Wendell Berry’s Elegy for John F. Kennedy: “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three.”

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John Kennedy speaking in Berlin.

John Kennedy speaking in Berlin.

It is fifty-one years now since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the greatest shocks the American people have ever experienced, one of those beautiful sunlit days like 9/11 in which everything suddenly went wrong. In the days that followed there was a massive outpouring of commemoration and reflection, including an elegant straightforward elegy for the President in the magazine The Nation by a twenty-nine year old poet from Kentucky: Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry as a young man.

Wendell Berry as a young man.

Now eighty years old, Wendell Berry is one of the most significant voices of our literature. A distinguished poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist, he is perhaps best known now for his powerful essays in defense of stewardship, conservation, and the preservation of culture. He moved back to his home county in Kentucky from New York in the early 1960s to write, farm, and teach, and he still lives today on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky to which he returned with his wife Tanya and their two children in the sixties. He has developed a worldwide reputation as a profound critic of our industrial economy. He speaks eloquently of the need for healthy agriculture, ecological sanity, and civilized relationships among citizens, family members, communities, and nations.

Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry.

You may have been influenced by Wendell Berry without even knowing it. If you are a supporter of local farmers, farmer’s markets, healthy agriculture, and just about any kind of ecological sustainability, know that Wendell Berry has been writing about these things for decades, exerting a powerful philosophical influence on these movements through well-crafted essays reaching a wide audience over time.

John and Jackie Kennedy with their family and pets in Hyannisport, MA. 1963.

John and Jackie Kennedy with their family and pets in Hyannisport, MA. 1963.

But fifty-one years ago it was his poem in memory of John F. Kennedy that had plenty of readers taking notice. Titled “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three,” the poem, in the words of scholar Andrew Angyal, “makes use of repetition and refrain and incorporates the traditional elegiac cycle of shock, grief, mourning, the funeral procession, the internment, and the apotheosis of the subject’s memory.” The title comes from the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. The poem has eleven stanzas.

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In early 1964, a book edition of the poem was published by George Braziller Inc. of New York with drawings by Ben Shahn, the distinguished painter, graphic artist, and photographer. In a short introduction, Shahn writes that he found the poem “extraordinarily moving.” He adds “It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared. When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me.”

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The book has a total of twenty-nine pages, twenty-two pages devoted to both text of the poem and illustrations on the left side pages. Only one page is in color—the final illustration of a man standing in a field. The book was lettered and illustrated by Shahn and was printed at The Meriden Gravure Company in Meriden, Connecticut. The books were bound by Haddon Craftsmen, Inc. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to the poem’s virtues, the book is an interesting example of Shahn’s style and a cultural artifact of the early 1960s in America.

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Shahn’s work would be used again for one of Berry’s books. Shahn’s “Sunday Painting” (1938) is featured on the cover of Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998).

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While the idea for a stand alone book edition of the poem seems to have been Shahn’s idea, 1964 was also the year in which Berry published his first collection of poetry: The Broken Ground. Many distinguished volumes have followed.

Here is the poem in its entirety. This is how it appeared in the pages of The Nation, except for the fact that any line after the first was tabbed over about five spaces. I tried to do it in WordPress, but the lines jumped back to the margin.

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young
President, and the early dark falling:

we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and
wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;

we know his name written in the black capitals
of his death, and the mourners standing in the
rain, and the leaves falling;

we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells,
candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;

we know the children who begin the youth of loss
greater than they can dream now;

we know the night long coming of faces into the candle-
light before his coffin, and their passing;

we know the mouth of the grave waiting, the bugle and
rifles, the mourners turning away;

we know the young dead body carried in the earth into
the first deep night of its absence;

we know our streets and days slowly opening into the
time he is not alive, filling with our footsteps and
voices;

we know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth
he is given to, and the light of all his lost
days;

we know the long approach of summers towards the
healed ground where he will be waiting, no longer the
keeper of what he was.

—Wendell Berry

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portrait

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three. Wendell Berry. Illustrations by Ben Shahn. George Braziller Inc., New York, 1964.

Wendell Berry. Andrew J. Angyal. Twayne Publishers. Connecticut, 1995.

