shows in outdoor venues in the rain and the show from Yellowstone where a bison lay down to sleep in front of the satellite dish and the show where squirrels ate the mike cables, the show in Dublin where the audience was completely schnockered.

We won’t be sitting around telling pandemic stories five years from now, stories about sitting on the terrace and looking at the moon, and that’s okay by me. I’m not as interested in stories as I was back in the day. Since January 2017, the nation has seen a thousand fascinating stories out of Washington, each one with the same name in the headline, all of them unbelievable and fascinating, and after three years, a person is exhausted. What remains to happen? Will there be a big statue of him holding a Bible? Will he sign an executive order making the coronavirus go away? Will Jared be put in charge of the Pentagon?

My wife, who I almost sang Verdi to, said a sweet thing the other day. She said, “I wish people would just focus on the future, rather than the past.” I had been saying something about renaming our national capital because George and Martha had 300 slaves, renaming it Emerson after Ralph Waldo who had no slaves and had all his teeth and said smart things, such as “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” He recommended good books, good friends, and a sleepy conscience. He was in favor of curiosity and science and ambition. All Washington said was “I cannot tell a lie” and that was not true. He was a general who got lucky and caught the British in a trap. Emerson was a philosopher and a poet. If you renamed Washington Emerson, people would start reading him and this would be a far better country.

But she’s right. This country is guilty of mistreating its children. Seventeen million of them struggle to get enough food; malnutrition in the first three years of life can cause enduring problems. Lousy schools limit a child’s prospects for a happy life. Feeding and teaching children are things we know how to do. A sensible society looks after its children, its future. Nothing you do for children is wasted. We can condemn each other for old mistakes, but if we decide that 2021 is a new start and we start looking forward with a clear eye, then we can get somewhere. If Mississippi can finally surrender the Confederacy and take down its flag, there’s hope for the rest of us.

The city of Washington is an object of general scorn and abuse across the land. Let’s wipe the slate clean, rename it Emerson, and restart the idea of good government and common sense. We desperately need his optimism. “Trust thyself,” he said. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries. Let us not be invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” This year, we’ve seen the worst. Good. Now we know what it is. Now we can rise above it and join forces and work for what should be, equality, justice, prosperity, and good sense.

“Bad times have a scientific value,” he said. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Washington state and all the Washington counties are enough for George. “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” No need to make a statue of Ralph on a horse, just quoting him is good enough.

Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

I’m trying to finish a memoir and I realize now how much I don’t know and I was too busy careering around as my elders began taking the long walk and I didn’t sit down and ask for the story. My elders were self-effacing Midwesterners brought up not to talk about personal things and they kept many secrets from me such as how did the men fall in love with the women and vice versa, they being such righteous folk and sensible and circumspect. Mother came from a family of thirteen, Dad from eight, and when I knew them, they were all settled in comfortable marriages, and what I want to know is what transpired when they were infatuated and savoring sensual moments and looking forward to throwing caution to the wind.

It happened, even in cautious Christian families like mine. I see the pictures of my youthful aunts in their white summer dresses sashaying around the lakes of Minneapolis and I sense adventure and light-heartedness, not wary mothers I knew them as.

I know that my parents met on July 4, 1931, as teenagers at a picnic at the Keillor farm and were crazy about each other but I wish I’d asked them for more details. He was a farmboy, she was a city girl, slender and shy, and they didn’t marry until six years later, it being the Depression and all, but what happened in those six years? I grew up with two parents who held hands and flirted with each other all their long lives and I’m grateful and I want to know how come and there’s nobody left to ask.

I write about my life, the lost world of hitchhiking, which I knew as a kid and got picked up by angry half-drunk men who raged against the government, their bosses, their Army commanders, their wives, and I got a view of life you couldn’t get in school or from the newspaper. It’s gone and so are the downtown department stores of Minneapolis, the smells and bells, the ladies with white gloves who ran the elevators. I went to a state university back when tuition was so cheap you could pay for your education with a part-time low-wage job, no debt, no need to ask your dad for money, and so you were free to make impractical plans such as become a writer of fiction. I came from a fundamentalist family that was wary of higher education and I plunged into campus life and before I knew it I had four close friends, Larry and Barry and Maury and Arnie, all of them Jewish. I did an early-morning radio show back when people listened to radio religiously, before YouTube and Google and InnerTube and Bugle and iPod and pPod and all the other platforms.

