Saturday Nov. 11, 2017

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A Poem of Thanks

I have been spared another day
to come into this night
as though there is a mercy in things
mindful of me. Love, cast all
thought aside. I cast aside
all thought. Our bodies enter
their brief precedence,
surrounded by their sleep.
Through you I rise, and you
through me, into the joy
we make, but may not keep.

“A Poem of Thanks” by Wendell Berry from Collected Poems. © North Point Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1926, the United States Numbered Highway System was established. In the early days of automobile travel, the federal government wasn’t involved in interstate roads, because most people traveled long distances by train rather than car. Many of the highways were based on heavily traveled wagon trails from the 19th century, like the Oregon Trail or the Santa Fe Trail. The first major interstate highway was the Lincoln Highway, and it ran from New York City all the way to San Francisco, but most highways were located in and around larger cities. By 1925, there were more than 250 named highways in the United States, including transcontinental highways like the Dixie Overland Highway, which ran from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California; the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway, which ran between the Portlands — Maine’s and Oregon’s — with a brief sojourn into Canada; and north-south routes such as the Jackson Highway, which ran from Chicago to New Orleans.

Local trails had their own boosters, who gave them catchy names and collected dues from any businesses that lay on the route. The booster organizations would then put up signposts and promote the route, which brought in customers to those businesses. But it was a confusing system for travelers. In some cases — especially out in the sparsely populated West — trails overlapped one another. And the auto associations were for-profit organizations, and that made their motives suspect. They would often route their highways so that they could take advantage of the dues that they could collect in cities, rather than choosing the most direct route. In 1924, the Reno Gazette commented: “The public is learning this fact — that transcontinental highway associations, with all their clamor, controversy, recriminations, and meddlesome interference, build mighty few highways. […] In nine cases out of 10, these transcontinental highway associations are common nuisances and nothing else. They are more mischievous than constructive. And in many instances, they are organized by clever boomers who are not interested in building roads but in obtaining salaries at the expense of an easily beguiled public.” Wisconsin was the first state to step in to organize and number its trails. The federal government took up the cause and on this date unveiled a standardized numbering and signage system for United States highways.

Perhaps the most famous of the new numbered highways was America’s “Mother Road,” Route 66. Roughly following a patchwork of old wagon trails that were built on the eve of the Civil War, Route 66 linked the main streets of small towns from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles. Until then, residents of these isolated communities had been cut off from any national thoroughfares. Trade across state lines had been difficult and slow. Travel had been limited. When the trucking industry took off in the late 1920s, national planners saw the promise of a diagonal route through the Southwest.

John Steinbeck immortalized Route 66 in the American awareness with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his tale of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing their barren farms for better opportunity in California. Throughout its history, the highway drew writers, wanderers, and adventurers. Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise traveled the highway in his novel On The Road (1957). Bobby Troup’s song “Route 66” was covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones, advising: “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, the highway that’s best, get your kicks from Route 66.”

Today is the birthday of American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922) (books by this author). He’s best known for his book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which he based on his experiences during the famous bombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut’s novels often blended satire, science fiction, realism, and politics. During the 1960s, he became a counter-culture icon on college campuses whose speeches to students inspired the wrath of conservatives. He scoffed: “The beliefs I have to defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a planetary citizen, and so on.”

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis. His father was an architect, and his mother came from a brewing family whose prizewinning beer included a special ingredient: coffee. His early life was rocky: his father was remote and his mother was controlling and often vindictive, which profoundly affected his relationships with women for the rest of his life. An aunt once told him, “All Vonnegut men are scared to death of women.” He later wrote, “My theory is that all women have hydrofluoric acid bottled up inside.”

He worked as a police reporter in Chicago, studied for his master’s in anthropology, started an auto dealership, taught disturbed children, and wrote short stories in his spare time. His first novel was Player Piano (1952), a corporate satire in which a band of revolutionaries decide to destroy machines they believe are taking over humanity.

Vonnegut’s books skewer race, religion, and consumer culture. He invented the fictional religions of Bokonism and the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent; a cataclysm called Ice-Nine, which causes all water to freeze at room temperature; Tralfamadorians; Mercurian Harmoniums; and chrono-synclastic infundibula, which are places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together. When his book Cat’s Cradle was published, it only sold about 500 copies, but now it’s a perennial of high school classrooms.

He was famously ambivalent about being labeled a science-fiction writer and even had a running tiff with Ray Bradbury. He said: “When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.”

It’s the birthday of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (books by this author), born on this day in Moscow in 1821. He was one of seven children, and his father was an alcoholic and treated the children roughly. After his mother died, Fyodor was sent off to private school, then to military school, and when he was a teenager his father died. The cause of his father’s death has never been determined, but even at the time, there were rumors that he was killed by his own serfs.

A friend described Dostoevsky when he was in his 20s as “very fair with a rounded face and slightly upturned nose […] under the high forehead and sparse eyebrows were hidden the small, rather deeply set, grey eyes; the cheeks were pale and covered with freckles; the color of the face was sickly, pallid, the lips thick.”

He went to school and trained to become an army engineer, but after he graduated, he decided to devote his life to writing instead. He wrote a novel, Poor Folk (1846), and showed it to his friend, a poet, who showed it to a famous literary critic, and they went to Dostoevsky’s house in the middle of the night and woke him up to tell him that he was a new literary hero.

But his next novel and stories were failures, and he fell out of favor with the Russian literary elite. So he started hanging out with a different crowd, one that had meetings and discussed utopian socialism, and because of that, Dostoevsky was arrested. He spent eight months in solitary confinement, and then he was sentenced to death. He was marched outside to be shot, but as he was waiting for the gun to fire, he was informed that his sentence had been commuted to exile in Siberia. He spent eight years there, four of them doing hard labor, four as a lieutenant. He came back from Siberia with a new commitment to writing, and a new set of religious ideas.

And he went on to write some of the greatest classics of Russian literature, including Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

He said, “There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.”

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