Thursday Nov. 6, 2014

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In November

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

“In November" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected to his first term as president of the United States. Before that, Lincoln’s only experience in national politics had been a single term as a congressional representative and two unsuccessful runs for senator. He had only one year of formal schooling and no administrative experience. Newspapers called him a “third-rate Western lawyer.”

He was nominated for president largely on the basis of the series of debates he’d had with Stephen A. Douglas in the Senate race of 1858. Lincoln lost the election for senator, but on the basis of his national prominence, he became a presidential candidate for the election of 1860. There were three other men who might have gotten the Republican nomination that year, all of whom were better known, better educated, and more experienced than Lincoln. Lincoln only had the upper hand because he was from the swing state of Illinois. It also helped that the Republican Convention was held in Chicago that year. Lincoln’s campaign operatives arranged it so that Illinois railroads would offer special rates for train rides to the convention, thereby flooding it with Lincoln supporters.

Once he got the nomination, Lincoln lay low until the election. His strategy was to let the opposition tear itself apart without stirring up any controversy of his own. And the strategy worked. Lincoln’s main rival for the presidency was his former senatorial rival Stephen A. Douglas, who was running as a Democrat. But the Southern Democrats broke off and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln wound up winning only 40 percent of the popular vote, but he won in the Electoral College, even though he didn’t receive a single electoral vote from a Southern state.

The Southern states took his election as a sign that slavery would be abolished, and before he even had a chance to take the oath of office, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded from the Union. By the time Lincoln was getting ready to leave Springfield for Washington, there had been multiple threats on his life. Before he left Illinois, he told a group of journalists, “Well, boys, your troubles are over now; mine have just begun.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Michael Cunningham (1952), born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised near Pasadena, California (books by this author). It was his novel The Hours (1999) that really launched him to fame. It’s the story of three women in different times and places, and one of them is Virginia Woolf. The women are all tied together by the novel Mrs. Dalloway, one of Cunningham’s favorite books and the first one he fell in love with. He said: “When I was 15, I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, because a girl on whom I had a crush threw it at me and said something like, ‘Why don’t you read this and try to be less stupid?’ I did read it and, although I remained pretty much as stupid as I’d been before, it was a revelation to me. I hadn’t known, until then, that you — that anyone — could do such things with language; I’d never seen sentences of such complexity, musicality, density, and beauty. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.’ Mrs. Dalloway made me into a reader, and it was only a matter of time until I became a writer.”

His most recent novel, The Snow Queen, came out earlier this year.

Today is the birthday of poet Anne Porter (books by this author), née Channing. She was born in Sherborn, Massachusetts, in 1911. When she was 16, she met artist Fairfield Porter, and they were married by the time she was 20. She had been writing poetry since she was seven, but now, as a busy mother of five, she didn’t have much time for her own pursuits. The choir and women’s group at the Methodist church were her only social outlets, apart from playing hostess to her husband’s artist friends. Sometimes she modeled for her husband’s paintings, but they weren’t portraits of her; she compared the experience to being an apple in a still life.

When her Fairfield Porter died in 1975, Anne lived with her daughter Elizabeth, and then on her own after her daughter married. Porter felt alone and vulnerable in the quiet empty house, and fell down the stairs twice. She knew she couldn’t live on her own any longer, and was all set to move into an assisted-living facility when her daughter and son-in-law invited her to move in with them. They built an addition to their house just for her, with vaulted ceilings like a cathedral. It was there, at a modest desk surrounded by her late husband’s paintings, that she began to devote more time to her poetry. She collected bits of it on whatever scrap of paper she found lying around, and turned it over and around in her mind, and only when it was nearly complete did she sit down at her old typewriter and commit it to the page.

She published her first collection, An Altogether Different Language, in 1994, when she was 83 years old. The collection was a finalist for the National Book Award.

It’s the birthday of the “March King,” John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C., in 1854. He began studying music when he was six, and over the course of his life, he studied voice, violin, flute, piano, trombone, cornet, baritone, and alto horn, as well as composition. When he was 13, he tried to run away from home and join a circus band, prompting his father to enlist him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician. He published his first composition in 1872, at the age of 18, and was conducting a Broadway orchestra — for Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore — by the time he was 21. He went back to the Marine Band in 1880, this time as its leader, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure, he composed “Semper Fidelis,” which became the official march of the United States Marine Corps.

After he retired from the Marines, he formed his own concert band; they were the first American band to go on a world tour, and they even had their own baseball team. He was a strict perfectionist: everything they played was note perfect and was accorded the same respect, whether it was a classical piece or a pop tune. During World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and led their band; by this time he was a wealthy man, so he donated his naval salary to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund.

He composed many kinds of music, including suites, fantasies, humoresques, and dances; he even composed several university fight songs, operettas, and other vocal pieces. It’s his marches that he’s remembered for, though. On Christmas Day, 1896, he composed one of his best beloved marches, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was named the official march of the United States by an act of Congress. In addition to his skills as a composer and conductor, he was also a fine marksman, and is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. His Hall of Fame biography includes the following quote: “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead.’” He wrote several articles about trapshooting; he also wrote a full-length autobiography and three novels.

He was not a fan of the new recording industry and all its technology, and spoke adamantly against it at a congressional hearing in 1906: “When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

He was a hard worker, devoutly religious, and known far and wide for his personal integrity. He often said, “When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!” and his words were prophetic: he died suddenly of a heart attack following a rehearsal in 1932.

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