Friday Nov. 17, 2017

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Audience

How kind people are!
How few in the crowd truly hope
the tightrope will break.

Rare’s the man who’ll shoot the Pope
or throw his shoe at a liar,
though joining in—that’s natural.

An audience of St. Paul’s sparrows
is easily bored, easily frightened.
One blasphemy and off they fly.

Even a polite dog will snore
through reprimands,
though he’ll rouse to follow

the refreshments with a calculating eye.
But people, especially Minnesotans,
pull their sleeves over their watches

and want to find a way to like you.
If they can sit through winter’s sermons,
they can sit through you.

“Audience” by Connie Wanek from Rival Gardens. © University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne. Her father, King Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn in hopes of producing a male heir. But when Elizabeth was born, he had Anne Boleyn beheaded and declared Elizabeth an illegitimate child. She grew up in a world of conspiracies and assassinations. Because she was a potential heir to the throne, her life was constantly in danger.

England almost broke out in civil war when Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary Tudor, came to power and tried to turn England back into a Catholic nation. But Mary died just five years after becoming queen, leaving behind a debt-ridden, divided country. Elizabeth took the throne on this day in 1558. She was 25 years old. One of her first acts as queen was to restore England to Protestantism. Militant Protestants wanted her to seek out secret Catholics and prosecute them, but Elizabeth decided that she wasn’t going to police anyone’s private beliefs. She required everyone to go to the Church of England on Sunday and that they all use the same prayer book; but aside from that, they could believe whatever they wanted.

She also eased the restrictions on the legal operation of theaters, and the result was a new career for writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and William Shakespeare. Part of the reason so many great writers came out of the Elizabethan era was simply that it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, in which people had the luxury to read books and go to the theater. But Elizabeth also helped encourage the English to have pride in themselves, in their history, and especially their language.

She reigned for 45 years, one of the great eras in English history. Near the end of her reign, she said to her subjects: “Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat; yet you never had, nor shall have any that will love you better.”

On this date in 1973, President Richard Nixon told 400 Associated Press managing editors: “I am not a crook.” It was during an hourlong, televised question-and-answer session. Nixon was under fire on a number of fronts: He faced accusations that he had raised dairy price supports in exchange for hefty campaign contributions from the dairy producers’ lobby. He blamed the Democrats in the House and Senate, who would have raised the price supports even higher than he did.

Nixon’s five famous words came as part of his defense on the question of whether he had underpaid his income taxes. Nixon admitted that he had only paid nominal amounts for the previous two years, but that the donation of his vice presidential papers to the National Archives offset what he owed. “In all my life in public office, I have never profited,” he insisted. “I have never obstructed justice […] I welcome this kind of examination because the American people have a right to know if their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I earned everything I’ve got.”

And, of course, Nixon faced questions about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, which had occurred on June 17, 1972. Nixon denied knowledge of the break-in and attempted wiretapping of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. The burglars went to trial, and one of them told the judge that people at high levels in the Nixon administration not only knew about the break-in, but also had bribed the burglars to lie at the trial. At the press conference, Nixon stated publicly for the first time that his former attorney general John Mitchell had told him nothing about the break-in or the cover-up, which was later proved to be untrue. By the following summer, the House Judiciary Committee had approved articles of impeachment. Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.

It’s the birthday of American novelist and historian Shelby Foote (books by this author), born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). He had already published several novels, including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950), and Love in a Dry Season (1951), when in 1952, an editor asked Foote if he would try writing a narrative history of the Civil War. Foote said he thought it would take about four years, but it wound up taking two decades, and the result was three volumes, more than 1.6 million words and almost 3,000 pages long when published. Foote later compared the project to swallowing a cannonball.

Near the end of the third volume, Foote wrote a letter to his best friend, the novelist Walker Percy: “Dear Walker, I killed Lincoln last week. Saturday, at noon. While I was doing it — he had his chest arched up holding his last breath to let it out — some […] doctor came to the door with volumes 1 and 2 under his arm, wanting me to autograph them for his son for Christmas. I was in such a state of shock, I not only let him in, I even signed the […] books, a thing I seldom do. Then I turned back and killed [Lincoln] and had Stanton say, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’ A strange feeling though. I have another seventy-odd pages to go, and I have a feeling it’ll be like Hamlet with Hamlet left out.”

Shelby Foote was one of the only writers so old-fashioned that he wrote all his books with an antique pen that had to be dipped in ink after every three or four words.

The last novel he published was September, September (1978). Foote spent the final 25 years of his life working on an epic novel about Mississippi, called Two Gates to the City. It remained unfinished when he died in 2006. Shelby Foote said, “A writer’s like anybody else except when he’s writing.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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