It was like listening to the record of a symphony before you knew anything
at all about the music,
what the instruments might sound like, look like, what portion of the
orchestra each represented:
there were only volumes and velocities, thickenings and thinnings, the
winding cries of change
that seemed to touch within you, through your body, to be part of you
and then apart from you.
And even when you’d learned the grainy timbre of the single violin, the
ardent arpeggios of the horn,
when you tried again there were still uneases and confusions left, an
ache, a sense of longing
that held you in chromatic dissonance, droning on beyond the dominant’s
resolve into the tonic,
as though there were a flaw of logic in the structure, or in (you knew it
was more likely) you.
“First Desires” by C.K. Williams from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The first wagon train arrived in California on this date in 1841. A 21-year-old New Yorker named John Bidwell led the settlers. He and John Bartleson had founded the Western Emigration Society in Independence, Missouri, to help outfit and prepare would-be pioneers to make their journey to settle the West. One day Bidwell, always on the lookout for an adventure, met a French trapper by the name of Antoine Robidoux; Robidoux painted a very tempting picture of California, so Bidwell resolved that he would join the first wagon train out of Missouri. Bartleson agreed to help lead it, but only if he was given the title of “Captain.”
The Bidwell-Bartleson Party left Westport, Missouri, in May, in order to make it across the Sierra Nevada before autumn snowstorms hit. There were 69 adults in the party, most of them men — only five women and a couple of children dared brave the journey. They traveled 12 to 15 miles a day, in Conestoga wagons dubbed “prairie schooners” because of the way their white canvas covers resembled bellying sails as the wagons crossed a sea of grass. They were able to hook up with a Jesuit missionary party led by Pierre-Jean DeSmet, who took them as far as the Rocky Mountains. The Jesuits were guided by a crusty and experienced mountain man named Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. That was fortunate for the wagon train, because as Bidwell later wrote, “Otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience.”
The wagon train parted company with the Jesuits in Idaho. They also split into two groups: Bartleson led one group to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, while Bidwell led the rest to California. When Bidwell’s group got to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, they were forced to abandon their wagons. They arrived in the San Joaquin Valley dehydrated and nearly starved, after subsisting on stringy mule meat for the last part of their journey. Bidwell kept a diary of the emigration, which found its way back east and was published in 1842. He wrote about arriving at a land unspoiled by European settlers: “Roaming over it were countless thousands of wild horses, of elk, and of antelope.” But it had also been one of the driest years the territory had seen, and all the crops had withered. “Cattle were almost starving for grass,” Bidwell wrote, “and the people, except perhaps a few of the best families, were without bread, and were eating chiefly meat, and that often of a very poor quality.”
It’s the birthday of humorist, actor, and vaudeville performer Will Rogers (1879), sometimes called “America’s Cowboy Philosopher.” Rogers was born in Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, near what is now Oologah, Oklahoma. His father was a Cherokee judge and prominent in the community. Rogers once joked that his family didn’t arrive on the Mayflower, “they met it.”
He was a poor, but affable student, preferring cowboys, lassoing, and jokes to school, so he dropped out after the 10th grade and mucked around before deciding to try his hand at being a gaucho, or cattle rancher, in Argentina. That didn’t work out and he lost all his money, and soon found himself in Australia, working on a ranch and learning lasso tricks. By 1904, he was back in the United States, performing at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It wasn’t until he moved to New York City, though, that he truly began turning heads. He was in the stands at Madison Square Garden when a wild steer broke loose from the act and charged the audience. Rogers stood up and lassoed the steer. He made the front pages the very next day and job offers rolled in.
By the 1930s, Rogers was the most popular entertainer in America. He made more than 70 films, silents and talkies, and public school teachers often took their classes to see his shows during the day. He’d refined his stage act and added monologues, which showed off his cheeky sense of humor. He began each bit with, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” and then he’d go on to skewer daily life, especially politics. He once said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”
Rogers was in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once: one went around the horse’s neck, one circled the rider, and the third slipped under the horse and looped all four legs together.
After college, he became a psychotherapist in Philadelphia, working with troubled teenagers. He met poet Anne Sexton at a reading. She adored him, calling him “a Fellini of the written word,” and referred him to her editor, who promptly published Williams’s first collection, Lies (1969). It was the 1960s, and Williams’s was a vocal anti-war activist. One of his most famous poems, “In the Heart of the Beast,” was written as a response to the shootings of student protesters at Kent State in (1970). It begins, “this is fresh meat right mr nixon?”
William’s early poetry was generally short, with clipped, concise lines. But he gradually began lengthening the line. He said, “I thought that by writing longer and longer poems I could actually write the way I thought and the way I felt.” He published over 20 books of poetry in his lifetime, including Tar (1983), which examined the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), and Repair (1999), which won the Pulitzer Prize and contained a poem called “King” that Williams had been working on for 30 years.
It’s the birthday of novelist Charles Frazier (books by this author), born in Asheville, North Carolina (1950). He grew up in a tiny town in western North Carolina, far from the cultural centers of the state. The tallest building was three stories high, the radio station went off the air when the sun went down, and to get a state paper you had to drive two hours to Asheville. He said, “I met people when we lived down in Raleigh who’d ask where I grew up, and I’d say about two hours west of Asheville, and they’d say they didn’t know there was any North Carolina two hours west of Asheville.”
He said that as a boy he was “a great reader of junk.” He was more interested in hiking around in the woods, especially with his grandparents. They lived on a farm at the base of Cold Mountain, on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, a region where his family had lived for 200 years. His grandmother knew the name of every plant that grew in the woods, and his grandfather still ran a farm without a tractor. Old-timers like his grandparents grew up not long after the Civil War ended, and they passed on their families’ stories of life in the mountains during that time — of poverty, raids by soldiers, and sons going off to fight for a cause they barely understood.
Frazier went to college and graduate school and began to make some money writing; he co-wrote a textbook, Developing Communication Skills for the Accounting Profession (1980), and then a travel guide for the Sierra Club called Adventuring in the Andes (1985). He became a teacher, and worked for a while on a novel that he eventually abandoned.
Frazier began writing a novel inspired by the journey of his great-great-uncle Inman. He did painstaking research about the time, reading through old letters and journals, trying to get every historical detail right as well as the sound and rhythm of the language. His wife encouraged him to quit his teaching job and devote himself to writing the novel — if he didn’t, she said, he would regret it for the rest of his life. He took her advice, sometimes spending weeks at a time alone at his in-laws’ cabin in the mountains. He showed his work to his wife and daughter, but no one else, afraid that he would be discouraged by their reaction. Finally, his wife told him that she was going to take matters into her own hands and share it with their friend Kaye Gibbons whether he liked it or not, so he gave in. Gibbons, a novelist, was so impressed that she sent the manuscript straight to her agent, and before Frazier knew it, he had a book deal. When Cold Mountain (1997) was published, it won the National Book Award and sold more than 3 million copies.