Monday, February 27, 2017

John Steinbeck: I Was Born Lost And Take No Pleasure In Being Found."

The renowned 20th century American writer, John Steinbeck, was born on this day in 1902 in the coastal agricultural city of Salinas, California. He had a long, varied, and controversial career, and  remains best known for his Great Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Most baby boomers know the film and story line very well. As a cultural historian and geographer, it's odd I never managed to read the book from cover to cover. In high school, Of Mice and Men was required reading, and I found great pleasure in reading Travels With Charley: In Search of America on my own shortly after its publication in 1962.

Steinbeck was among the best of participant-observers of 20th century America in general and the California experience in particular. His work earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.  He was a prolific writer who produced sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories. These days, I don't think students - and teachers - of American history and culture give him the credit and attention he deserves. Perhaps I should be satisfied knowing that history is still taught in the public schools, but that's another essay for another day.

If you don't know Steinbeck or want to know more about him and his world start with an electronic visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Better yet, plan a visit next time you find yourself in the San Francisco area. From Salinas it's a short drive to Monterey Bay and the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located on a site made famous in Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row, it's a "must see" exposure to the coastal environment and marine biology the author revered, enjoyed and studied.

Cannery Row, Monterey, California, 1943


Photos and Illustrations:
Portrait, Nobel Foundation,


Marian Anderson: "...I Want Them To See My Soul. And That Is Colorless."

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied her the opportunity to perform in their venue, Constitution Hall, because she was black. The decision didn't sit well with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who was a member of the national board of directors of the DAR. Mrs.Roosevelt intervened and helped arrange one of the iconic events of our time.

Marian Anderson swept to international fame in 1939 with her public performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. She was born on this day in Philadelphia in 1897. When she passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 the world lost one of its finest voices of the 20th century.

Portrait of Marian Anderson          Carl Van Vechton, 1940

For more information on the life and times of Marian Anderson readers will enjoy this excellent production for the Greater Washington Telecommunications Association first aired on public television on May 8, 1991.


Photos and Illustrations:

1939 concert, public domain photo by U.S. Information Agency, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
Anderson portrait, Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Anderson quote,

Monday, February 20, 2017

Washington's Birthday 2017

At one time the nation had a Washington's Birthday holiday on February 22, the actual day of the man's birth, but that changed in 1971 when the "Monday holiday rule" took effect. The rule was a postlude to a torturous twenty year saga of federal bickering, ineptitude, and state's rights issues over the national failure to honor our presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln, with their very own holiday. The fallout left us with what is in reality a Washington's Unbirthday holiday and a three-day weekend. Honest Abe didn't make the official cut.

Regardless of what you may hear on the street today's holiday  commemorates Washington's birthday. As the official federal government page states, "This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."

That said, American capitalists, never keen to let a good shopping opportunity pass, liked the idea of a President's Day, especially one that could be stretched over a full week . They saw the advantage of the patriotic fervor generated by matching silhouettes of Lincoln - log cabins - and Washington - axes and cherries - positioned over merchandise and big red signs reading "SALE." The concept caught on. Today, about all Americans have left with the third Monday in February is the opportunity to buy stuff, mostly stuff they don't need. On the federal level, this not only leaves us with nothing for Old Abe but also nothing for the other presidents save George and his big unbirthday.

So what is one to do? Perhaps it's best to forget the issues of a misnomer and the neglected presidents and return to Lincoln and Washington as our February presidents. And they have more in common as presidents who share the quality of American exceptionalism, a term we've been hearing more often these days as the republic drifts ever deeper into its golden years. With that in mind, I suggest readers find a comfortable setting and reflect on these men and their place in the American experience. If readers need a bit of encouragement here are two statements, one so very brief, the other a bit longer, both reflecting the greatness of their authors and the hope they shared for our unique national experience:

Washington's Farewell Address, written in 1796 on his coming departure from the presidency; and...

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863.

After reading these brief posts I trust you will agree that a holiday focused on the Office of the President pales in comparison to one focused on the personalities and events worthy of authentic remembrance. The presidents deserve authentic remembrance. Their personal contributions matter. By remembering them we keep the great chain of American experience alive and well.