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Louise Erdrich Wins Dayton Literary Peace Prize For Fiction

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Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

Minnesota author Louise Erdrich has won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for fiction. Erdrich, who is of Ojibwa, French, and German ancestry, and a member of the Turtle Creek Chippewa nation in North Dakota, is known for her novels about Native American life. She has also explored themes related to German-American life in the upper midwest. In addition to her novels, Erdrich has written poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. The author turned this June, and is a past recipient of the National Book Award.

Two of Erdrich’s sisters are writers, and Erdrich also runs a bookstore in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books, which includes a small nonprofit publishing house called Wigwaas Press.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize honors writers whose works in some way contribute to the advancement of peace, social justice, and cultural understanding.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is an offshoot of the historic Dayton peace accords on Bosnia in 1995. The award was originally a peace prize in the early 2000’s, but later organizers changed its focus to honor literature’s power to make a more peaceful world. Each year there is a winner and runner-up in fiction and nonfiction categories, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Award is given to those writers who have created a body of work related to themes of peace and understanding. The award is named after the U.S. official who brokered the famous peace negotiations. Past winners of the Richard Holbrooke Award–originally entitled the “Lifetime Achievement Award’– include Elie Weisel, Studs Terkel, Geraldine Brooks, and Wendell Berry.

Patrick Kerin

A nod to the ould sod: Irish-American writers of the Ohio Valley.

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Long before there was Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O'Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated the "Irish Colleen."

Long before Michael Flatley there was Irish dancer Kitty O’Neil, who wowed Broadway in the late 1800s. She also has the archetypal Irish beauty associated with  the “Irish Colleen.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve always enjoyed this unusual holiday, not only because I’m Irish-American and have memories of the celebration through the years, but also because of its peculiar nature. I can’t think of any other American holiday when one particular ethnic branch of the American tree is so loudly celebrated. It’s a day when Irish music, arts and culture are honored, and an opportunity for school children to learn about Ireland and St. Patrick himself. The day is quiet for the most part, except perhaps in some bars or taverns. People are mostly at school or work, and in some cities the parades are held the previous weekend.

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It’s an unabashedly American holiday despite the celebration of all things Irish. The parades, rivers dyed green, mugs of green beer,  grocery stores full of tacky plastic buttons and leprechaun hats, all combined with a curious assertion of national solidarity—“we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”—are certainly in the over-the-top modern American grain, although echoes of an older sentimental tradition are found in the Hallmark cards emblazoned with Irish blessings, quaint cottages, green fields, shamrocks and leprechauns. This is the legacy of earlier Irish-American pop culture, a time when the “stage Irishman” became a fixture in American theater, along with the beloved, self-sacrificing Irish mother and the bewitchingly beautiful dark-haired Irish colleen. This is the realm of John Ford’s film The Quiet Man and countless tenors rendering “My Wild Irish Rose.”

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The stark simplifications that accompany this American holiday always stand in contrast to the complexity of Irish and Irish-American history, culture, and identity. As a little kid I went to school on St. Patrick’s Day in a green sweater bearing two pins: one of a leprechaun and the other of a shamrock. I was fascinated by the lore of Ireland, this misty land of the Celts. But it was the early Seventies, and the news often carried disturbing images of The Troubles in Ulster: masked IRA gunmen, protesters throwing rocks at armored cars, the grim streets of Belfast. I couldn’t understand it or put it into words, but it somehow registered that there was a real Ireland that was different and frightening. Being an American kid far away, I preferred leprechauns and legends.

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This complexity surrounding Irish culture and identity resurfaced as I considered the writers to include in this post. I kept coming back to one question: What do we mean when we say someone is Irish-American?

The term has multiple definitions. One definition of an Irish American would be an immigrant born and reared in Ireland now living in the U.S. who has acquired citizenship and plans to remain in the United States. And when I refer to “Ireland,” for the sake of convenience here I’m going to let this term stand in for the entire land mass of the nation, including the Republic of Ireland that took shape in the 1920s, the country of Northern Ireland, and the smaller islands off the coast of Ireland that are part of Irish heritage.

“Irish-American” to most people certainly evokes the millions of Irish Catholics who streamed out of Ireland during the Potato Famine and who have been coming here since: The ones who formed the large Irish-American populations of Boston, New Orleans, and New York City; the ancestors of John Kennedy, James Cagney and Grace Kelly; the ones who worked the railroads, patrolled the streets, cleaned the houses of the rich and kept the Catholic parishes in America well-stocked with nuns and priests.

Grace Kelly.

