April 15, Lincoln’s Yahrzeit

Today, a friend reminded me, is Abraham Lincoln’s yahrzeit. Being a gentile, I didn’t know this word, but knew what she meant. It’s the day commemorating the anniversary of his death. Although I’m told that a yahrzeit is is mostly observed for one’s parents, Lincoln is a father of sorts to all of us Americans, so it fits.

I think of this every year, in fact, whenever I see or smell a lilac, on account of the Whitman poem that taught me to love poetry, the one that starts:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

There will be a lot more about poetry, and not just screenwriting and story-telling, here soon, and this was the poem that first got me, especially the later verses written just weeks after Lincoln was shot, verses like this one:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

His cadence and his open-endedness (I’m sparing you those verses; the whole poem is online here.) became standard, what American poetry is, but this poem, free-wheeling as it is, is bound together with such purpose, it’s what my friend Sean Sutherland co-founder of the Verbal Supply Company, likes to call a complete poetic thought, without being too bound to a single metaphor.

This poem gave me a habit, when faced with loss and impending loss, to look at the grander scale, without cheapening the depth of mourning. “In the scheme of things,” I’ll think, “I should be happy.”


It looks like it’s been a few years since Greg Trupiano of the Walt Whitman Project gave a walking tour, but I’m sure other literary tours of Brooklyn Heights and downtown hit some of Whitman’s sites, but no matter. Every year we have a yahrzeit for one of our fathers every time we see a lilac, like this young one poised to bloom (for the first time) in my dooryard:

The National Treasures of the Horsepunk Republic, or, Keep The Muse in Museum

“Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L’Enfant and his dog. The plan of the city is probably his, though others claim it. He had the courage to undertake any public work whatever that was offered to him. He has not succeeded in any, but was always honest and is now miserably poor.”*

That’s according to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, in his diary in 1806. Every homeless person I saw when I visited Washington, D.C. this month reminded me of Pierre L’Enfant, who was himself homeless for a time on the streets of the city whose layout he designed.

I love D.C., and took a break from New York to get some air there during its slushy-sandy thaw. D.C. is a city with a keen understanding of itself. Visiting there is like being in a geographic enigma, sprawling and aristocratic. Its subway platforms are mod, but dark and atmospheric, as if a nightclub opened at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, a true national treasure, is about as long as Central Park. While Central Park makes you feel like a fish in a rich person’s fishbowl, The National Mall is completely open to the sky and horizon. It gives you the impression you own a share of a vast estate.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

If Steampunk is a fantasy of a Victorian vision of the future, then the United States is Horsepunk, an Enlightenment vision of the future. The National Park Service reinforces this at the National Mall by keeping the path you walk on a sandy-gravelly mix, which gives you the tactile feeling, and ambient sounds, of walking through the 18th Century.

Dominating all of it is the Washington Monument, which gives a bizarre, Egyptian flare to the otherwise Roman look of the republic’s holy grounds. By law it is the tallest building in the city, by far, and it’s so simple and elemental you can’t help but feel that the binding spirit of us as a people is an abstract principle. If you put a 500-foot replica of Brancusi’s Bird in Space halfway between Grand Central Station and City Hall, and then knocked out every building on the East Side of Manhattan below 50th Street, you could maybe achieve this kind of grandeur.

My favorite, though, is a place I managed to revisit one morning this month after over 20 years, the Jefferson Memorial, that dome across the tidal basin from the Washington Monument. Jefferson speaks to that part of the American heart that just wants to go to a farm and read books all summer. Never mind war and business, and the messy work of getting stuff done. Let’s dwell in ideals.

Jefferson strikes me as the smartest guy in the dorm room, the kid who already read all the books you’re struggling with, back when he was in high school. Who had an easy time with the women and already tried every drug, and whose political sensibilities could never be satisfied. Whatever you believed in, it wasn’t good enough. And his father, you find out during sophomore year, is the vice president of a nuclear bomb manufacturer. He is both wilder and more priveledged than you’ll ever be. Great idea putting this across the water from the others, since it celebrates an impulse that requires going away and thinking.

How nice it would be to have a Roman temple built in one’s honor, with a few of your prose’s greatest hits up on the walls around your statue. I was so inspired, I thought I’d take the long way back around the tidal basin.

That’s where some cheeky Virginians tucked a hidden monument behind the hidden monument! George Mason, whom both Washington and Jefferson apparently regarded as a mentor, gets a lovely fountain – empty for the season, all the lovelier – with a strange little statue behind it, and bits of his prose that all seem to protest too much. We get it! “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a rip-off of Mason. He is the Chuck Berry to Jefferson’s John Lennon, the founding father’s founding father.




Next, since the last time I’d visited, F.D.R. and M.L.K. have gotten memorials, both completely dreadful. They’re sterile civic fitness trails meant to uplift the visitor who walks through them in an experiential manner, reading globs of text, without which they’d look like unfinished courtyards of corporate headquarters. I’m a liberal, and I can’t stand them. I can only imagine what conservatives think. They’re an embarrassment to liberalism, and should be dismantled. Start over.

A good memorial is like a good film or screenplay. It works without the dialogue. If a monument can’t be appreciated on purely aesthetic grounds, no uplifting words can save it.

(*As quoted in Scott Berg’s Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.)

And while we’re talking about excessive text or narration, let’s give museums back to the Muses.

I wonder sometimes, when exactly did the unwritten rule of museum curatorship go into effect that says an any art exhibit must be 100% real artifacts, but an exhibit at an equally prestigious history museum is allowed to be mostly text written by the curators, with maybe some video and just enough artifacts to justify going to a museum instead of a website or coffee table book?

