July 22, 2014

Birth of Lazarus: world-wide welcome

Emma Lazarus, her sister said years later, was born to sing like a poet. But, she noted, "she did not sing, like a bird, for joy of being alive." Instead, much of her work is very serious, if not somber; much of it is political. Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, the fourth of what would soon be seven children, in New York City.

Though Lazarus wrote many poems beginning as a teenager, as well as prose and even drama, before her death at age 38, she is best known for a single sonnet. It was written in 1883 and donated to be sold to raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. She believed that the Statue would serve as an important greeting and a symbol for incoming immigrants, and likely had that in mind when she wrote "The New Colossus," referencing the ancient Greek Colossus of Rhodes. It was read at the fundraising exhibition, but was mostly forgotten until after Lazarus's death. By 1903, a plaque quoting Lazarus's poem was added to the pedestal. Her words remain a reminder of a certain idealism in emigration to the United States:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

July 16, 2014

Birth of Ida B. Wells: with its joys and sorrows

Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. Before she was even a year old, however, she was emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. Her parents, who were also freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, encouraged education in their children (her father was a trustee of what is now Rust College). However, her parents died when she was a teenager, and young Ida dropped out of college to became a schoolteacher in order to earn enough money to support her siblings.

Wells eventually moved the family to Tennessee, and there experienced segregation and the effects of racism stronger than before. In September 1883, she refused to move from the first class cabin of the train to the smokers' cabin. Though she won a lawsuit against the company, she lost on a later appeal. She sued again after a similar incident and again won initially but, this time, the state's supreme court overturned that verdict.

The incidents fueled her desire to do something to attack the problem of racism and she soon switched careers from educator to journalist. She wrote for newspapers in Tennessee, New York, Michigan, Illinois, and others, writing directly about racial problems including poor funding for black schools and the horror of lynchings. She was soon labeled a troublemaker; others, however, called her "Princess of the Press." Eventually, she was owner and editor of her own newspaper, Free Speech. Once, in 1892, while away from the office, her building was ransacked by her enemies. She was undeterred, and Ida B. Wells had a lengthy career as a journalist, author, and public speaker.

An entry from her diary on her 25th birthday, July 16, 1887, shows the high standards she set for herself even at that young age:

This morning I stand face to face with twenty five years of life, that ere the day is gone will have passed me by forever. The experiences of a quarter of a century of life are my own, beginning with this, for me, new year... Within the last ten [years] I have suffered more, learned more, lost more than I ever expect to, again. In the last decade, I've only begun to live — to know life as a whole with its joys and sorrows. Today I write these lines with a heart overflowing with thankfulness to My Heavenly Father for His wonderful love & kindness... When I turn to sum up my own accomplishments I am not so well pleased. I have not used the opportunities I had to my best advantage and find myself intellectually lacking... Twenty-five years old today! May another 10 years find me increased in honesty & purity of purpose & motive!

*Information, including the passage above, comes from The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1994 edition), edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis.

July 11, 2014

Birth of Charles Heber Clark (Max Adeler)

Charles Heber Clark was born in Berlin, Maryland on July 11, 1842, though he moved to Pennsylvania as a teenager and later became known by his pseudonym "Max Adeler." After serving as a soldier for the Union Army during the Civil War, he began his writing career as a journalist in Philadelphia. Much of his work was focused on economics. He eventually owned and edited his own newspaper, the Textile Record, before retiring to the suburbs of Conshohocken, outside of Philadelphia.

His first book was as a humorist, Out of the Hurly Burly; or, Life in an Odd Corner (1874), using the pen name Max Adeler to disassociate with his serious journalism. It was dedicated to "the intelligent compositor," the machine that laid out the type, for being "a humorist who has had too little fame" thanks to its occasional typos. The book reportedly sold over a million copies. Several other books with humorous intent followed, though Clark also attempted more serious writing. He and Mark Twain had a spat or two over their literary borrowings, both intentional and unintentional.