Grace Kelly

Then there are the Scots-Irish, those descendants of Scottish immigrants (and some northern English) to Ireland’s northern counties who left their mark on America, becoming known as frontiersmen, pioneers, soldiers, politicians, and merchants. Their descendants, to name but just a few of the prominent, include a host of American Presidents, including Andrew Jackson and U.S. Grant, along with such fiery American notables as John Wayne, George Patton, Jeb Stuart and John McCain. Some of Ohio’s Presidents have Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKInley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

President William McKinley, one of many U.S. Presidents with Scots-Irish ancestry.

Then there were the Irish Protestants living throughout Ireland who also left for the New World. The association of Catholicism with Ireland can obscure the fact that the island’s history is full of noted figures who did not belong to the old Catholic culture. Their number in Irish literature–to take but one aspect of Irish culture–includes W.B.Yeats, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift (who was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral), Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bowen, George Bernard Shaw, Marie Edgeworth, and Sean O’ Casey, to name but a handful.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen.

The Ohio Valley writers featured here include authors with these kinds of varied Irish-American backgrounds. For some, Irish ancestry is just another fact of existence, part of their DNA: an ancestor came to America long ago. In other instances, the imprint of Irish-American culture forms part of the background of their works and lives.

For the purposes of this blog I’m defining the Ohio Valley as those states—and part of one state—through which the Ohio River flows. These include the western third of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The Ohio River actually drains waters as far south as Alabama and as far west of a section of Illinois, but the above states constitute my definition. I will later update the “About” section to include this definition. There are certainly more authors with Irish roots in this region than the ones I have found here. I have only included those whose Irish heritage was included in biographical information. I did not want to make any assumptions based on last names.

And if I were to shift the focus of this blog to the entire literary Midwest—which may happen far enough down the road—the number of Irish-American literary figures would likely increase notably, with the state of Illinois alone producing three noted authors whose work dealt deeply with Irish Catholic life: James T. Farrell, Andrew Greeley, and J.F. Powers. Greeley had three careers: Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist.

James T. Farrell on the job.

James T. Farrell on the job.

Father Andrew Greeley.

Father Andrew Greeley

And when we consider American literature overall, the volume of noted Irish-American writers—especially those of Irish Catholic stock—is remarkable. In addition to the three noted Illinois natives above, consider the following roll call: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Edwin O’Connor, Billy Collins, Philip Barry, Finley Peter Dunne, Kate Chopin, Nora Roberts, Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Bryson, Eugene O’Neill, Kay Ryan, John Kennedy Toole, John Patrick Shanley, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, James M.Cain, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Mitchell, William Kennedy, Mickey Spillane, John O’Hara—I could add more. A pretty impressive contribution.

Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery O’Connor

So here’s a look at some Ohio Valley authors with Irish roots.

Ohio:

Jim Tully (June 3, 1886—June 22, 1947) is probably the one writer here whose work draws most deeply on Irish-American life. Tully was born into a working class Irish family in St. Mary’s Ohio in 1888. Both parents were immigrants. His father was a ditch digger and alcoholic who often left his wife and kids to fend for themselves. When Tully’s mother died, his father placed him in St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cincinnati. He spent six years there, then three years working for an abusive farmer. Later he took to the road as a hobo and wandered the country. He worked odd jobs and was also a boxer before making his way to Hollywood, where he became a journalist.

Jim Tully

Jim Tully

Tully wrote a number of novels and several volumes of autobiography. His novel Emmett Lawler concerns his mother’s Irish family, and he also wrote a memoir called Shanty Irish, detailing the life of his dirt-poor Irish-American family in rural Ohio. Tully has had a revival lately, thanks in no small part to an excellent biography by Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak called Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

Jim Tully in Hollywood.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle.

John Knoepfle ( February 4, 1923) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a noted American poet. His father’s background was Swiss and his mother’s was Irish Catholic. He attended St. Xavier High School, a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati. In recent years he has traveled to Ireland seeking more information on his ancestors.

Richard Hague.

Richard Hague

Richard Hague (1947) is a poet, essayist and teacher who has taught since 1969 at Purcell Marian High School, a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio in a family both Irish-Catholic and Appalachian. He describes his boyhood and Irish American family in his memoir Milltown Natural, published by Bottom Dog Press in 1997. Milltown Natural was nominated for a National Book Award.

