lincoln

Serving up prayers for Thanksgiving

Church_in_FogAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 18, 2018.

What’s your favorite holiday?

That’s a question my brothers and I asked each other as kids.

Christmas topped our lists, of course. How could any day compete with December 25 and the presents it brought?

If Thanksgiving ever received an honorable mention, it was for its one advantage over Christmas – you didn’t have to go to church!

Like most of our neighbors in the Elmhurst section of Providence, we celebrated Turkey Day in secular fashion, with family, football, and food. Watching the Macy’s parade on TV, I was unaware that our annual national feast had deep religious roots. But it does. The practice of observing prayer-filled days of thanksgiving, especially following good harvests, dates back to early American settlement communities.

On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued his fledgling country’s first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, he recommended that November 26 “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City that day. Then solemnity gave way to celebration, and the president provided the city’s imprisoned debtors with food and beer.

Presidents after Washington declared days of thanksgiving as well. According to the Plimouth Plantation Museum, by the 1850s almost every state and territory observed such celebrations, though not in any unified way. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that our national day of gratitude was formalized, due in large part to the persistent advocacy of one Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale, often referred to as the Godmother of Thanksgiving, was a successful editor and writer who began campaigning for the nationwide holiday in the 1830s. Her letter to Lincoln in September 1863 urged him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The appeal, on the heels of the North’s victory at Gettysburg, must have struck a chord with the president, who felt it was his sacred duty to preserve the Union.

On October 3, 1863 – exactly 74 years after Washington’s proclamation – Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

That timing remained unchanged until 1939 when November had five Thursdays, the last of which fell on the final day of the month. With the country still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the 23rd to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and, he hoped, spur retail sales. The change was not popular; 62 percent of Americans disapproved. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Thomas Taggert, criticized FDR for his action, derisively referring to the rescheduled holiday as “Franksgiving.”

A Commerce Department survey two years later reported that FDR’s brainchild had delivered little positive economic impact. Shortly afterward, a joint resolution of Congress, signed into law by the president, officially designated Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November – importantly, not the last Thursday as Lincoln had prescribed, thereby ensuring the holiday would never again fall as late as the 29th or 30th.

But it’s Lincoln’s proclamation that gives one pause now. In his younger years, Honest Abe was considered a religious skeptic. By 1863, however, his evolving spiritualism moved him to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The great man from Illinois had offered up a prayer that many of us are saying, in our own ways, this Thanksgiving as well.

 

 

Seuss to Joyce: A Bloomsday Journey

Ulysses

As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.

Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.

Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.

As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.

“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.

Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.

(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)

Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.

(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)

The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”

Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.

Happy Bloomsday!

 

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Created at wordle.net

Created at wordle.net

 

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Joyce, Bloomsday, And The Color Of Money

You can tell a lot about a nation by the people it puts on its money. In the United States, our legal tender celebrates our democracy and the leaders it has produced. A parade of presidents graces our dollar bills – Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50). Ben Franklin, a colonial triple-threat – diplomat, inventor, essayist – gazes at us from the $100 note. Franklin coined the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Save enough pennies and you can carry Benjamins in your wallet.

When I arrived in Ireland as a student in 1980, I was struck by the pre-euro pound notes that made up the Irish national currency. There were different colors for different denominations – green, orange, pink, blue. The notes were larger than American bills. And look who appeared on the notes – Jonathan Swift on the £10 bill and William Butler Yeats on the £20. Writers on money! As a student of literature, this was the country for me.

That semester, I fell under the spell of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. Considered by many to be the finest English-language novel published in the 20th centuryUlysses is a dazzling and difficult work, 783 pages of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, and comedic joy. It charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904. Why did Joyce choose this date? That’s when he took his “first walk” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

Bloom is Joyce’s everyman. By paralleling the events of Bloom’s day with those of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man – you and me and the rest of us – as a modern hero. The fact that Bloom is an ad canvasser endears him to me further.

Now known as Bloomsday, June 16th is the day when the world celebrates all things Joyce. In Dublin, literary pilgrims retrace the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen. In New York, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on Broadway. In France, the Paris Bloomsday Group presents songs and readings from Ulysses. Last year, even Twitter turned Joycean when @11lysses tweeted the novel 140 characters at a time.

When Ireland issued its new series of banknotes in 1993, Joyce appeared on the £10 note. The notoriously money-challenged author would have loved the irony.

Happy Bloomsday!

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Gettysburg Address word cloud created at wordle.net

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

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