QUOTE: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Edgar Allan Poe

A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)
A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…”

George Gordon Byron

Reasons I’m Still Not Writing

Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .
Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .

When I wake up to this I tend to linger a little longer in the yard. Even the turkeys spend more time on their “deck.”

They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.
They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.

Before it gets too hot and guests arrive I pickle and can beets (my sister loves them so I grow and preserve them for her visits).

Pickled beets are pretty, don't you think?
Pickled beets are pretty, don’t you think?

The guests arrive and want to do farmy things. I’m all for help finding potatoes with my nieces.

The girls meet Clare, the crippled chicken and fall in love with her.

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They love riding on the back of the truck,too.

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We decided to get a few lambs and the day comes to pick them up. Goats don’t pee when in minivans, but sheep do. A lesson learned. Does anyone know a good way to get the smell of sheep urine out of carpeting?

Lila, Tyra and Becky lambs.
Lila, Tyra and Becky.

We also build a house for our new ram, Smash Williams. So while I’d like to say I write no matter what, every day without fail I really can’t. The sun sets and another Upstate New York evening enthralls me and my visitors.

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We sit in the yard. Buck Crenshaw and his world wait for me to return, but for now I just enjoy reality.

A Modest Proposal

Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.” from A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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A Desk Of One’s Own

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Little reminders of your cluttered soul perched atop your very own place. Not a whole room, just a spot.

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Sheaffer Skrip Ink given a comfy home in an old jar and the well-worn nib wait for snowy days when all there is to do is write.

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For quick notes jotted when time is short inky pens do the trick.

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Coffee, the trusted stimulator.

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Tucked away notes.

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And the words of others sitting close by.

These things and the sounds outside the door–a rooster crowing, a dog scratching its ear and impatient for a walk and the muffled talk of family making music of their own–these things make books.

http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-house-on-tenafly-road/

Moral Ambivalence and Quiet People

Moral ambivalence on a quiet afternoon.
Moral ambivalence on a quiet afternoon.

Watch out for the quiet ones. They often take you places you didn’t think you’d go. After Buck Crenshaw and his twin threw William Weldon from a hayloft and broke his arm in THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD I thought I’d never see Buck again.

But there was Buck in his quietly scheming yet tentative way tapping my shoulder. I’m going to West Point, he kept saying so when an actual human friend wanted me to tag along on a trip up to the academy to see her son I was game. I’d been going to football there for a while, but this time we walked the grounds on a perfect late spring day.

Buck came along, of course, in my mind. What’s the story, Buck? I asked myself or Buck or my muse. No one answered, but weeks later after I promised Buck I’d write something about him (I’d already imagined him now in cadet uniform, with violet eyes like his mother’s and sandy colored straight hair sitting at his desk and being far more studious than I would have guessed) I stumbled upon the controversy surrounding admittance of the first black cadets to West Point.

West Point Military Academy, courtesy Library of Congress
West Point Military Academy, courtesy Library of Congress

I shook my head, no. I’m not going to write about evil white boys hazing perfect black boys. I knew life was more complex than “this color is good; this color is bad” and I didn’t want to touch the subject. AND THERE IT WAS. Buck sat a little smugly at his desk now (polished uniform buttons and all). Yes, he seemed to say, I want no part of this messy race stuff. I want to be an officer and beat my twin brother in all things and win Rose Turner’s hand in marriage and THAT’S IT.

But what about this Milford Streeter (who is as seriously flawed as everyone else) arriving as one of the first (but not the first) black young men to give the Academy a go?

Buck looked me in the eye. So? What of it? I’m at the top of my class and going for colors. I have nothing against Streeter and I’ll be the gentleman  I’m supposed to be.

But what will your brother Fred and his friends a year ahead of you at West Point think when you befriend Streeter?

Buck got a little ruffled at this question and replied: I SAID I’D BE A GENTLEMAN TO STREETER. I NEVER SAID I’D BE HIS FRIEND.

I noticed something in the way he said it though–a crack in his aloof and confident demeanor. Buck Crenshaw wasn’t hard like his brother. He’d allow a sort of friendship and there’s where Buck’s troubles began.

Perfection is a myth. Flawed humanity is the reality. Compassion is the only hope.

Buck and I would love for you to read his story. WEARY of RUNNING is now available in paperback and for KINDLE at AMAZON.COM.

And for those of you who haven’t read the other story about the people of Tenafly Road, my first novel THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD will be on sale (KINDLE COUNTDOWN) in ebook form beginning Friday, June 5th-12th.

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Rogers1Many heard the city’s siren call: freedom, freedom, freedom.  In the wake of crumbling farm communities and great and small depressions, many American-born young women (and men) moved to the burgeoning city of New York for work and a fresh start, freed from a “patriarchal”, rural society in the second quarter of the 1800’s.

The void of fatherhood with its moral-ism and lack of privacy had to be filled. The city was the permissive mother, the blind eye to the youths’ experiments with freedom. Into this world stepped MARY ROGERS the beauty. From good New England stock (the Mathers and the Rogers of Connecticut) fallen on hard times she came with her mother(or grandmother) to the city and opened a boarding house for sailors, corkcutters and clerks.

Mary, freed from the moorings of the village and the old-fashioned notions about girls working in sales (you were always selling more of yourself than you knew) took a job selling cigars to the roughs and the Tammany politicians.

