Thursday, November 27, 2014

New prose from an old poet

Donald Hall’s essay “Out the Window” appeared in the January 2012 New Yorker. The title did not lie. An old man stares out his window, sees what he sees and riffs on it, his mind moving amid farmhouse ghosts and on to his own slow demise.

A hundred readers of “Out the Window” wrote letters to Hall. By then, deserted by his muse, he had given up poetry. He even regretted having published his last book of poems.

He had not given up work. Age had cooled the literary dynamo he once was, but he picked up steam as an essayist, working an hour a day, then two, then three. Many of the essays found good homes in magazines and have now been collected with fresh ones in Essays after Eighty.

Hall and I are friends, and I watched this book come into being. When he declared an essay fit for outside eyes, he sent it to me for comment and criticism. These were 30th or 40th drafts. Most of my fixes were copy-editing catches, but I also remarked on structural weaknesses and flat passages, contributed an anecdote or two and consulted with Hall about the title.

As it often is in his prose, Hall’s subject is himself, past and present. Each of the 14 essays has a theme – poetry readings, smoking, “Physical Malfitness,” death, a road trip through 1952 Europe, the beards he grew and the women he grew them for. He turned 86 in September, and because of this longevity each theme provides a wide field for memory.

A few sentences in “Out the Window” describe the ground on which Hall stands in life and as an essayist:

“However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. . . . When we turn eighty, we recognize that we turn extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

The essays run on the imagination and candor of such observations. These qualities are also the source of those hundred letters he received after the essay first appeared. He breaks the silence of his alien galaxy, speaking for a generation to all generations.

This is not to suggest that Donald Hall is everyman. He has lived a rich, full life, consorting with giants of poetry in his youth, traveling the globe, working as a rock-star professor at a prestigious university, visiting the White House with Philip Roth, talking baseball for Ken Burns’s documentary, serving as U.S. poet laureate. But there is an old man’s humility in the way he writes about his life.

And an old man’s wit. He laughs at the world, and himself. A few years ago Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, illustrated her blog with a photo of the grinning, ancient, wild-haired Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. She assured her readers Hall was not a yeti and invited them to take part in a caption contest. Hall’s response: “With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.”

At the same presentation, Obama whispered something in Hall’s ear as he hung the medal around his neck. Friends who saw the clip on television wanted to know what the president had said. But Obama had been speaking into Hall’s deaf ear. Hall told friends the president had “said either ‘Your work is immeasurably great’ or ‘All your stuff is disgusting crap,’ but I couldn’t tell which.”

The prose of Essays after Eighty is a poet’s prose. Hall is working with sentence and paragraph, not line and stanza, but every word counts. Concrete images propel his sentences, and he is a master of momentum and suspense. The reader sees or tastes a moment and yearns to know what happens next.

Hall has been a prolific poet and writer in part because he mines his own experience. He lives now with limited mobility in a small space, fearful of falling and usually alone. In these essays he has reimagined his past and plumbed his present with wry humor and a good nature.

He is the wise old owl. Hear him hoot.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lions of Thanksgiving Day

For New York City the day had come at last. Amid bitter race-tinged draft riots during the summer, the city’s newspapers had carefully followed the performance in battle of the new black infantry regiments. Seeking to satisfy public curiosity about black soldiers, some city leaders had tried in vain to lure two such regiments to parade down Manhattan’s streets. Now, in November of 1863, the army ordered a New Hampshire lieutenant colonel to lead his black regiment into the city.

Stark Fellows had joined the army about a year earlier as a private in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. He was 23 years old and lived in Weare, N.H..A slight man with a full brown beard, Fellows had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and postponed a legal career to fight for the Union.

He soon made lieutenant but wanted more. With the 14th stuck in Washington, D.C., guarding prisons, he followed his ambition elsewhere. He applied for a commission with a black regiment, breezed through the qualifying tests and got his wish. Free black men and former slaves from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia came together in Arlington to form the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. By late 1863 Fellows had his command.

Sarah Josepha Hale
When the new infantry regiment reached Jersey City on November 25, Fellows leaned on authorities to help get his men to New York. They left their baggage and horses behind and crossed to the southern tip of Manhattan, where Fellows found he had more work to do. After procuring bunks for his soldiers in the barracks at Battery Park and establishing his regimental headquarters at the Astor House, he went to his room and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning was Thanksgiving. The holiday had long been celebrated around the country, but this year was different. Sarah Josepha Hale, a native of Newport, N.H., who edited the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, had asked President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Such a declaration would make the holiday “a great Union Festival of America,” Hale wrote the president.

