One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
as dark as coffee beans.
The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.
It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.
“Some Glad Morning” by Joyce Sutphen from Naming the Stars. © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1800 that President John Adams arrived in Washington, D.C., for the first time. The capital city, which had been chosen by George Washington as the seat of government for the United States, was still under construction. There were no schools or churches, only a few stores and hotels, and some shacks for the workers who were building the White House and the Capitol. The area was swampy and full of mosquitoes, and the ground covered with tree stumps and rubble. Adams might have been depressed by the dismal site of the country’s new capital, but he wrote to his wife, Abigail, “I like the seat of government very well.”
It was several months before Adams was able to live in the White House, then known as the President’s House. On the day he moved in, he entered the house with just a few of his staff. There was no honor guard or entourage or any kind of ceremony. The house was still unfinished, still smelling of wet paint and wet plaster. The furniture had been shipped down from Philadelphia, but it didn’t quite fit the enormous rooms of the new house. The only painting that had been hung on the wall was a portrait of George Washington in a black velvet suit.
It had been a difficult period in Adams’s life. He’d had a hard time filling the shoes of George Washington as president. He’d been struggling with debts ever since his election, as the presidential salary was rather meager. He’d barely prevented a war with France. He’d been plagued with political infighting among his cabinet, and in the upcoming presidential election, it looked like he might lose to Thomas Jefferson.
So Adams might have been thinking about all his troubles when he went to bed that night as the first president to sleep in the White House. He had left Abigail in Philadelphia, so he had to sleep alone. The following morning, he sat down at his desk, and in a letter to his wife he wrote: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
Adams only lived in the White House for a few more months, since he lost the election to Jefferson that year. But about 150 years later, Franklin Roosevelt had the words from Adams’s letter to Abigail carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.
It’s the birthday of Allen Ginsberg (1926) (books by this author), the poet who coined the term “flower power,” which became the catchphrase to describe the social and political revolution of the 1960s. He’s best known for his landmark poem, “Howl” (1956), which kick-started the youth revolution in America and gave voice to a group of writers known as the “Beat Generation.”
Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. His father was a high school teacher and his mother a former member of the Communist Party. They taught Ginsberg and his brother, Eugene, to recite Poe, Dickens, and Keats aloud. Ginsberg once called his parents “old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers.”
At Columbia University, he met a scruffy poet named Lucien Carr who introduced him to fellow writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. They introduced him to drugs, free love, and the writings of William Blake and Ezra Pound. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia for minor infractions and ended up working as a merchant seaman, welder, and dishwasher. After he finally graduated from Columbia, he was arrested for possession of drugs. Rather than go to jail, he pleaded insanity and spent eight months in a psych ward at Columbia. He went back to Paterson for a time, where he met poet William Carlos Williams, who became his mentor.
Ginsberg’s mother suffered from paranoia and slit her wrists. She was committed to Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island and Ginsberg signed a letter authorizing her lobotomy. A few days after she died in 1956, Ginsberg received letters from her, which he used for an epic poem called “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1895–1956,” which many consider his poetic masterpiece. One of her letters said, “Get married Allen don’t take drugs love, your Mother.”
After writing copy on Madison Avenue for five years, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where he got a room around the corner from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, took a lot of peyote, and wrote a long poem called “Howl” (1955), which begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” He read the poem, which included references to homosexuality, at the Six Gallery to a cheering crowd, a scene that Jack Kerouac later used for his novel The Dharma Bums (1958). Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights later published the poem, which was promptly seized by U.S. Customs and San Francisco police for obscenity. The trial judge dismissed the charge, saying, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”
“Howl” made Allen Ginsberg famous. He went on to become a Buddhist and to study with Zen masters and gurus; he was expelled from Cuba for calling Che Guevara “cute” and kicked out of Czechoslovakia in 1966. He smoked pot with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and claimed he’d found a new method for writing poetry. He said, “All you have to do is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three, or four words each, don’t bother about sentences, in sections of two, three, or four lines each.” James Dickey called Ginsberg “a problem,” because Ginsberg made it seem like anyone could write a poem.
He protested against the Vietnam War and amassed a lengthy FBI dossier. He spoke out in favor of gay rights and the legalization of drugs and posed in an Uncle Sam costume for a very popular 1960s poster. He once said, “It occurs to me that I am America.”
Allen Ginsberg died in 1997. His books include Howl and Other Poems (1956), Reality Sandwiches (1963), Collected Poems 1947–1980 (1984). He won the National Book Award (1974) for The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965–1971 (1973).
It’s the birthday of Larry McMurtry (books by this author), born in Wichita Falls, Texas (1936). His early novels were set in the Southwest, on the frontier and in small towns. They included Horseman, Pass By (1961) and The Last Picture Show (1966), which were both made into movies. Then in 1981, he wrote an essay in The Texas Observer in which he said that “the cowboy myth” had become “an inhibiting, rather than a creative, factor in our literary life,” and that “there was really no more that needed to be said about it.” The future of Texas literature was urban, he said: “Now what we need is a Balzac, a Dickens.” But a few years later, he published one of his best books, Lonesome Dove (1985), a historical novel about a cattle drive, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.
He said: “True maturity is only reached when a man realizes he has become a father figure to his girlfriends’ boyfriends — and he accepts it.”