Saturday Dec. 17, 2016

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They Accuse Me of Not Talking

North people known for silence. Long
dark of winter. Norrland families go
months without talking, Eskimos also,
except bursts of sporadic eerie song.
South people different. Right and wrong
all crystal there and they squabble, no
fears, though they praise north silence. “Ho,”
they say, “look at them deep thinkers, them strong
philosophical types, men of peace.”
                                                                 But take
notice please of what happens. Winter on the brain.
You’re literate, so words are what you feel.
Then you’re struck dumb. To which love can you speak
the words that mean dying and going insane
and the relentless futility of the real?

“They Accuse Me of Not Talking” by Hayden Carruth from Collected Shorter Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the day that The Nutcracker ballet was performed for the first time in St. Petersburg, Russia (1892). Czar Alexander III, in the audience, loved the ballet, but the critics hated it. Tchaikovsky wrote that the opera that came before The Nutcracker "was evidently very well liked, the ballet not. ... The papers, as always, reviled me cruelly." Tchaikovsky died of cholera less than a year later, before The Nutcracker became an international success.

It was on this day in 1821 that Kentucky became the first state to abolish debtors' prison. Debt had been a criminal offense for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, debtors worked as slaves for their creditors. Under Genghis Khan, a merchant could be put to death if he went bankrupt three times. In 17th-century Britain, serious debtors had one ear cut off. In colonial America, some debtors were branded or whipped in public, but most were thrown in jail. In fact, debt was the only crime for which long-term imprisonment was common. Most crimes were dealt with immediately through public punishment, fines, or death. But debtors stayed in prison until they could pay their debts, which was impossible for the majority of inmates, who were poor and had no hope of earning income in prison.

The jails themselves were terrible places. Open sewers ran across the floors. Many had no beds, no heat, no clean water, and awful food or none at all — inmates were asked to pay for their own food, but of course they had no money. Debtors died of disease and starvation, but most owed almost nothing. Of the 1,162 debtors jailed in New York City in 1787, 716 owed less than 20 shillings (1 pound).

Richard Mentor Johnson, a Kentucky senator and Martin Van Buren's vice president, spent much of his career in debt, although he was able to mortgage properties and avoid prison. His constituents were not so lucky. The financial crisis of 1819 especially hurt farmers, and many common people were sent to debtors' prison. Senator Johnson was outraged, and on this day in 1821, he was responsible for outlawing debtors' prison in Kentucky, well ahead of the national curve. After Johnson's 10-year crusade to end debtors' prison on the national level, Congress enacted a federal statute in 1832. Johnson said in a speech on the Senate floor: "The principle is deemed too dangerous to be tolerated in a free government, to permit a man for any pecuniary consideration, to dispose of the liberty of his equal." Bankruptcy protection replaced debtors' prison. In 1946, 8,600 Americans filed for bankruptcy; in 2008, more than a million did.

It’s the birthday of poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author), born in Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). He grew up in a Quaker farming family. When he was a teenager, his sister sent one of his poems to a local paper, and it was accepted for publication by an enthusiastic editor named William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison encouraged the young man to continue writing.

Whittier moved to Boston and then Hartford, working as a journalist and editor, and briefly pursued politics. At the age of 25, he had a nervous breakdown and went home to the family farm to recuperate. Soon he received a letter from Garrison, who by this time had become a famous abolitionist. Garrison wrote: “Whittier, enlist! — Your talents, zeal, influence — all are needed.” Whittier did enlist, and he spent decades in the service of the abolitionist cause. He gave speeches, met with legislators, and wrote pamphlets, poems, and essays. His opinions did not make him popular — he was even stoned by a mob once while trying to retrieve his papers from his office.

After the Civil War ended, Whittier continued to write, turning his focus to less controversial topics like rural life, family, and nature. He published a long book-length poem called Snow-Bound (1866), in which a New England family sit around a fire telling stories while they are stuck inside for three days during a blizzard. He wrote it as a personal poem for his niece, but then mentioned it to his publisher — he pitched it as “a homely picture of old New England homes.” To his surprise, Snow-Bound was a huge success, selling 20,000 copies in its first few months and earning Whittier $10,000.

He wrote:

When the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

On this day in 1903Orville and Wilbur Wright had their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers picked Kitty Hawk because it was full of sand dunes that would cushion crash landings and it had high winds to help get the plane off the ground. But living there was almost unbearable. They endured sandstorms, coastal rains, and swarms of insects during the day. And at night, the wind was so bad that the brothers had to get out and hold on to their tent to keep it from blowing away.

In 1900, Orville and Wilbur started out with a kite controlled from the ground, and later took turns manning it in the air. Their father forbade them from flying together, to ensure that one brother could continue the experiments in the event of a fatal crash. When Wilbur stepped into the controls in October, he was unprepared for the sensation of flying. The plane was unpredictable, he couldn’t plan out his moves, and he relied purely on instinct to adjust the plane up and down. Within a few moments he overcompensated, nearly flipped the glider over and shouted to his brother, “Let me down!” Suffering months of spin-outs, broken struts, blackened eyes, and crash landings, the brothers left Kitty Hawk early. On the train back, Wilbur told his brother, “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.”

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