Zane Grey

Zane Grey

Zane Grey (January 31, 1872—October 23, 1939) noted western novelist, was born in Zanesville, Ohio. His father, Dr. Lewis Gray, was a grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County. His son would later change the spelling of his last name.

Patrick Jake O'Rourke.

Patrick Jake O’Rourke

P.J. O’ Rourke (November 14, 1947) is a well-known journalist and humorist from Toledo, Ohio. He is known for his libertarian views. He has authored twenty books and writes for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The American Spectator, and The Weekly Standard.

Lafcadio Hearn.

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (June 27, 1850-September 26, 1904) was born on the Greek island of Santa Maura, also known as Lefkada, to a Greek mother and an Irish father who was a surgeon in the British army. He was raised partly in Dublin, later traveling to the United States where he worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Commercial Appeal, then drifted to New Orleans where he worked for the New Orleans Item and the New Orleans Time-Democrat. He later lived in Martinique and then went to Japan, where he became a citizen and married a Japanese woman. He became known as an interpreter of non-western cultures, producing not only articles on the literature of Asia, but also translations and anthologies of stories and legends. He was a novelist as well.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Dan Emmett (October 29, 1815-June 28, 1904)—Dan Emmett, a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, is usually credited with writing the song “Dixie,” along with “Old Dan Tucker,” and “The Blue Tail Fly.” He was a fifer in the U.S. Army and later helped develop the blackface minstrel show. Despite the crude stereotypes of the minstrel show and the southern embrace of “Dixie,” Emmett was not a Confederate sympathizer. My paternal grandmother was born in 1895 in Mt. Vernon and could recall seeing Dan Emmett on the streets of town when she was a little girl. By that time he was an impoverished old man always wearing a long threadbare coat.

Dan Emmett in later years.

Dan Emmett in later years.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

U. S. Grant (April 27, 1822-July 23, 1885) was descended from Scots-Irish settlers. We know him as the commander of the Union armies from March of 1864 through the end of the war and as a U.S. President. However, General Grant also left his mark on American literature. His Memoirs are a widely admired model of clear and concise prose and have earned a place in American letters.

Roger Zelazny.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937—June 14, 1995) wrote many works of fantasy and science fiction. He was born in Euclid, Ohio. His father was a Polish immigrant and his mother was Irish-American.

James Hanley.

James Hanley

James Hanley (October 22, 1931—May 25, 2012) was born in Lorain, Ohio. He was a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. He received critical praise as a Broadway and Off Broadway playwright during the 1960s. He later had a successful career writing teleplays, winning Emmys for writing Something About Amelia in 1984 and 1988’s The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank. He was the nephew of two British novelists with Irish roots: James and Gerald Hanley.

William Davis Gallagher.

William Davis Gallagher

William Davis Gallagher ( August 21, 1808—June 27, 1894)—Gallagher was a poet and anthologist born in Philadelphia who later moved to Mt. Healthy, Ohio with his family. His father was an Irishman who fled the country after the Irish Rebellion of 1803. Gallagher edited one of the first regional poetry anthologies not only in the Midwest but the entire United States: Selections from the Poetical Literature of the West. This anthology also included one of Gallagher’s most well known poems: “Miami Woods.”

Western Pennsylvania:

Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864—January 27, 1922). I look forward to one day doing a profile on Nellie Bly. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh and later used the name “Nellie Bly” as a pioneering journalist. While she is well-known for her famous 72 day trip around the world—inspired by the 80 day journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days—she also did groundbreaking investigative work on factory conditions for women workers and neglect and cruelty in a women’s insane asylum.

Stephen Collins Foster.

Stephen Collins Foster

Stephen Collins Foster: (July 4, 1826—January 13, 1864): Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He was the grandson of a man from County Derry. Foster is one of our most famous American composers, known especially for “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” Foster spent several years in Cincinnati.

Kentucky:

Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry  (August 5, 1934):  Wendell Berry is a prominent essayist, poet, novelist and farmer who has become widely revered for his devotion to small scale sustainable farming and conservation. He lives in the same region where his family has lived and farmed for generations. In the “Irish Journal” section of his book Home Economics, Berry mentions his Irish great grandfather James Mathews, who came from Cashel.

Best wishes for a happy, reflective, and literary St. Patrick’s Day!

Patrick Kerin (another Irish-American writer).