April 29, 2011

Marriage of Edith Wharton

On April 29, 1885, Edith Jones married Edward "Teddy" Wharton. She was 23 years old. After traveling together for a time, they settled in Lenox, Massachusetts at a home they named The Mount (pictured below). The extravagant mansion was designed based on principles discussed in The Decoration of Houses — the first book published with the byline Edith Wharton (co-authored with Ogden Codman).

The twelve years between her marriage and her book, according to biographer Hermione Lee, "is more obscure to us than her later years as a famous novelist." During those years, she met Henry James in Paris; though he initially ignored her, they later became good friends. The Whartons' marriage was apparently strained and Mrs. Wharton wrote tales reflecting the tensions of her married life. She was frequently unhealthy and suffered from exhaustion, while her husband became erratic and depressed. After proving her husband an adulterer, she divorced him in 1913. She fought, however, to keep using the name Edith Wharton.

Today, The Mount is a house museum open to the public. Opening day for the 2011 season is May 7. From the conclusion to The Decoration of Houses:

Modern civilization has been called a varnished barbarism: a definition that might well be applied to the superficial graces of much modern decoration. Only a return to architectural principles can raise the decoration of houses to the level of the past...

There is no absolute perfection, there is no communicable ideal; but much that is empiric, much that is confused and extravagant, will give way before the application of principles based on common sense and regulated by the laws of harmony and proportion.


*For more information, see Edith Wharton (2008) by Hermione Lee.

April 28, 2011

Cawein: true of myself and of all poets

One of the most respected writers from Kentucky, Madison Cawein still appreciated the opinion of friends. He wrote a letter to Robert Edward Lee Gibson, a minor poet from Missouri, on April 28, 1898:

You have always interested yourself so deeply in my work, and have expressed such great admiration for it, that I have been often at a loss how to show to you my appreciation of both. I have seized the opportunity of doing so, and dedicated my latest volume, Idyllic Monologues, to you, my friend. I think you will like the dedicatory stanzas when you see them. They are true of myself and of all poets of the present day; American poets, at any rate, and Southern and Western poets, particularly.

As promised, the book was dedicated "To my friend: R. E. Lee Gibson." That friend was also subject of the poetic forward:

And one, perchance, will read and sigh:
"What aimless songs! Why will he sing
Of nature that drags out her woe
Through wind and rain, and sun, and snow,
From miserable spring to spring?"
      Then put me by.

And one, perhaps, will read and say:
"Why write of things across the sea;
Of men and women, far and near,
When we of things at home would hear—
Well, who would call this poetry?"
      Then toss away.

A hopeless task have we, meseems,
At this late day; whom fate hath made
Sad, bankrupt heirs of song; who, filled
With kindred yearnings, try to build
A tower like theirs, that will not fade,
      Out of our dreams.

*The portrait of Cawein above dates to 1910, painted by the poet's friend John Bernard Alberts, Jr. The original is now in the collection of the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky.

April 26, 2011

Maryland: she spurns the Northern scum!

After shots were fired on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln sent federal troops to protect Washington, D.C. The troops traveled through Baltimore, Maryland on the way. The people of Maryland were not yet decided if they would join the Confederacy or stay with the Union. A pro-Confederate mob soon attacked, resulting in what was termed the Baltimore Riot.

In response, James Ryder Randall, a displaced Baltimorean in Louisiana, tried to rally his home state by writing "Maryland, My Maryland." It was published on April 26, 1861, three days after being written; the poet was 22 years old. It was soon set to music but it was not until 1939 that it became the official state song of Maryland. It remains controversial for its anti-Union message and its references to Lincoln as a "tyrant" and "despot."

The despot's heel is on thy shore,
      Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
      Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
      Maryland! My Maryland!

Hark to an exiled son's appeal,
      Maryland!
My Mother State! to thee I kneel,
      Maryland!
For life or death, for woe or weal,
Thy peerless chivalry reveal,
And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,
      Maryland! My Maryland!

...Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,
      Maryland!
Virginia should not call in vain,
      Maryland!
She meets her sisters on the plain-
Sic semper! 'tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
      Maryland!
Arise in majesty again,
      Maryland! My Maryland!

I see the blush upon thy cheek,
      Maryland!
For thou wast ever bravely meek,
      Maryland!
But lo! there surges forth a shriek,
From hill to hill, from creek to creek,
Potomac calls to Chesapeake,
      Maryland! My Maryland!

Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
      Maryland!
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
      Maryland!
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the shot, the blade, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the Soul,
      Maryland! My Maryland!

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
      Maryland!
The Old Line bugle, fife, and drum,
      Maryland!
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb—
Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! She burns! She'll come! She'll come!
      Maryland! My Maryland!

April 25, 2011

The curse of the world, for its theme

After being accused of stealing funds while working at a bank in Austin, Texas, William Sidney Porter fled to New Orleans and, later, Honduras. When he heard his wife Athol Estes was sick and dying back home, he returned and stood trial. Though he denied it, he was found guilty. He was allowed to remain free until his wife's death and, on April 25, 1898, was imprisoned. His sentence was for five years; he was released after three years and three months for good behavior.

Concerned over the well-being of his daughter, Porter focused on writing stories while in jail. He had published here and there earlier but he was worried that his status as an inmate would hurt his reputation. After experimenting with various pseudonyms, he settled on O. Henry. He soon became one of the most popular short story writers in the United States, with over 200 to his name (most published in the ten years before his death).

The first story to carry the now-famous pen name was "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking," published in McClure's Magazine. When the title character wakes up on Christmas morning, the sound of workers around him reminds him of jail:

Already from the bosom of the mill came the thunder of rolling barrels of sugar, and (prison-like sounds) there was a great rattling of chains as the mules were harried with stimulant imprecations to their places by the wagon-tongues. A little vicious "dummy" engine, with a train of flat cars in tow, stewed and fumed on the plantation tap of the narrow-gauge railroad, and a toiling, hurrying, hallooing stream of workers were dimly seen in the half darkness loading the train with the weekly output of sugar. Here was a poem, an epic — nay, a tragedy — with work, the curse of the world, for its theme.

April 24, 2011

Moulton: Easter morn she kneels and prays

Louise Chandler Moulton struggled with a title for the book that would be published in late 1889. She had considered Vagrant Moods and a friend suggested The Primrose Path but the collection ultimately carried the title In the Garden of Dreams: Lyrics and Sonnets. A friend from Rome wrote to her, "What a perfect title!" and admitted he had been taking a long walk through her dreamy garden.

John Greenleaf Whittier (who was the subject of one of the poems) particularly praised the sonnets in the collection. As he saw it, "the sonnet was never set to such music before, nor ever weighted with more deep and tender thought." Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Moulton had sought for advice on the book, said it seemed "to hold leaves torn out of the heart's record."

Moulton also experimented with French forms and had a section of rondels and rondeaux. Included among the collection was a poem titled "Easter Sunday":

Easter morn she kneels and prays,
   A gentle saint in baby blue—
Forgive her that her hat is new,
   And all those dear, coquettish ways.

Her loyal soul pure tribute pays
   To that high throne where prayers are due,
At Easter, when she kneels and prays,
   A gentle saint in baby blue.

So innocent her girlish days
   She scarcely knows what sins to rue,
   What pard'ning grace from Heaven to sue,
As, glad with morning's gladdest rays,
A gentle saint, she kneels and prays.

April 22, 2011

Field: Charmed by the graces

The poet Eugene Field met the Polish actress Helena Modjeska in St. Louis in the 1870s, years before she moved to California and became an American citizen. On April 22, 1886, Field — himself born in St. Louis but more readily identified with the West — read a poem at a breakfast in her honor, referencing many of the Shakespearean characters she played:

In thy sweet self, dear lady guest, we find
Juliet's dark face, Viola's gentle mien,
The dignity of Scotland's martyr'd queen—
The beauty and the wit of Rosalind.
What wonder, then, that we who mop our eyes
And sob and gush when we should criticise—
Charmed by the graces of your mien and mind—
What wonder we should hasten to proclaim
The art that has secured thy deathless fame?
And this we swear: We will endorse no name
But thine alone to old Melpomene,
Nor will revolve, since rising sons are we,
Round any orb, save, dear Modjeska, thee
Who art our Pole star, and will ever be.

Field also wrote "The Wanderer" in dedication to Modjeska. The attention he paid to the married actress inevitably led to some rumors. In her autobiography, Modjeska described him this way:

I admired him for his genuine poetic talent, his originality and almost childlike simplicity, as much as for his great heart... The author of exquisitely dainty poems, and withal a brilliant and witty humorist, he was equally lovable in all these various characters. He was full of original ideas which often gave a quaint touch to his receptions. In later years, when he lived in Chicago, I remember a dinner en forme, which he called a "reversed one," beginning with black coffee and ice-cream, and ending with soup and oysters. After the first course he delivered a most amusing toast. We were laughing so much that tears stood in our eyes.

