Monday July 27, 2015

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Late Summer

Out for a walk tonight,
the dog is throwing all her weight
against the leash, lunging toward
the fat tomcat

licking his black ankles
with a delicious, solemn attention
at the top of the neighbor’s steps.

Because this is what the dog
was made to do.
Because for some lucky animals

the space between the body
and what it wants
is all there is.

“Late Summer” by Carrie Fountain from Burn Lake. © Penguin, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1789 that the United States Department of Foreign Affairs was created. A couple of months later, President Washington decided that he needed someone to help with "home affairs," but didn't think there was enough work to create a new position. So he combined them into one, and the Department of Foreign Affairs was renamed the Department of State in September of 1789. Foreign affairs remained the focus of the State Department, and is still the focus today.

American diplomacy had begun long before the official position of secretary of state. The key players in the Revolution knew that in order to succeed, they needed the help of Britain's enemies: France and Spain. In 1775, the Continental Congress established the "Committee of Secret Correspondence," led by Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate with potential European allies and sympathetic British supporters.

After American independence and the adoption of the Constitution, President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as the first secretary of state. Jefferson disliked the formality and elaborate social codes of European courts, which symbolized everything that America had rejected when it broke from England. Jefferson encouraged his diplomats to follow the example set by Benjamin Franklin: wearing simple clothing and using simple manners.

Unfortunately, the Department of State was underfunded, and diplomats earned such small salaries that only wealthy people could afford the job. In 1790, the entire budget for the Department was $56,000; that included the salaries of Jefferson, all the diplomats, administrative staff, firewood, and stationary.

Jefferson wrote: "Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto."

It's the birthday of Joseph Mitchell (books by this author), born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He was a writer for The New Yorker magazine for many years. His stories focused on people living on the fringe in New York City. They featured gypsies, alcoholics, the homeless, fishmongers, and a band of Mohawk Indians who worked as riveters on skyscrapers and bridges and had no fear of heights. Much of his journalism is included in the book Up in the Old Hotel (1992). While at The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell interviewed criminals, evangelists, politicians, and celebrities. He said that he was a good interviewer because he had lost the ability to detect insanity. He listened to everyone, even those who were crazy, as if they were sane. He said, "The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves."

Mitchell published his last book in 1965, Joe Gould's Secret, about a man who said that he learned the language of seagulls and was now writing the longest book in the world. For the next 30 years, Mitchell kept going to his New Yorker office without publishing another word.

It's the birthday of Hilaire Belloc (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1870). In his lifetime, he was known for his journalism and serious essays, but today he's best known for his books of humorous verse.

"When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Hardwick (books by this author), born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). Her books of fiction and essay collections include Sleepless Nights (1979), Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), and Sight Readings: American Fiction (1998). In the early 1960s, she and some of her literary friends decided over dinner to found a book-reviewing journal called The New York Review of Books. She said it was dedicated to "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting."

It's the birthday of novelist Bharati Mukherjee (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1940). She said: "As a bookish child in Calcutta, I used to thrill to the adventures of bad girls whose pursuit of happiness swept them outside the bounds of social decency. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina lived large in my imagination."

She went to college in Calcutta, and after graduation, she asked her father if she could go abroad and study to be a writer — afterward, she would come home for an arranged marriage with a nuclear physicist of her same caste and class. Her father agreed, thinking it would be a harmless way for her to pass a couple of years. Her family was hosting a group of UCLA professors and students for dinner, so her father asked them where he should send his daughter in America to learn to be a writer. They suggested the University of Iowa, so off she went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She started dating someone in her program, a Canadian named Clark Blaise, and after just two weeks, they went downtown during their lunch break and got married in a lawyer's office above a local coffee shop. She said: "Until my lunch-break wedding, I had seen myself as an Indian foreign student who intended to return to India to live. The five-minute ceremony in the lawyer's office suddenly changed me into a transient with conflicting loyalties to two very different cultures."

Mukherjee's novels include The Tiger's Daughter (1971), Jasmine (1989), Desirable Daughters (2004), and, most recently, Miss New India (2011).

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