Photos and Illustrations:
early 20th century postcards, author's archive

federal holiday quote,

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sandhills Are Soaring

It's been a warm winter in Atlanta and that translates to February afternoons on the patio. Several times, we expect the reading, sky-watching or quiet sunning to be pleasantly interrupted by the distant croaking of the early waves of Sandhill cranes pushing northwest to their summer habitats. Sandhills are enjoyable to watch with their shapely "v" or wide arced formations as well as their "kettling" or staging in uplifts as they prepare to break out into formations.

File:Lesser Sandhill.jpg

In our woodland setting they're almost always heard - "ka-rooo, ka-rooo, ka-rooo" - before seen, a situation that leaves us hoping they will fly over our clearing. Most of the time they do because they fly high, very high, sometimes a thousand feet or more. At those altitudes it's hard to imagine that you're watching a bird that may stand over four feet tall and soar on a near-seven foot wing span.

Lately, the resident populations of Sandhills have been growing in the Southeast. Their permanent numbers in Georgia are estimated to be in the thousands. Those that do migrate over Georgia this time of year are headed to their breeding grounds from the Great Lakes to the southern shore of Hudson Bay. Coming or going, they always bring a smile and leave us looking up for more.

A pair of Sandhill cranes, photographed in Florida, courtesy of Ken Thomas


Photos and Illustrations:
Top photo,
Bottom photo,

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Presidential Birthday At Sinking Spring Farm

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, was born on this day 208 years ago near Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Abraham Lincoln Photo Portrait, early 1865                                          Alexander Gardner

As visitors climb the marble steps, pass marble columns, and enter the chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, they are awestruck by Daniel Chester French’s enormous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. To what part of the Georgia marble figure is the eye drawn first? Possibly, the serious look on Lincoln’s face will remind the visitor of the critical time of Civil War through which the president guided our nation. Maybe the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair will prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.

If you want to settle into an evening with Lincoln and his age, your choice of titles will number in the thousands and in a variety of media. I am inclined to recommend Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It is available as a one-volume abridgement or you may choose to tackle the original six-volume version. Not always accurate, not always "organized" as a traditional biography, Sandburg's work is really the story of Lincoln as American experience. It's romantic, rich, warm, organic, meandering, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. I think the approach works well because the Lincoln story is in so many respects the American story. Also keep in mind that although well-known as a poet Sandburg soon was revered in the U.S. as a poet/writer for the people once the first volumes appeared . With that in mind, I believe Old Abe would have been proud to select a writer of popular history and culture as his official biographer.

As you can see from the photo above, Lincoln and I go way back. That picture was taken during the spring of 1952 during my first visit to Washington. It began a long association with Old Abe and his time that peaked during the last fifteen years of my career. What an honor it was to know him well and work to preserve his story for future generations visiting our national parks. For more about Abe Lincoln's early years at Sinking Spring and Knob Creek farms visit the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park website.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lincoln photograph, Gardner collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 
Abraham Lincoln statue,
Lincoln Memorial personal photo 1952, author's archive

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemas 2017: A Festival Of Light Entering The World

Around our house on February 2 the words of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674) poem, Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve, have special meaning. 

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.

The words remind that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - comes to an end.

Readers undoubtedly will hear something about groundhogs today. They are less likely to learn that February 2 marks a Christian festival day. It is known in the western Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas, and more often in the Protestant world simply as The Presentation of Our Lord.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple            Hans Holbein, German, 1500

The festival marks the fortieth day following the birth of Jesus. Under Mosaic law, it was a day for temple rites completing the purification of a woman following childbirth. It was also the day to present the firstborn son for redemption in the rite of pidyon haben.

The Candlemas tradition emerges from Luke 2:22-39 where Simeon prays over Jesus with words that would become known as the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis:

In peace, Lord, you let your servant now depart 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared for every people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles 
and the glory of your people Israel.

Here is Gustav Holst's 1915 setting of the song in Latin for eight voices:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, 
secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. 

Beginning around the third century following the birth of Jesus, the blessing of candles and their procession about the church on this feast day became a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The practice did not emerge in the western church for at least another seven hundred years.

This day has other interesting attributes in addition to the end of Christmastide. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light"

I should note that earlier today on a nearby farm in metro Atlanta, General Beauregard Lee came out of his groundhog house and did not see his shadow. We look forward to the embrace of the warmth of an early spring. It seems Beau also forecast an Atlanta Falcons win in the upcoming Super Bowl.