On another occasion, Modjeska recounts, several friends were invited to Field's house to meet a friend from abroad. That friend never appeared. As the guests were getting ready to leave, a donkey appeared at the window, braying loudly. "This is my belated friend!" Field exclaimed, "He is, indeed, a great donkey!" She notes that one of the guests wondered who the satirical scene really referred to. As Modjeska wrote, "Thus are commentaries written, looking for some deep, hidden meaning in a simple joke."

April 21, 2011

Fern and Whitman: You are delicious!

About a year after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, America's most popular columnist wrote to the book's author. Fanny Fern was enthusiastic in her short letter to Walt Whitman, dated April 21, 1856:

You are delicious! May my right hand wither if I don't tell the world before another week, what one woman thinks of you. "Walt"? "what I assume, you shall assume!"

Fern then invited Whitman to spend an evening with her and her husband James Parton. Some scholars have suggested Fern had a romantic interest in Whitman, though there is no evidence for it.

The next month, Fern dedicated her weekly column to Leaves of Grass — a book which would soon become one of the most controversial in American literature for its frank depiction of sexuality and the human body. She called it, "Well baptized: fresh, hardy and grown for the masses." Both Fern and Whitman made light of more serious subject matters by using a pun in their book titles, specifically the term "leaves" for "pages." Fern's book, Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, predated Leaves of Grass by only a couple years.

When they met in 1856, they were at markedly different points in their career. Fern was the highest paid newspaper writer of the day and had published four books successfully, including Ruth Hall. Whitman was unemployed after serving as a struggling journalist. His first book, Franklin Evans (a temperance novel), made no impact and he had to self-publish Leaves of Grass at his own expense. Of Whitman's book, Fern emphasized she could "extract no poison from these 'Leaves'."

April 20, 2011

Poe and Willis: good word in season

From his quaint cottage at Fordham, New York, Edgar Allan Poe wrote to editor and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis on April 20, 1849:

The poem which I enclose, and which I am so vain as to hope you will like, in some respects, has been just published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go — unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it I feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets. The verses... may I beg you to take out of the tomb, and bring them to light in the Home Journal?

Poe and Willis had been running in the same circle for years: both were editors, critics, and publishers in addition to writers themselves. Willis had founded the Home Journal, which exists today as Town and Country magazine. At the time of this letter, the final year of Poe's life, most of his new works were published in Boston's Flag of Our Union — a weekly newspaper which Poe (and others) considered trashy and certainly not high literature. In fact, Poe even suggested Willis not bother mentioning the Flag if republished. The poem, "For Annie," is now recognized as one of Poe's greatest.

About four years earlier, Willis had also republished another poem which Poe hoped would have wider circulation: in 1845, Willis republished "The Raven" in the New York Mirror. Willis's publication of that poem was the first to include Poe's name. Poe concluded his 1849 letter referencing that publication:  "I have not forgotten how a 'good word in season' from you made 'The Raven'" (emphasis mine). Poe died less than six months later.

The home where the letter was written, the Poe Cottage, is now run by the Bronx County Historical Society and is undergoing substantial repairs. A new visitor center is also being built. It will reopen to the public soon.

April 19, 2011

It is six and eighty years this very day

In response to the shots fired at Fort Sumter a week earlier, Union troops from Massachusetts made their way to Washington, D.C. to protect the national capital from potential attack. In Baltimore, residents who were sympathetic to the Confederate cause did not take the presence of Union troops lightly and, soon, rioting broke out. Four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed in what was later dubbed the Pratt Street Riots. Maryland officials demanded no federal troops make their way through the state again. Eventually, the city of Baltimore was put under Union military control.

The irony of the date — 86 years to the day after the battle at Concord — was not lost on people. On that day, Rhode Island-born and Connecticut-raised Henry Howard Brownell wrote "April 19th, 1775-1861":

Once again, (our dear old Massachusetts!)
Once again the drops that made their way,
Red, ah not in vain! on that old greensward—
It is six and eighty years this very day.

Six and eighty years—aye, it seemed but a memory—
Little left of all that glory,—so we thought—
Only the old fire-locks hung on farm-house chimneys,
And rude blades the village blacksmith wrought.