A representative selection from Out of the Hurly Burly offers a glimpse into Clark's/Adeler's casual humor. In this section, he is writing about umbrellas and their various uses as well as how umbrellas are perceived by certain people. He offers, for example, a story about a soldier who went into battle in the rain with an umbrella. "I do not mind being killed," he said, "but I object decidedly to getting wet." The following account is offered immediately after:

And there was the case of Colonel Coombs — Coombs of Colorado. He had heard that the most ferocious wild beast could be frightened and put to flight if an umbrella should suddenly be opened in its face, and he determined to test the matter at the earliest opportunity. One day, while walking in the woods, Coombs perceived a panther crouching, preparatory to making a spring at him. Coombs held his umbrella firmly in his hand, and presenting it at the panther, unfurled it. The result was not wholly satisfactory, for the next moment the animal leaped upon the umbrella, flattened it out and began to lunch upon Coombs. Not only did the beast eat that anxious inquirer after truth, but it swallowed the hooked handle of the umbrella, which was held tightly in Coombs's grasp, and for two or three weeks it wandered about with its nose buried among the ribs of the umbrella. It was very handy when there there was rain, but it obstructed the animal's vision, and consequently it walked into town and was killed.

July 10, 2014

Birth of Humphreys: wonderful at imitation

David Humphreys was born in Connecticut on July 10, 1752. A graduate of Yale, he served during the American Revolution, earning the rank of Colonel. Most notably, he also became an aide-de-camp of George Washington, who praised him for his "zeal in the cause of his country." When Washington became President of the United States, Humphreys was appointed as an overseas diplomat. He later wrote a biography of his friend Washington. In his varied career, Humphreys was also a farmer, a legislator, and an entrepreneur, as well as a poet and author. Without further ado, his poem, "The Monkey Who Shaved Himself and His Friends: A Fable" (from 1804, if not earlier):

    A man who own'd a barber's shop
At York, and shav'd full many a fop,
A monkey kept for their amusement;
He made no other kind of use on't—
This monkey took great observation,
Was wonderful at imitation,
And all he saw the barber do,
He mimic'd straight, and did it too.

    It chanc'd in shop, the dog and cat,
While friseur din'd, demurely sat,
Jacko found nought to play the knave in,
So thought he'd try his hand at shaving.
Around the shop in haste he rushes,
And gets the razors, soap, and brushes;
Now puss he fix'd (no muscle miss stirs)
And lather'd well her beard and whiskers,
Then gave a gash, as he began—
The cat cry'd "waugh!" and off she ran.

    Next Towser's beard he try'd his skill in,
Though Towser seem'd somewhat unwilling;
As badly here again succeeding,
The dog runs howling round, and bleeding.

    Nor yet was tir'd our roguish elf;
He'd seen the barber shave himself;
So by the glass, upon the table,
He rubs with soap his visage sable,
Then with left hand holds smooth his jaw,—
The razor in his dexter paw;
 Around he flourishes and slashes,
Till all his face is seam'd with gashes.
His cheeks dispatch'd—his visage thin
He cock'd, to shave beneath his chin;
 Drew razor swift as he could pull it,
 And cut, from ear to ear, his gullet.

    Who cannot write, yet handle pens,
Are apt to hurt themselves and friends.
Though others use them well, yet fools
Should never meddle with edge tools.

Humphreys's poem was obviously meant to be humorous and his comedic poems put him amidst the group called "The Hartford Wits" — a group which included other early Connecticut writers like John Trumbull and Joel Barlow. As for "The Monkey," the poem was almost certainly an inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe, who gave the razor-wielding idea a more homicidal turn in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

July 3, 2014

Lathrop on Gettysburg: an angry embrace

25 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, survivors of the bloody battle joined for a reunion at the scene where it all happened, on July 3, 1888. The guest speaker for the gathering was the Hawaii-born poet, editor, and novelist George Parsons Lathrop, perhaps best known as husband of Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The poem he presented that day was simply titled "Gettysburg: A Battle Ode." Despite how his poem begins — "Victors, living, with laureled brow, / And you that sleep beneath the sward!" — Lathrop particularly addressed the Confederate veterans who had lost that day in 1863. He emphasized the peaceful reunion of these former foes, who "fiercely warred" not so long ago, but now, "Brother and brother, now, we chant a common chord."

Lathrop's poem also gives specifics about the day, including individual soldiers and officers who he praises for their bravery. He even gives a play-by-play of which groups charged who and when. Before all that, however, he said the scene was "blameless" even as it is now "known to nations far away." In fact, he describes how the day was, otherwise, a normal, peaceful one before the "living lines of foemen" appeared, full of the tragic "Madness of desire to kill."

