Sunday June 14, 2015

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When I Was Conceived

It was 1945, and it was May.
White crocus bloomed in St. Louis.
The Germans gave in but the war shoved on,
and my father came home from work that evening
tired and washed his hands
not picturing the black-goggled men
with code names fashioning an atomic bomb.
Maybe he loved his wife that evening.
Maybe after eating she smoothed his jawline
with her palm as he stretched out
on the couch with his head in her lap
while Bob Hope spoofed Hirohito on the radio
and they both laughed. My father sold used cars
at the time, and didn’t like it,
so if he complained maybe she held him
an extra moment in her arms,
the heat in the air pressing between them,
so they turned upstairs early that evening,
arm in arm, without saying anything.

“When I Was Conceived” by Michael Ryan from New and Selected Poems. © Houghton-Mifflin, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Flag Day. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress approved the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States, with a star for each state and 13 red and white stripes to commemorate the original 13 colonies.

On this date in 1951, the U.S. Census Bureau unveiled the first commercially produced electronic digital computer, UNIVAC I. UNIVAC I (which stands for Universal Automatic Computer) weighed 16,000 pounds and took up 350 square feet of floor space — about the size of a one-car garage. This was a significant improvement on its predecessor, ENIAC, which covered 15,000 square feet. UNIVAC was designed for the rapid and relatively simple arithmetic calculation of numbers needed by businesses, rather than complex scientific calculations. The general public didn’t pay much notice until 1952, when CBS used a UNIVAC I to predict the outcome of the presidential election after only 5 percent of votes had been counted. The computer correctly picked Eisenhower in a landslide, and predicted his electoral count within 1 percent.

Today is the birthday of writer and publisher John Bartlett (books by this author), born in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1820). He was a clever boy and a real self-starter. He learned to read at the age of three, and had read the whole Bible by the time he was nine. He went to work in the Harvard University bookstore at 16, and he owned the store by the time he turned 30. He was locally famous for being well read, and “Ask John Bartlett” became common advice around Harvard whenever questions of a literary nature arose. He started keeping a journal of this information for his customers’ reference, and published it in 1855. The first edition of A Collection of Familiar Quotations ran 258 pages and contained quotes from 169 different authors. Quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible made up one-third of the first edition. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is now in its 18th edition and has never been out of print.

It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (books by this author), born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Congregationalist minister, and he was a great proponent of education. The family moved to Cincinnati in 1832, and Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe in 1836; he was a clergyman and scholar, and he encouraged her to continue writing, which she had already enjoyed doing for several years.

Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati was separated from Kentucky slave-owners only by the Ohio River, and Stowe was very aware of conditions through her encounters with fugitive slaves. She also read a great deal of abolitionist literature, and when her husband took a teaching position in Maine, she began writing a long tale of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), which caused a national sensation. When she later met President Lincoln in 1863, he reportedly remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.”

In 1996, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Harper’s: “Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it. Smiley wrote, “Personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery.” In Huck Finn, she writes, “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity.” She concludes: “I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”

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