Only here and there a white head that remembers
How the Frocks of Homespun stood against King George—
How the hard hands stretched them o'er the scanty embers
When the sleet and snow came down at Valley Forge.

Ah me, how long we lay, in quiet and in error,
Till the Snake shot from the coil he had folded on our hearth—
Till the Dragon-Fangs had sprouted, o'erhatched of hate and terror,
And hell, in armed legions, seemed bursting from the earth.

Once more, dear Brother-State! thy pure, brave blood baptizes
Our last and noblest struggle for freedom and for right—
It fell on the cruel stones!—but an awful Nation rises
In the glory of its conscience, and the splendor of its might.

April 17, 2011

Augusta Cooper Bristol: Sweet child of April

Augusta Cooper (later Mrs. Kimball and, later still, Mrs. Bristol) was born in New Hampshire on April 17, 1835, the youngest of ten children. Very early on, she exhibited a talent in both mathematics and in poetry. She was first published at the age of 15. She moved to southern Illinois in the 1860s and, in 1868, she published her first book of poems with the simple title Poems. She became popular as a public lecturer and eventually moved to New Jersey.

Her (tongue-twistingly titled) poem "The Pyxidanthera":

Sweet child of April, I have found thy place
Of deep retirement. Where the low swamp-ferns
Curl upward from their sheathes, and lichens creep
Upon the fallen branch, and mosses dark
Deepen and brighten, where the ardent sun
Doth enter with restrained and chastened beam,
And the light cadence of the blue-bird's song
Doth falter in the cedar,—there the Spring,
In gratitude hath wrought the sweet surprise
And marvel of thy unobtrusive bloom.

Most perfect symbol of my purest thought,—
A thought so close and warm within my heart
No words can shape its secret, and no prayer
Can breathe its sacredness—be thou my type,
And breathe to one who wanders here at dawn,
The deep devotion, which transcending speech,
Lights all the folded silence of my heart
As thy sweet beauty doth the shadow here.

So let thy clusters brighten, star on star
Of pink and white about his lingering feet,
Till, dreaming and enchanted, there shall pass
Into his life the story that my soul
Hath given thee. So shall his will be stirred
To purest purpose and divinest deed,
And every hour be touched with grace and light.

April 16, 2011

Guest post: Crane and his vicious satire

It is difficult to think of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as anything less than one of the great American works of the late 19th century. When it was published by D. Appleton and Co. in late 1895, it initially earned what H. G. Wells called "an orgy of praise." Reviewers commended Crane's unique story about a young private in the Union Army who battles shame and fear while yearning for military glory. Some even praised the novel's realism, although Crane was only 24 at the time of publication and had yet to witness battle. He later jokingly stated he had found inspiration from the "rage of conflict on the football field."

Not everyone found the novel to their liking, however. On April 16, 1896, The Dial published a passionate letter from its proprietor, General Alexander C. McClurg, a Civil War veteran as well as publisher and book collector. In his lengthy missive, McClurg attacked both The Red Badge of Courage and those who continued to sing its praises. Mistakenly believing that the novel was first published in England, only to be viciously let loose stateside, he wrote of it being "only too well known that English writers have had a very low opinion of American soldiers."

McClurg did not mince words. He deemed the book itself "a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies." The character of Henry Fleming was nothing more than "an ignorant and stupid country lad" without "a spark of patriotic feeling." Crane's writing was riddled with "absurd similes" and "bad grammar." Most damning of all was the fact that "nowhere are seen the quiet, manly, self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles." McClurg summed up by stating the book ought not have been published in the country at all, "out of respect" for the American public.

The letter unleashed a torrent of responses. While several agreed with his sentiments regarding the novel's literary merits (or lack thereof), most did not. Many thought McClurg's attacks against The Red Badge of Courage and its young author unfair. As British author and critic Sydney Brooks wrote, the General "came out on the warpath, arrested Mr. Crane as a literary spy, court-martialled him, and shot the poor fellow off-hand."


*Maria Atilano is a Sr. Library Services Associate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She is a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, having written the articles for Crane, "The Open Boat," and The Red Badge of Courage, amongst others.

April 15, 2011

Birth of Henry James

Though, for the majority of his life, he was a British subject, it was in New York City that Henry James was born on April 15, 1843. He spent the last 53 of his 72 years in England but, even as a child, he frequently went back and forth between his native United States and Europe. Two of his early novels were The American and The Europeans.

