Sunday Apr. 3, 2016

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The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away

The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                                            into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind 
                                                                       some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                           the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
                On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.

“The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away” by Charles Wright from Sestets. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Washington Irving (books by this author), born in 1783 in New York City. That same week, the British cease-fire was brokered and the American Revolution ended, and William and Sarah Irving named their youngest child in honor of its most famous general, George Washington.

He began publishing commentary and theater reviews at the age of 19, under the name Jonathan Oldstyle. His earliest major writings were satires, and for this he wrote under several assorted pen names as well, including Dietrich Knickerbocker. Under this moniker he came out with A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a satire on self-important historical and political writing. The public ate it up, and the book was followed by collections of short stories and essays, including The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819), which contained his two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”

Irving’s legacy is much more a part of American life than most of us are aware of: He wrote a collection of “sketches” called “Old Christmas,” which revived many old English Christmas traditions and restored the holiday’s prominence in America. Charles Dickens credited Irving for much of the holiday’s portrayal in A Christmas Carol, and Santa’s flying sleigh traces back to a dream sequence in Irving’s A History of New-York, in which Saint Nicholas arrives in a flying wagon.

He’s the one who first used the phrase “the almighty dollar,” and he coined one of New York’s most enduring nicknames, “Gotham,” which is Anglo-Saxon for “Goat Town,” and which comes from a town called Gotham in Lincolnshire, England, which was famous for tales of its stupid residents. The residents of New Goat Town are sometimes known as “Knickerbockers,” after one of his pseudonyms, and that’s also where the New York Knicks basketball team got its name.

Irving said, “I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.”

It’s the birthday of San Francisco columnist Herb Caen (books by this author), born in Sacramento (1916), whose column in the San Francisco Chronicle began in 1938, when he was 22, the year after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. He continued writing 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for almost 60 years — it was the longest-running column in American history. He coined the term “beatnik” in 1958, and he made the word “hippie” popular in the 1960s.

He said: “I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to Heaven. I’ll look around and say, ‘It’s not bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final public speech on this date in 1968. He and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in Memphis to support sanitation workers who were striking for a living wage and safer working conditions. The speech is popularly known as the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech.

Although King had come to Memphis specifically to support the strike, he was not originally scheduled to speak at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple that evening. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King’s close friend and colleague with the SCLC, was the featured speaker. But there were so many calls asking for King to address the striking workers that Abernathy rang King’s hotel room and asked him to come down. The weather was stormy, with violent thunderstorms and tornadoes in the area, and many people were unable to attend the event due to the storm. King was exhausted and under the weather but showed up anyway to deliver the speech in spite of a sore throat. He spoke without notes.

He said: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

He talked a lot about death in that speech, bringing up a time 10 years earlier when he had been stabbed in the chest while at a book signing. He’d received many death threats, especially after he spoke out against the war in Vietnam. His flight from Atlanta to Memphis was delayed for an hour because a bomb threat had been made against his plane.

In his speech, he said: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

And he ended his speech: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” King nearly collapsed as he finished his speech, and had to be helped back to his seat, tears streaming down his face.

He was assassinated the next day. He was 39 years old.

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