The farms that hosted the battle become a garden for those men who will die and be harvested by Death. The poem is purposely all-inclusive of all sides, even to the point that Lathrop gives a sort of inventory of those involved:

Men of New Hampshire, Pennsylvanians,
   Maine men, firm as the rock’s rough ledge!
Swift Mississippians, lithe Carolinians
   Bursting over the battle’s edge!
Bold Indiana men; gallant Virginians;
   Jersey and Georgia legions clashing;—
Pick of Connecticut; quick Vermonters;
   Louisianians, madly dashing;—
And, swooping still to fresh encounters,
   New York myriads, whirlwind-led!—
All your furious forces, meeting,
   Torn, entangled, and shifting place,
Blend like wings of eagles beating
   Airy abysses, in angry embrace.

The battle which brings these foes into an intermingled mix of weapons and bodies is juxtaposed with the re-union of the states, and the reunion of the veterans ("like a bride"). Together, these men join in mourning and in celebration, regardless of previous alliances.

    Two hostile bullets in mid-air
            Together shocked,
            And swift were locked
    Forever in a firm embrace.
    Then let us men have so much grace
        To take the bullets' place,
         And learn that we are held
            By laws that weld
            Our hearts together!
    As once we battled hand to hand,
        So hand in hand to-day we stand,
            Sworn to each other,
            Brother and brother,
    In storm and mist, or calm, translucent weather:
    And Gettysburg’s guns, with their death-giving roar,
    Echoed from ocean to ocean, shall pour
         Quickening life to the nation’s core;
            Filling our minds again
With the spirit of those who wrought in the
                        Field of the Flower of Men!

June 25, 2014

McCann on Saltus: a genius died

After Francis Saltus Saltus's midnight death, his John Ernest McCann was immediately inspired to write a poem to his friend, the deceased poet. Simply titled "Francis S. Saltus," the poem, the three stanzas pay tribute to a multi-talented genius, and is dated June 25, 1889:

A genius died last night, about whose brow
   Fame never twined the laurel and the rose.
   A master he of music, verse and prose,
Who lived, laughed, loved, and suffered, to endow

The world with buds and blossoms from the bough
   That sways within the garden where Thought grows
   When the gale of Inspiration madly blows
The daisies of sweet Song before God's plow!

Ah! who can wear the laurel, now he's dead?
   Not one among the many whom he knew!
      Pluck not the leaf for any—leave it there;
And Time will weave it for his wondrous head,
   And Fame may bear it up beyond the blue—
      To where he sits and laughs with Baudelaire! 

Saltus and McCann were close enough that they collaborated on at least three poems, which McCann published the next year in his compilation Songs from an Attic. That collection also included his memorial verses to Saltus, though it was altered to combine the first two stanzas into one longer stanza. In his poem, McCann (who was more well known as a playwright than a poem) also acknowledges Saltus's inspiration from French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose lifestyle was equally influential on Saltus; like Baudelaire, he had a strong affinity for alcohol, particularly absinthe.

June 24, 2014

Death of Saltus: when men perish, I rejoice

Francis Saltus Saltus died in Tarrytown, New York on June 24, 1889, at the age of 39. "His trouble was a gastric one," the New York Times reported, and for several days he was unable to eat. Despite his death at an early age, Saltus was quite accomplished: He could reportedly speak in 10 languages, had written four comic operas, had poetry published (in multiple languages) in periodicals throughout the country and the world, and edited his own humorous magazine. He left several thousand poems unpublished as well. Most of Saltus's poems were comical in nature and, as such, perhaps it is fitting he was buried in the famous Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, also the final resting place of another writer known for his humor, Washington Irving. His poem "The Delights of Doom":

I love to visit unknown graves
     When snow the woodland buries,
And hear the wild wind when it raves
     Over grim cemeteries.

I glory in the sight of tombs,
     O'er slabs I love to ponder;
And I am glad when in the glooms
     Of humid crypts I wander.

I love to hear the dolorous voice
     Of anguish and of mourning,
And when men perish, I rejoice
     At death's untimely warning.

I fain would have the poet's fire,
     To glorify in verses
Death, doom, and all disaster dire,
     Shrouds, monument, and hearses.

I see the morgue with eager eyes,
     The pastime never varies;
And I reap pleasure and surprise
     Reading obituaries.

Death in all forms to me is sweet,
     And I am a believer
In awful plagues and pests effete
     Polluting towns with fever.

War pleases me when thousands lie
     Mangled in woods and closes;
And of all flowers beneath the sky
     I worship tuberoses.

Do not misjudge and say I'm mad,
     And cry against my maker,
But the truth is, my biz is bad,
     And I'm an undertaker.