James is considered a major figure in the literary realism movement. His contemporary and friend William Dean Howells noted that James tried to do something entirely new in literature: "A novelist he is not, after the old fashion," said Howells, "or after any fashion but his own."

One of James's most well-known works is The Turn of the Screw, a novella published in 1898. The book's narrator has become the teacher to two orphaned children whose caretaker, their wealthy uncle, did not want to take care of them. Instead, he allows them to live in a second home he owns among servants. The two well-behaved children, however, seem to be harboring a secret after the narrator discovers two ghosts in the home — ghosts of prior employees. She becomes quite suspicious of the children's well-mannered ways, assuming they are somehow corrupted by the ghosts and refuse to admit it. She becomes obsessed with proving both that the ghosts exist and that the children know them:

How can I retrace to-day the strange steps of my obsession? There were times of our being together [with the children] when I would have been ready to swear that, literally, in my presence, but with my direct sense of it closed, they had visitors who were known and were welcome. Then it was that, had I not been deterred by the very chance that such an injury might prove greater than the injury to be averted, my exaltation would have broken out, 'They're here, they're here, you little wretches,' I would have cried, 'and you can't deny it now!'

April 13, 2011

Davidson: to moulder and fade on the earth

Amir Khan, and Other Poems was copyrighted in New York on April 13, 1829. The book's author, Lucretia Maria Davidson, had died four years earlier — a month shy of her 17th birthday.

Inventor Samuel F. B. Morse served as the book's editor. In his introduction, he wrote that he expected that her praise was exaggerated by family and friends but was surprised "that I was perusing the works of a child of genuine poetic feeling." Morse collected about three dozen poems in the 150-page book, including the title poem which took up 28 pages. Another long poem, Chicomico, was just over 40 pages. Many focus on home life and her family, but many also reflect her illness and approaching death.

Her poem "Feats of Death" (written when she was 16):

I have passed o'er the earth in the darkness of night,
I have walked the wild winds in the morning's broad light;
I have paused o'er the bower where the Infant lay sleeping,
And I've left the fond mother in sorrow and weeping.

My pinion was spread, and the cold dew of night
Which withers and moulders the flower in its light,
Fell silently o'er the warm cheek in its glow,
And I left it there blighted, and wasted, and low;
I culled the fair bud, as it danced in its mirth,
And I left it to moulder and fade on the earth.

I paused o'er the valley, the glad sounds of joy
Rose soft through the mist, and ascended on high;
The fairest were there, and I paused in my flight,
And the deep cry of wailing broke wildly that night.

I stay not to gather the lone one to earth,
I spare not the young in their gay dance of mirth,
But I sweep them all on to their home in the grave,
I stop not to pity — I stay not to save.

I paused in my pathway, for beauty was there;
It was beauty too death-like, too cold, and too fair!
The deep purple fountain, seemed melting away,
And the faint pulse of life, scarce remembered to play;
She had thought on the tomb, she was waiting for me,
I gazed, I passed on, and her spirit was free.

The clear stream rolled gladly, and bounded along,
With ripple, and murmur, and sparkle, and song;
The minstrel was tuning his wild harp to love,
And sweet, and half-sad were the numbers he wove.
I passed, and the harp of the bard was unstrung;
O'er the stream which rolled deeply, 'twas recklessly hung;
The minstrel was not! and I passed on alone,
O'er the newly-raised turf, and the rudely-carved stone.

April 12, 2011

Harper: freedom cost too much

It is generally agreed that the Civil War officially started when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Years later, black poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper referenced the battle in her long poem "The Deliverance." The poem follows a Southern family: Master, his wife, and their son Thomas — told in the voice of an enslaved person on their farm. Harper, who earlier that year had published a poem inspiring men of Ohio to enlist, wrote about the Civil War about 12 years after the shots at Fort Sumter. Thomas predicts "We're bound to have a fight" but promises to "whip the Yankees" when he hears the news:

"They are firing on Fort Sumpter; [sic]
   Oh! I wish that I was there! —
Why, dear mother! what's the matter?
   You're the picture of despair."

"I was thinking, dearest Thomas,
   'Twould break my very heart
If a fierce and dreadful battle
   Should tear our lives apart."

Thomas assures his mother that only "cowards" would avoid the fighting and, soon enough, he volunteers.