It’s all interesting, but it’s the love stories that a person craves. You want to know that you’re descended from passionate irresponsibility, not a business arrangement or a science experiment, but two people mysteriously drawn to each other. My mother’s parents, William and Marian, courted in Glasgow and she was four months pregnant when they married. Their brood of thirteen children testifies to their feelings for each other. Dad’s parents, James and Dora, were twenty years apart in age. He was an old bachelor on the school board and she was a teacher; she boarded with him and his sister. He came to school and helped her clean blackboards and clap erasers and he kissed her and they ran off and got married. They came home in the buggy and he left the horses standing in harness all night, the reins on the ground, as he carried Dora into the house, his sister having disembarked for a house up the road. It’s good to know these things.

Sit your people down and ask questions. The secret of investigative journalism is: ask questions and keep asking — people want to spill the beans, they just need some warming up. Apply the heat. You will thank me for this someday. I won’t be around but you’re welcome.

In mid-June, we look ahead and think big

I’ve now spent three months in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and daughter, a life that is not so different from, say, living in a lighthouse in the Orkneys. We can see tall buildings, some bright lights, helicopters overhead, but it’s not the New York high life I dreamed of growing up in Minnesota. The problem is that I like it just fine. Solitude suits me pretty well. So why am I here?

I look back at dining out and I don’t miss it, two hours in a loud room where waiters with big personalities serve you tiny portions of a dish that includes much too much lentils to be worth $48. I look back at dinner parties and most of them were two hours too long and the conversation felt like a rehash of the Op-Ed page.

In quarantine, you learn that there’s a lot to be said for a fifteen-minute phone conversation with one other person who’s been in lockdown too and is excited by verbal communication with another human being.

I’m not complaining. People have died from the virus, many of them my age (77). I’m a writer, a trade that can be practiced in a lighthouse as well as in New York. I loved working in the reading room of the New York Public Library but sitting in my kitchen in the month of May, I wrote a novel about a small town in Minnesota. It can be done.

I’m a hermit in a cave. My daughter is fully engaged with her social circle via electronics that I, having grown up with a paper tablet and a No. 2 pencil, know zilch about. My wife knows about it and Zooms with people and puts on a mask and walks through Central Park and I, the fragile old guy with underlying conditions and other conditions lying under those, sit in my room and am okay with that. What once was a punishment is now a privilege.

Thanks to a sensible governor, New York has come through the plague reasonably well, but now comes the hard part: do we want to stay?

I came here because in the eighth grade, a teacher handed me a copy of the New Yorker magazine with a story by John Cheever and I loved his writing and loved the magazine, the urbanity, the humor, the curiosity. I once saw John Updike on the downtown Broadway local train, a thrilling experience. I once went to a party at a writer’s that was so wonderful I stayed until 5 a.m. and stood on the street and felt too happy to go home to bed. I bought a notebook at a newsstand and went to a café and sat and wrote and had breakfast. People passing, heading for the subway, the writer deep into invention.

For true New Yorkers, the city is the only place to be. But for a guy who wrote a novel in the back bedroom? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see Times Square and its flashing signs and canyons of glass where rivers of humanity move through, most of them simply for the experience of being in Times Square.

Locked up for three months, I’ve lost interest in the big city. The Orkneys have sandstone cliffs, seal colonies, and the electricity is wind-generated. Exports include beef, whiskey, cheese, and seafood. The climate is mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream. There are sheep and many lighthouses. Surely there would be one that would welcome a lightkeeper.

It sounds wonderful to me, sleeping in a room under the glass dome, the light sweeping over the North Sea, the sense of public service, warning fishermen from the rocks. Being the only novelist on the island. And I’d escape from the heavy burden of being an American, which has become onerous lately. In my Orknitude, I would only be an old man in a tower and a provider of light.

It’s a perfect plan and now all I need to do is convince my wife. I’m looking at her now as she reads the paper. Surely a man with my language skills can sway this woman’s heart. My darling, my love, take my hand, let us speak of things to come. We’ve done New York. Let me tell you of a wonderful place far away. Put your trust in your husband. If, after ten years, you don’t like the island of Graemsay, I promise we’ll move straight back.

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In fact, the singer had been named for the general, which was no problem in country music in the Fifties. I used to sing a song of his, “Don’t be angry with me, darling, if I fail to understand all your little whims and wishes all the time. Just remember that I’m dumb, I guess, like any foolish man, and my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine,” which, in the annals of love poetry, doesn’t rank with “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” or “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night” nor even “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,” but still I sang it, I admit, not considering its Confederate connections.

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A modest proposal: Make today a new day

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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