Lincoln acted on the idea a few days later. Even in the midst of a terrible civil war, he wrote in his proclamation, it seemed to him that God’s gifts to America “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

Late Thanksgiving morning, as Fellows approached Battery Park after a good night’s sleep, he saw that “the ‘Nigger Regiment’ attracted unbounded attention.” People crowded into the park to peer through the iron fence toward the barracks and parade ground “like so many school urchins at a circus.”

The crowd parted for Fellows, and he passed through a line of bigwigs waiting to thank him for bringing a black regiment to the city. He initially wanted to reward the crowd by ordering a dress parade, but there was no time. When he learned the quartermaster had found a ship to transport his men to their duty station on the Gulf Coast, he ordered them to form for the march to the wharf.

Stark Fellows, whose regiment marched  through lower Manhattan.
The white people lining Broadway as the 2nd United States Colored Troops marched past disappointed Fellows. “The streets were crowded all the way, but the people were very quiet,” he wrote to a comrade.

When the regiment turned onto Canal Street and entered a black neighborhood, everything changed. Flags hung from the windows, and cheers hailed the soldiers. 

Reflecting on these spectators, Fellows observed: “It seemed that at last they could speak for themselves.” They howled and leapt and tossed their caps into the air, acting as if “the day of their deliverance” had arrived, Fellows wrote. White people farther along the route “seemed to catch the excitement,” cheering the ranks of black men proudly marching to meet their destiny.

It had already been a long war, with many festive sendoffs followed by battlefield disasters. The enthusiasms of 1861 had cooled, but on this day it seemed to Fellows that something novel and grand had occurred.

The march to the wharf was also a revelation for the soldiers. As they boarded the Continental for their journey south, echoes of gratitude, approval and even adoration rang in their ears. In the words of their commander they had been “the lions of Thanksgiving day.” 

[Stark Fellows’s account of Thanksgiving was taken from his letter to Alexander Gardiner, an officer in Fellows’s old regiment, the 14th New Hampshire. The letter was written Dec. 16, 1863, from Ship Island, Miss. Fellows died of disease on May 23, 1864, and was buried in Pensacola, Fla. Gardiner was mortally wounded four months later leading the 14th at the third battle of Winchester, Va. The letter is in the Samuel A. Duncan papers in the Rauner special collections at Dartmouth College.]

Monday, November 17, 2014

New York haikus, vol. 3

So, our friend Mary, a veteran New Yorker, says we're nuts to think about making Thanksgiving dinner in our tiny apartment. In this food-crazy city, there IS an alternative, just one more subject for a November haiku . . .

Walking on Broadway,
this way, then that, with never
a wind at my back.


Bagels rise, tempting
lips, puffing hips, pleasures of
the tongue, like smoke rings.


Kitchen holiday
gobble-gobbles in Gotham:
Thanksgiving takeout!


Next-table talk: Who
takes care of her kids while she’s
taking care of theirs?


Winter’s bite so slight
it might still seem fall till gusts
draw tears and ice ears.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A restless reader in New York

Since coming to New York City earlier this year, I’ve kept a bunch of New York books on my nightstand. Among them are the journals of Alfred Kazin, which I recently finished, and the diary of George Templeton Strong. Kazin was one of the premier literary critics in the country during the 20th century, Strong a lawyer who began keeping his diary in his youth

Detail of the Louisiana monument at Gettysburg, which is discussed in "What
the rebels won at Gettysburg" from top-25 list. (David Sullivan photo). 
In Strong’s case, I’m hoping his almost legendary account of the Civil War years will provide fodder for this blog, but mainly I’m trying to steep myself in New York history.

I am a restless reader. I read Thomas Berger’s obituary in the New York Times earlier this year and picked up his best known book, Little Big Man. What a treat! Maybe not Mark Twain but in the same neighborhood.

Most years I buy the Booker Prize winner. I read this year’s, Richard Flanagan’s harrowing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, with deep interest. Years ago, I helped Steve Raymond, a Bataan Death March survivor, get his memoir into print. Though a novel, Flanagan’s book tells a similar story; because a novel, its author imagines the inner lives of the Japanese captors as well as the ordeal of their Australian prisoners.

Vera Brittain’s memoir and journal are among my favorite books about World War I. Now, to fulfill a desire to read at least one more book about this war during the centennial year of its beginning, I’ve started Poilu. This is the marvelous diary-cum-memoir of a French barrel-maker who survived four years in the trenches.


Even though I have added few posts to the Our War blog during the last month, readership remains strong, for which I thank you. Page-views have now reached more than 54,000.  Even the haikus I’ve been writing about my wife Monique’s and my early days in New York have attracted eaders.