His uniform was real handsome;
   He looked so brave and strong;
But somehow I couldn't help thinking
   His fighting must be wrong.

While Thomas's mother prayed that the Secessionists would win, the enslaved people "were praying in the cabins / Wanting freedom to begin." The narrator knows the progress of the war based on the Master's face: the sadder he looks, the closer they are to emancipation.

The poem continues through Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his assassination, then criticizes his successor Andrew Johnson. Harper then goes on to show support for Ulysses S. Grant, the General-turned-President, and discusses blacks' right to vote. Opposition suggested that blacks were too unintelligent, too uniformed, or too willing to sell their vote. Harper concludes:

Who know their freedom cost too much
   Of blood and pain and treasure,
For them to fool away their votes
   For profit or for pleasure.

April 11, 2011

Pinkney: to one made up of loveliness alone

Born in England while his American father was then ambassador to England, Edward Coote Pinkney was ranked among the greatest American poets before his death on April 11, 1828. He was 25 years old. In his three years of writing while living in Maryland, one poem stood out above all others as his greatest. For a time in the 19th century, "A Health" was a standard toast at special occasions:

I fill this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon;
To whom the better elements
And kindly stars have given
A form so fair, that like the air,
'Tis less of earth than heaven.

Her every tone is music's own,
Like those of morning birds,
And something more than melody
Dwells ever in her words;
The coinage of her heart are they,
And from her lips each flows
As one may see the burden'd bee
Forth issue from the rose.

Affections are as thoughts to her,
The measures of her hours;
Her feelings have the fragrancy,
The freshness of young flowers;
And lovely passions, changing oft,
So fill her, she appears
The image of themselves by turns,—
The idol of past years!

Of her bright face one glance will trace
A picture on the brain,
And of her voice in echoing hearts
A sound must long remain;
But memory, such as mine of her,
So very much endears,
When death is nigh my latest sigh
Will not be life's, but hers.

I fill'd this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon—
Her health! and would on earth there stood,
Some more of such a frame,
That life might be all poetry,
And weariness a name.

April 9, 2011

Smith: Freedom stooped to wipe the tears

Rev. Samuel Francis Smith is remembered, if at all, for one reason: he wrote the words to "My Country 'Tis of Thee," now a well-known patriotic song often referred to as "America." He wrote it in 1831 but continued writing other songs and poems for the rest of his long life (he died in 1895 at the age of 87).

As he prepared what became his final book, Poems of Home and Country, Smith was contacted by an admirer faraway in Japan. The music from "America" had been appropriated by the Japanese and given new words to sing at national events. The admirer also mentioned a story about two American women who had been away from their native country for nearly a decade traveling through Asia. When the two heard the band play "America," one fainted and the other wept for joy. That story inspired Smith to write one more poem, becoming the first in his new book, and dated April 9, 1895. "Echoes of America" is one of his last poems:

What are these notes of melody that float around me here, —
The tones of love that in my youth broke on my ravished ear,
The swelling notes from infant lips, the anthem of the free,
When childish voices trilled the song, "My country, 't is of thee"?

My fate has led me far from home; new scenes salute my eyes;
New climes and seasons greet me here, new flowers, fruits, & skies,
But still my heart, untravelled, turns, dear native land to thee;
I sing again the old refrain, "Sweet land of liberty"!

She spoke in sweet and gentle tones, her cheeks with tears were wet;
"Dear native land, its light, its love, how can I e'er forget?"
She heard the strain; her bounding heart longed for the brave and free;
She breathed in ecstasy of love, "Sweet land of Liberty!"

Another pilgrim, far from home, heard the same echoing strain;
Her throbbing heart grew wild with joy to greet the thrill again.
She fainted as the glorious sound along the gamut ran,
"Is this the land of liberty?" "Alas, 't is but Japan!"

But Freedom stooped to wipe the tears, to kiss the dead to life, —
Freedom that speaks the words of peace, healer of human strife.
Visions of love came o'er the soul; in faith, they rose to see
The tribes of all the peopled earth made, through the Gospel, free.

April 8, 2011

Cooper is in town, in ill health

 On April 8, 1851, the poet and critic Richard Henry Dana Sr. wrote a letter to fellow writer William Cullen Bryant. "Cooper is in town, in ill health," he wrote. "When I saw him last he was in high health and excellent spirits. He has grown thin, and has an ashy instead of a florid complexion." Dana met with Cooper on what was the last trip to New York City ever made by the author of The Last of the Mohicans; Cooper died one day shy of his 62nd birthday that fall.