She disappeared once leaving a suicide note for mother and the news was big enough to make the papers, but she returned a few days later right as rain–it had all been a joke she said. In the city women had freedom but with freedom came danger. Men thrive on danger (so say the studies), but do women?

On one balmy Sunday Mary went out for a walk and never came back. Mother worried, as did her present boyfriend, the corkcutter, who was to meet her in the evening to go promenading on Broadway as everyone did. On Monday the corkcutter searched Manhattan. He searched the rural retreat of Hoboken (a paradise on Earth). He worried himself back to drinking.

And then Mary was found floating dead on the rocky shores of New Jersey. The beautiful cigar girl murdered! And not just murdered but violated in unspeakable ways!

The papers went mad for the story. The outraged public read in horror each gruesome detail of the autopsy (leaked to the papers a little each day). No newspaper man in his right mind would ignore the story that tapped into the fears middle class people had about the sexualized city. And look what had happened to this pretty girl with no protection!

A great manhunt began. Many men were wrongfully accused. The CORKCUTTER was soon found dead as well–alcohol and laudanum poisoning (most likely self-inflicted, but who really knew?).

Illustration from Poe's The Mystery of Marie Roget
Illustration from Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget

Even Edgar Allen Poe was mesmerized and wrote a mystery story:“THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET. But all the men’s stories checked out. Why had Mary gone to Hoboken alone? On her deathbed a tavern owner in Hoboken confessed to helping an abortionist get rid of Mary’s body after a procedure gone awry. Seems the abortionist had connections to Madame Restell of New York, the notorious abortionist.

Despite its growing popularity in the city and lack of enforcement against it, abortion was reviled by most average citizens. As a thing done on the quiet no one really had to think about it. Ironically rural cultures had better infrastructure when it came to dealing with bastard children and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Until the procedure made headlines (and Madame Restell was all about making headlines) the city could uneasily look away, but no longer.

Huge crowds of protesters threatened the madame in her home until the cops fought them off. Mary remained at once a tragic figure and a morality tale. Alone, young and seduced by men Mary was left to fend for herself and murdered at the hands of a woman who flaunted her skills as a killer of babies (people thought it was murder after the first quickening when the mother could feel the baby move).

Mary’s death was retold in countless fictionalized novels and newspapers; her real story illustrated over and over again for a public bent on lapping up the most grotesque details. Public and private lines were forever blurred in the papers. Mary was one girl, a girl of mystery still, but beautiful. Everyone said so.

MADAME RESTELL committed suicide in 1878 by slitting her throat.

Pulling Mary from the river.

THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF MARY ROGERS by Amy Gilman Strebnick

“I have already given two brothers to the war and stand ready to sacrifice my wife’s brother.”

ArtemusWard

Artemus Ward 19th Century Comedian

“The Shakers is the strangest religious sex I ever met. I’d hearn tell of ’em and I’d seen ’em, with their broad brim’d hats and long wastid coats; but I’d never cum into immejit contack with ’em, and I’d sot ’em down as lackin intelleck, as I’d never seen ’em to my Show—leastways, if they cum they was disgised in white peple’s close, so I didn’t know ’em. from THE SHAKERS

 

INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT LINCOLN:

“Mr. Linkin, who do you spect I air?” sed I.

“A orfice-seeker, to be sure,” sed he.

“Wall, sir,” sed I, “you’s never more mistaken in your life. You hain’t gut a orfiss I’d take under no circumstances. I’m A. Ward. Wax figgers is my perfeshun. I’m the father of Twins, and they look like me—BOTH OF THEM. I cum to pay a friendly visit to the President eleck of the United States. If so be you wants to see me, say so,—if not, say so & I’m orf like a jug handle.”

“Mr. Ward, sit down. I am glad to see you, Sir.”

“Repose in Abraham’s Buzzum!” sed one of the orfice seekers, his idee bein to git orf a goak at my expense.

“Wall,” sez I, “ef all you fellers repose in that there Buzzum thar’ll be mity poor nussin for sum of you!” whereupon Old Abe buttoned his weskit clear up and blusht like a maidin of sweet 16. Jest at this pint of the conversation another swarm of orfice-seekers arrove & cum pilin into the parler. Sum wanted post orfices, sum wanted collectorships, sum wantid furrin missions, and all wanted sumthin. I thought Old Abe would go crazy. He hadn’t more than had time to shake hands with ’em, before another tremenjis crowd cum porein onto his premises. His house and dooryard was now perfeckly overflowed with orfice seekers, all clameruss for a immejit interview with with Old Abe. One man from Ohio, who had about seven inches of corn whisky into him, mistook me for Old Abe and addrest me as “The Pra-hayrie Flower of the West!” Thinks I YOU want a offiss putty bad. Another man with a gold-heded cane and a red nose told Old Abe he was “a seckind Washington & the Pride of the Boundliss West.”

Sez I, “Square, you wouldn’t take a small post-offiss if you could git it, would you?”

Sez he, “A patrit is abuv them things, sir!”

 

AND A FINAL BIT OF HUMOR:

“One of the principal features of my Entertainment is that it contains so many things that don’t have anything to do with it.”

 

THE FIRST COMEDIAN

MORE ARTEMUS WARD STORIES

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.
Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.