The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with
their green swords, bearing cups of light.
The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with
blossom, one loud yellow shout.
The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the
silver thread of their song.
The irises come back. They dance in the soft air in silken
gowns of midnight blue.
The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf
of violet chiffon.
And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions
and millions of small green hands applauding your return.
“For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant” by Barbara Crooker from Selected Poems. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq on this date in 2003. The justification for the war was the administration’s belief that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Days earlier, in a letter to Congress, the administration sought approval for the military action. “Both because Iraq harbors terrorists and because Iraq could share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists who seek them for use against the United States, the use of force [against Iraq] would be a significant contribution to the war on terrorists of global reach,” the letter read.
In his televised address on this date, President Bush said: “To all of the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you. [...] Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”
The United States had given Saddam a deadline to leave the country. The deadline passed, and about two hours later, coalition forces began missile strikes on the city of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein went into hiding, and his regime was toppled in about three weeks. Standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announced the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003. Saddam was eventually arrested and executed for war crimes in 2006. United States combat forces continued to occupy Iraq until 2010, to quell a violent insurgency, rebuild the country, and ensure the establishment of a democratic government. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, and in 2005, President Bush acknowledged that the war was founded on faulty intelligence.
It’s the birthday of translator, writer, soldier, and all-around adventurer Richard Francis Burton (books by this author), born in Torquay, England (1821). Growing up, he loved languages, and he learned French, Italian, and Latin, and local dialects as his family traveled around Europe — his father was an officer in the British army. He hated Oxford, but he learned Arabic there and went on to fight in the East India Company and learn Hindu, Persian, and quite a few local Indian languages. He wrote about his travels in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and he often disguised himself in local clothing. He became famous when he published A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), about his experience disguising himself to make the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which is forbidden for non-Muslims.
He wrote the definitive English translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, (usually referred to as The Arabian Nights), and it was he who introduced The Kama Sutra to Western audiences.
It’s the birthday of Russian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, (March 31st according to the Old Calendar), born in Great Sorochintsy, Ukraine (1809) (books by this author). His mother was extremely devout, and his father was a bureaucrat who owned a vodka distillery on 3,000 acres and had more than 300 serfs working for him.
After college, he went off to St. Petersburg, ready to take on the world. First he tried acting, but he failed at his audition. Then he tried writing prose, short stories rooted in the folklore and culture of rural Ukraine, and his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831), was a big success. A few years later, he produced a comic play, The Government Inspector (1836). The satirical play mocked the ineptitude of the Russian bureaucracy, but it was extremely popular, and even Czar Nicholas loved it — he is reported to have said, “Everyone gets the business here. Me most of all.”
Gogol produced several more books of short stories; his most famous stories include “The Nose,” about a nose that takes off on its own, dressed in uniform and acting like any other human being; and “The Overcoat,” which has been endlessly interpreted. Dostoevsky is rumored to have said, about himself and his contemporaries: “We all emerged from Gogol’s overcoat.”
But Gogol became a religious fanatic, the follower of a Russian Orthodox priest who convinced him that all art was sinful. He fasted so severely in his attempt to overcome the Devil that he destroyed his health, and the doctors tried to treat him with leeches, which only further weakened him, and he died at the age of 43.
It was on this day in 1842 that Honoré de Balzac’s play Les Ressources de Quinola opened at the Odéon Theater in Paris (books by this author). Balzac was a prolific novelist and playwright who drank 50 cups of coffee each day, which he said was like “sparks shooting all the way up to the brain.” He was also a well-known literary celebrity, and for this play, he attempted a publicity stunt that totally failed. He started a rumor that tickets for the play were completely sold out, assuming that people would turn out en masse to see what all the excitement was about. Instead, assuming that they couldn’t get tickets, no one came, and the theater was almost empty for opening night.
It’s the birthday of novelist Philip Roth (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). He grew up in a Jewish family; his father sold insurance, and his mother, he said, “raised housekeeping in America to a great art.” The neighborhood was mostly Jewish, and Newark itself was an industrial city, full of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland, as well as African-Americans. Roth was an excellent student who graduated from high school at the age of 16.
When it came time to think about colleges, he knew that elite universities like Harvard and Princeton were unattainable, both because he went to a public Newark high school and because those universities were known to have quotas of Jewish students. Roth had been exposed to a long list of colleges from an unlikely source: the illegal football-gambling pool run by the Newark mob. For years, Roth sold football pool cards on the playground for the owner of the corner candy store. He said, “Through the pool, I probably became familiar with far more institutions of higher learning than was the college adviser at the high school.” Eventually, he settled on Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania — he was persuaded when a once-quiet neighborhood boy returned from Bucknell with a confident swagger and a girlfriend. Roth was intrigued by the beautiful campus in the countryside, and by his church-going classmates, and hoped Bucknell would give him an insight into the country-club WASP culture he knew only from books and movies. He said of his peers: “They were youngsters from conventional backgrounds with predominantly philistine interests [...] I felt like Houyhnhnm who had strayed on o the campus from Gulliver’s Travels.”
Roth graduated from Bucknell, went to Chicago for graduate work in English literature, and served for two years in the U.S. Army. He was able to make a few thousand dollars a year teaching, and he started publishing some short fiction, but his writing career didn’t seem promising. The Paris Review published his novella “Goodbye, Columbus” and two short stories, but paid him just $100 for all three. When he was 27 years old, he published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) — the novella accompanied by five short stories. The title novella was the story of Neil Klugman, a teenage Jewish boy from Newark, and his summer romance with a wealthy suburban Radcliffe student.
Roth won a Guggenheim fellowship and took off for Rome. While he was there, he learned that Goodbye, Columbus had won the National Book Award. The book went into a paperback edition, and suddenly Roth was famous. Writing a preface for the book 30 years later, Roth wrote about himself as a young writer in the third person: “In the beginning it simply amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan — about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.”
Roth went on to write many more books, including Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), The Plot Against America (2004), and Nemesis (2010).
In 2012, Roth announced that he had retired from writing fiction. First he reread all 31 of his books — to be sure he hadn’t wasted his time. He said: “After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction. I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!”