Dana began his correspondence with Cooper just over a decade earlier, initiating a somewhat cold relationship, yet one of mutual respect. As Dana recounted, "I was telling Mr. [Washington] Allston not long ago, how very highly I tho't of the Pioneers. 'Why don't you write Mr. Cooper?' asked he." So he did.

Shortly after this initial contact, Dana sent Cooper a copy of his son's "journal," as he called it. The work is more generally known as Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Much earlier, Cooper had served before the mast as a midshipman himself. In fact, in the decade or so after Dana Jr.'s book, Cooper wrote more and more about life at sea — both in fiction and nonfiction. Up to his death, he had been working on a continuation of his 1839 book on Naval history. The second part of History of the Navy of the United States of America was published posthumously in incomplete form.

April 6, 2011

Birth of Edmund Hamilton Sears

Edmund Hamilton Sears was born in western Massachusetts on April 6, 1810. Later a Unitarian minister, Sears became a lover of poetry at a young age with the help of his father. "This was one of the circumstances which went to determine my tastes and pursuits," he recalled. Sears records that his earliest memories were his father reading poetry to him — "or rather chanting... for he never read without a sort of sing-song tone." Sears himself wrote the words to the song "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" (the music was written by Richard Storrs Willis, brother of man of letters Nathaniel Parker Willis).

In his long life, Sears published several books of both sermons and poetry combined. His poem, "Serenity":

My friend, where'er you tread this scene
   Of varied joys and cares,
Preserve thy mind alike serene
   In sad or gay affairs.

Whether you live in sorrow's shade,
   Or on the grass recline
In bowers by pines and poplars made
   To quaff the generous wine, —

There, while the boughs above thy head
   A living roof weave high,
And purling brooks with quivering tread
   Run bounding gladly by,—

Let them bring wine, and sweet perfume,
   And roses fresh and gay;
For soon, like these, we cease to bloom,
   And fade from earth away.

The house, the grove, the costly field
   Which yellow Tiber laves,
This heaped-up wealth to heirs we yield,
   And seek forgotten graves.

The highest and the humblest thing,
   The wealthiest, poorest, — all
Are victims to the tyrant king,
   And all alike must fall.

Even now the fatal lot we know
   Is shaken in the urn:
Soon it comes forth, and then we go
   Whence we shall not return.

April 5, 2011

King: our only possession in life

On April 5, 1890, Harper's Bazaar published "The Self-Made Man" by Louisiana native Grace King. One of her earliest works (which she never republished in her later career), the simple sketch features a narrator who meets a professor who is clearly proud of his self-education. The conversation in the hotel where they meet is dominated by the man, who explains his mediocre life in detail. Often in his long monologue, he finds ways to criticize or disparage his wife and praise himself as superior. When his wife finally appears in the story, she is sensitive and refined — and ironically unappreciated by her self-possessed husband. King, then, satirizes the concept of the "self-made man," implying that achievements seem to omit humble beginnings and, most importantly, make us forget humility in general.

The story lacks the decidedly Southern color of King's later works, particularly her famous Balcony Stories (1893). Like her contemporary Kate Chopin, King was known for her depictions of Creole life. One critic referred to her stories as being "like pictures in their vivid intensity."

In contrast to her professor character, King was born into an aristocratic Southern family, though they were later impoverished by the Civil War. Her 1932 autobiography, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, begins:

The past is our only real possession in life. It is the one piece of property of which time cannot deprive us; it is our own in a way that nothing else in life is. It never leaves our consciousness. In a word, we are our past; we do not cling to it, it clings to us.


*For the information in this post, I turned to Grace King: A Southern Destiny (1983) by Robert Bush.

April 4, 2011

Bierce: found to be a hole

The New York World reported exclusive news on April 4, 1915: Ambrose Bierce was alive.

Bierce had vanished mysteriously in Mexico while observing a revolution there, presumably as a source for writing inspiration. According to the New York World, however, Bierce's daughter had recently sent him a letter indicating that he had moved to France, where he had joined the staff of Lord Kitchener. Bierce's daughter, however, claimed that no such letter ever existed.

The report is an example of the speculation that became rampant after Bierce's disappearance. Some suggested that the author and poet knew he was going to die in Mexico, that he hoped to die in battle or, perhaps, that he killed himself there. In one letter to a friend, about two months before his final known letter, he told a friend he intended to travel to South America "if I can get through [Mexico] without being stood up against a wall and shot as a gringo. But that is better than dying in bed, is it not?"

