During July on the prairie
The pine tree stands alone on the main street
Of a disintegrating country town.
Its needles pump all day,
Still it cannot turn all the passing carbon monoxide
Into anything useful.
On its trunk ants are stuck in the resin.
From its top we can see the dark clouds
In the blue sky.
The island in the lake drifts even farther from shore.
The afternoon begins its insect hum.
We can tell a storm is coming
By looking into each other’s eyes.
“Clouds Rise like Fish” by Tom Hennen from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The plans for the city of Chicago were laid out on this date in 1830.
The area’s original settlers were the Algonquian people. They dubbed it “Shikaakwa,” which means “stinky onion.” The first outsider to build a permanent home in the area was a black man named Jean Baptiste Point de Sable; he built a log cabin at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s. The U.S. military built Fort Dearborn in 1804, at what would eventually be the intersection of North Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. In 1829, the Illinois legislature appointed a commission to make plans for a canal to connect the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers, and lay out some surrounding streets. The commission hired surveyor James Thompson to draw up the first map. It covered three-eighths of a square mile, bounded by Madison, State, Kinsey, and Halsted Streets; at that time, the city had a population of fewer than 100 people. The filing of the plans marked the first official recognition of the municipality of Chicago. It was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1837.
Given Chicago’s location on the Great Lakes, sharp-eyed East Coast entrepreneurs saw the potential to make it a transportation hub. They bought up the best properties. Four years later, the first commercial schooner entered the harbor from New York. The fertile farmland was also highly desirable to Eastern speculators, and the city grew up very quickly. The agriculture boom led to the construction of roads to transport crops, grain elevators to store them, and docks from which to ship them to New York via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened up a waterway from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The first rail line was completed that same year. When the transportation infrastructure was in place, the city became home to major mail-order retailers like Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company. It also housed huge feedlots and slaughterhouses, which supplied salted meat to diners all over the East. The population of Chicago exploded, and soon it rivaled New York. When the two cities began a race to build the tallest building, a derisive New Yorker article dubbed Chicago “the second city.”
Today is the birthday of jazz musician Louis Armstrong (1901), who earned the nickname “Dippermouth” as boy singing for pennies on the streets of New Orleans. He would scoop up the coins and stuff them in his mouth so the bigger boys couldn’t steal them. Later, his effusive style of playing, in particular the way he blew high C’s on his trumpet, would earn him the name “Satchelmouth,” later shortened to “Satchmo.”
Armstrong was born in Storyville, the poorest neighborhood of New Orleans. He worked for a family of Russian Jews delivering coal to prostitute’s rooms. The Karnovsky’s were kind to him, helping him buy a tin trumpet. Because of them, he wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life. At 11, he was sent to a boys home, where he was given a cornet and taught to read music. He said: “It sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Me and music got married in that home.”
As a teenager, he honed his skills playing dances, funeral marches, and riverboats. He met jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver, who welcomed him to Chicago in 1924, when scores of jazz and blues musicians began an exodus from the South, changing the landscape of music forever. Armstrong was known for his ebullient playing style and the intense charisma he displayed from the stage. He’s largely responsible for the shift in jazz from collective improvisation to solo performance. From 1925 to 1928, he and his band, Louis Armstrong and The Hot Five, made more than 60 records, which influenced everyone from Wynton Marsalis to The Beatles, whom he displaced in 1964, when his rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” knocked them off the number-one spot on the Billboard Charts. Armstrong’s most famous, and enduring, song is “What a Wonderful World” (1967), and claimed as his favorite.
About the song, he said: “Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret ...”
It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” That’s the poet and essayist Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Field Place, Sussex, England (1792). He grew up in a wealthy family and went off to Oxford, where he was kicked out for writing risqué poetry and declaring his atheism in a pamphlet he published. The family cut him off financially at the age of 19.
Shelley left England and eloped to Scotland with his 16-year-old bride. There he was mentored by the English philosopher William Godwin. Chronically broke, Godwin saw in Shelley’s wealthy family his salvation and encouraged the poet to make good with his father. While Godwin’s outspoken socialism appealed to Shelley, so did his intellectual daughter, Mary, and soon the two had left both their families to roam around Europe together.
Shelley and Mary traveled to Switzerland, where they rented an adjoining house to Lord Byron. The two writers were good for one another, and in 1816, Shelley published his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. That same year, Percy’s previous wife committed suicide, and Percy and Mary married in a failed attempt to gain custody of Percy’s orphaned children. The court refused, citing the poet’s belief in “free love” as the reason, and the children went into foster care.
The next few years were the most productive of Shelley’s life. He wrote “Adonis,” an elegy for his friend John Keats; “Prometheus Unbound,” a drama in verse; and The Cenci, a tragedy. He is also credited with making major contributions to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818).
He died before the age of 30, attempting to sail the coast of Spain in his ship, the Don Juan.
Shelly said,” Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write.”
It’s the birthday of the poet and teacher Robert Hayden (books by this author). Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan (1913), he was given up for adoption as a child and raised by a foster family. He was a skinny and severely nearsighted boy and was often ostracized by the other children of “Paradise Valley,” the Detroit ghetto where he grew up, and which served as the backdrop to much of his writing. He found comfort in the world of books and went on to the city college, before taking a job in 1936 with the Federal Writers’ Project. He researched black history and folk culture, gaining knowledge that would inform his work for the rest of his career. In 1940, he published his first collection of poetry, Heart Shape in the Dust, still heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly mastered traditional form, and his poetry later became known for its use of multiple voices and the vernacular of black life, such as in his best-known poem, “Middle Passage,” about the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University, where he would teach for the next 23 years. In 1985, he was the first African-American to be awarded the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.
He said, “Art is not an escape, but a way of finding order in chaos, a way of confronting life.”
Today is the birthday of author and 44th (and current) president of the United States, Barack Obama (books by this author). Born in Honolulu, Hawaii (1961), to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, served a term each in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate before entering the White House in 2008. Obama’s position at the law journal got him a book deal, originally to be on race relations in the U.S., but it turned out to be a memoir, entitled Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama’s second book, was released just months before he announced his campaign for the presidency, and it quickly became a New York Times best-seller. Since assuming office, he has authored the children’s book Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters (2010).