Here are the top 25 blog posts all-time on the basis of page-view count. Their numbers range from 1,123 to 266. The numbers in parenthesis are last month’s rankings.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (9)

           A gift from the heart (19)


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New York City haikus, vol. 2

From the fall harvest . . .

Wild roses still bloom
on sycamore continents
as November knocks.


All thumbs on I-phone
except when I want to type.
Bee. Ex. Zee. Delete.


Windows flash pumpkin
on high. Whiteface Joker grins.
Wee Batman cowers.


Bruegel’s harvesters,
oblivious on their slope
to our dancing eyes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

'Our country is on the very brink of ruin'

Some elections matter more than others. The 1863 gubernatorial election in New Hampshire mattered, to the state as well as the nation. Below this post is a broadside that sold on eBay the other day. Behind it is the story of that election.

The Republicans had held the governor’s office through 18 months of war, but they were in danger of losing it in 1863 – and they knew it. The Union army had just been defeated at Fredericksburg. The Democrats were howling over the fratricidal war and President Lincoln’s liberal interpretation of his constitutional war powers. “The Constitution as it is” was a Democratic slogans.

Walter Harriman
Because states controlled the raising of soldiers, the Lincoln administration wanted a friend in every northern governor’s office.  New Hampshire Republicans were so rattled by worries about defeat that they considered nominating a pro-war Democrat for governor.

They also invited Edward E. Cross, colonel of the 5th New Hampshire and a feisty Democrat who had been badly wounded twice, to speak at their nominating convention on New Year’s Day in 1863.  Since May, Cross’s regiment had fought at Fair Oaks, in the Seven Days battles, at Antietam and at Fredericksburg.

The War Democrat the Republicans invited to run for governor was Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New Hampshire. Like the 5th, the 11th had just suffered losses in the fiasco at Fredericksburg.

Harriman turned them down. He sent his rejection through A.P. Davis, a delegate to the convention from Warner, where Harriman also lived. “Having understood that some of my personal friends propose to compliment me with their votes in the convention of January 1st for the nomination of a candidate for governor, I address you this brief line to say I can by no means be considered a candidate,” Harriman wrote.

In the American political tradition of ignoring such demurrals, a Republican delegate nominated Harriman anyway. On the first ballot Joseph A. Gilmore received 276 votes, but Harriman came in second. Gilmore, a railroad magnate from Concord, won a majority and the nomination on the second ballot, but Harriman’s vote total rose from 96 to 155.

This outcome no doubt influenced what Harriman did next. When Republican friends, fearful of defeat in the March 10 election, asked him to enter the race as a third-party candidate – a War Democrat – Harriman said yes. If he could steal votes from Peace Democrats, he was glad to oblige as long as “Democrat” appeared next to his name. On February 17, three weeks before the election, the Union Party met in Manchester and unanimously nominated him.

Writing to a Manchester newspaper editor from Newport News, Va., on Feb. 25, Harriman spelled out his reasoning. In the broadside below, printed and distributed during the waning days of the campaign, the Republicans used Harriman’s words from this letter in an effort to get out their vote. The broadside suggested to voters that it was not the Democrats who were embracing the Constitution but the Republican Party and the pro-war faction of the Democratic Party.

“Those who are holding out promises of peace, without presenting any reasonable grounds for the hope of peace, are giving the Union cause a stab, the fatal consequences of which the present age cannot fathom,” the broadside quoted Harriman. “Be not deceived. ‘Peace,’ in the present juncture, means the disunion of the Union and eternal war. It means more; it means anarchy, which comprises all the woes of earth to civilized man.”

Harriman also wrote in the Newport News letter: “My duties and cares are military, and not political.” But because the convention has stated “sentiments substantially my own, and unanimously invited me to bear, in the present campaign, the old flag of the Union, I hardly feel at liberty to withhold the use of my name. . . .

“Our country is on the very brink of ruin; let us suppress every thought except the one patriotic desire to benefit and to save it.”

To show that Southerners were finding comfort “in the diseased condition of Northern sentiment,” Harriman quoted William L. Yancey, a Southern fire-eater. Yancey had written: “We have something to hope, however, from this division of the councils of our enemies – from their fierce party strife and jealousies; upon this hope let us build our own unity; upon their jealousies let us build our own harmony; upon these clashings of party interest let us bind together our patriotic energies.”

The broadside below took up Harriman’s themes. It urged that New Hampshire voters recognize southern treason and cast their votes for upholding the Constitution and bringing about peace by winning the war.

In the end Harriman’s third-party candidacy did just well enough to deny the Democratic gubernatorial candidate a majority. You can read that story here and here.