In another letter, Bierce told a female friend:

I thank you for your friendship — and much besides. This is to say good-by at the end of a pleasant correspondence in which your woman's prerogative of having the last word is denied to you. Before I could receive it I shall be gone... I shall go into Mexico with a pretty definite purpose, which, however, is not at present disclosable. You must try to forgive my obstinacy in not "perishing" where I am. I want to be where something worth while is going on, or where nothing whatever is going on. Most of what is going on in your own country is exceedingly distasteful to me... May you live as long as you want to, and then pass smilingly into the darkness — the good, good darkness.

Either way, in his well-known work of humor, The Devil's Dictionary, Bierce defined "dead" (adj.) with a poem:

Done with the work of breathing; done
With all the world; the mad race run
Through to the end; the golden goal
Attained and found to be a hole!

April 2, 2011

Riley: children by Divine birthright

On April 2, 1904, Collier's Weekly published "The Children of the Childless" by James Whitcomb Riley. The Indiana-based poet (the "Hoosier Poet," as they called him), was then approaching 55 years old. That year he would receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, following up another from Yale University two years earlier.

The Children of the Childless!—Yours—and mine.—
Yea, though we sit here in the pitying gaze
Of fathers and mothers whose fond fingers twine
Their children's locks of living gold, and praise
With warm, caressing palms, the head of brown,
Or crown
Of opulent auburn, with its amber floss
In all its splendor loosed and jostled down
Across
The mother-lap at prayer.—Yea, even when
These sweet petitioners are kissed, and then
Are kissed and kissed again—
The pursed mouths lifted with the worldlier prayer
That bed and oblivion spare
Them yet a little while
Beside their envied elders by the glow
Of the glad firelight; or wresting, as they go,
Some promise for the morrow, to beguile
Their long exile
Within the wild waste lands of dream and sleep.
Nay, nay, not even these most stably real
Of children are more loved than our ideal—
More tangible to the soul's touch and sight
Than these—our children by Divine birthright. . . .
These—these of ours, who soothe us, when we weep,
With tenderest ministries,
Or, flashing into smiling ecstasies,
Come dashing through our tears—ay, laughing leap
Into our empty arms, in Fate's despite,
And nestle to our hearts. O Heaven's delight!—
The children of the childless—even these!

Shortly after the turn of the century, Riley had been diagnosed with a nervous disorder and often turned to alcohol for relief. His poem above — uniquely experimental in structure as it is — is in marked contrast to the more light-hearted verses, as some commentators note, aimed to teach children moral lessons. Whatever "children" Riley referred to in this poem, he had none of his own and never married (though he was a devoted uncle).

April 1, 2011

To make April fools of people

"I don't think it is right to make April fools of people. Do you, Uncle Edward?"

"Why, that depends upon circumstances," replied Mr. Edward. "The philosophy of it is, I think, that if the joke gives pleasure to those that it is played upon, as well as to those who play it, it is right, otherwise wrong. This, it seems to me, is a universal rule, and it applies to first-of-April jokes as well as to others."

This story comes from the chapter "April-Fools' Day" by the Maine-born children's author Jacob Abbott. At different times, he was a preacher, math professor, and school principal. He also wrote the book Prank; or, The Philosophy of Tricks and Mischief (1855), a book which includes the "April-Fools' Day" story.

In the story, Uncle Edward relates how he and two friends tricked an entire room of people by pretending to be musicians at a private party (even passing along a hat for tips — though they were sure to return the money when their April Fools trick was revealed). After telling the story, the wagon in which Uncle Edward and the boys were riding came to a stream. Uncle Edward went ahead a bit, promising to wait while the boys searched the stream for fish. When they rush to catch up, however, they realize that Uncle Edward is gone.

Worried, the boys debate if they have been tricked by their uncle, a man who just admitted he like to play tricks on people. The boys were right, however: Uncle Edward never intended to play a joke on them. As he went ahead, his horses were spooked and his niece — the only female on the trip — ran beside them in an attempt to calm them down. As Abbott wrote:

This was a great mistake. A lady who is riding with a gentleman has never any thing to do with the management of the horses. She should remain perfectly passive and quiet, happen what may, as if she reposed entire confidence in the gentleman's capacity and care.