I lasted five minutes in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Longer in the National Museum of the American Indian, mostly because it has a mind-blowing exhibit right now called Nation To Nation, a history of the major treaties between the United States and the various sovereign native nations. I bet that curators are under pressure to come up with exhibits about social history, and the till-now undervalued stories of history, but if you insist on providing all of the interpretation all the time, then you’ve curated the life out of a subject. If you can’t find any muskets or moccasins, you might as well post an essay on the website.

The Victorians used to jam their museums full of stuff, and it probably frustrated lots of visitors, who just saw something like a glass case full of arrowheads, many of them broken, and nothing to interpret them with. Numbing as that may sound, when you walk into an exhibit about the Dakota-U.S. war of 1862, at the national museum, and all you see are panels with text on them, then it’s time to restore some balance toward the museum’s other mission, to give us a chance to contemplate the artifacts for their own sake.

I learned something about history at the history museum, but I dreamed about history at the National Gallery of Art, where you’re left alone with a fragment of a Renaissance fresco or a Colonial soup terrine with cupids on it.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

The Smithsonian can learn something from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Passing through last summer, I discovered that Deerfield is basically a big historic district. You probably need twenty signatures and a permit to put a kiddie pool in your yard. I took a recon lap around town, and the first museum I saw said “Memorial Hall.” When I stopped at the general visitors center, and heard about how my admission was good for all the different houses open to the public, and something very professional-sounding called the Flynt Center for Early New England Life, I asked, “What about Memorial Hall?”

“Oh no, that’s a separate admission,” the uniformed attendant told me.

An old Yankee town with competing historical societies! Now I was curious! “Thank you very much, ma’am,” I said, and went straight to the Memorial Hall Museum. I guessed right. It’s what a museum should be. It’s full of 19th-Century plows and old shoes and every reasonably intact butter churn they could find in their basement.

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams famously said, and that applies to monuments and museums. What good are they if you can’t sit and muse with them?

Stories From the Civil War

Bad blogger. I took a break from writing this month to treat myself to a li’l novel called Moby Dick. I’m an imaginative but embarrassingly slow reader, and have to put time aside for substantial novels. Then I even got distracted from that, since I had plans last weekend to visit a festival of new theater in Shepardstown, West Virginia, where my friend the actor Alex Podulke was winning fans with his performance in Jane Martin’s new play.

Not that you can’t put your feet in a creek and read Melville in West Virginia, but I saw on a map that Shepardstown is just minutes from both Harpers Ferry and the battlefield of Antietam. Since I’m the only person among my friends who enjoys reading a history book, I feel like I’m letting them down if we ever pass an historical marker and I can’t extemporaneously break it down for them. So I couldn’t go without first reading up on John Brown’s raid and the military history of the Civil War.

The junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys is where America found its soul.

When John Brown seized Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 he was already infamous – and wanted for murder –  for fighting in the anti-slavery militia in Kansas. He proved so adept at defending himself rhetorically during his trial that Northern sympathy started swinging behind military action, if necessary, to destroy slavery in the South.

The short book I found about him told a few extra delicious anecdotes, one of them about Brown’s meeting with his friend Frederick Douglass in 1859. Someone should write a three-person play about this encounter, in which Douglass traveled from his home in Rochester to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania for a secret meeting in a quarry with Brown. Brown was already renting a farm in nearby Maryland, drilling his small force for the the raid at the end of the summer. He made a case to Douglass for why he should join him and start the slave revolt. Douglass thought it was suicidal, but Brown was so charismatic that Douglass’ traveling companion, the abolitionist and former slave Shields Green, chose to go with Brown instead of back home with Douglass, and ended up on the gallows with Brown by the end of the year.

The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park does a superb job of telling the story via video and artifacts.

Also nearby is Antietam Creek, and the battle named after it is often called the single deadliest day in U.S. military history. As someone who grew up going to Washington’s Crossing and Pennsbury Manor for family picnics, I have a soft spot for historic parks, but these Civil War battlefields are altogether different. They’re all about death, and second-guessing the tactics of military commanders, and honoring the sacrifices of soldiers who held or tried to take specific chunks of terrain under horrifying conditions. And since the story of the Civil War is our unpreparedness for the scale of industrial era war, it’s no surprise that the national parks where the major battles happened are so vast, you can’t just show up and make any sense of it. They’re too big to walk across without taking hiking precautions. They’re just fields where you find a statue every once in a while.

Antietam - a small part of it.

Antietam – a small part of it.

One of my traveling companions in Shepardstown told me she wouldn’t go to Antietam since she still lived by the lyrics she used to sing in the ’60s, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” and I had no stomach to argue with her. Having been to several, I find that all kinds of people go to Civil War battlefields, but they’re predominantly a destination for fathers and sons to see together, to witness the dreadful things men do to one another and to try making sense of it in their own way.

Still, Antietam was the military victory that Lincoln needed to provide political cover for the Emancipation Proclamation, so that freeing the slaves in the Confederacy would be perceived as a logical next step and not a desperate maneuver of a losing cause. If you asked me in 1861 to join the Union cause, to invade the South since it didn’t want to be in the Union any longer, I’m not sure how I’d react. If you asked in 1863, to join the battle to end slavery, I like to think I’d join, at least in the way that Whitman joined.

I’ve written before about why every screenplay needs a good “Holy shit!” moment, and the Civil War was certainly full of them. It has the makings of a good story since the journey was so much harder than the hero figured it would be when it started. And most importantly – and this feeling is hanging in the air in the Shepardstown region –  as the hero is finding out how much nastier he has to be in order to survive – a killer, in fact – he is simultaneously discovering a new moral core inside of himself.