“And marked his grave with nameless stones”: William Cullen Bryant’s “The Murdered Traveller”

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., “Thanatopsis“) but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: “The Murdered Traveller” (copied below).

First published in January 1825 in the United States Literary Gazette (Boston), “The Murdered Traveller” tells of a skeleton discovered in the woods. Emotionless, its discoverers mark the grave with stones and continue on with their own travels, a scene then juxtaposed with the dead’s homeland. As nature reclaimed the body, back home “long they looked, and feared, and wept, / . . . And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.” It closes, “Long, long they looked — but never spied/ His welcome step again,/ Nor knew the fearful death he died/ Far down the narrow glen.”

This poem struck me because it reminded me of a story we hear too often: of missing men, women, and children whose families never lose hope that one day their loved one will return. Of course there is the famous case of Jacob Wetterling, but I also thought of when the IMGUR online community came together to identify the 15-year-old cold case of “The Grateful Doe” (a truly amazing story worth reading about). In the appendix, Bryant recounts his own inspiration for the poem: Continue reading

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“The Greatest Cartoon the World War Produces is a Photo!”

I’ve posted before about the Great War, including the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and a sampling of political cartoons from the war’s first year. Recently, while searching the newspaper archives for (and failing to find) a certain Russian-Anarchist-themed comic strip, I discovered the following photograph. Titled WAR, it depicts a Belgian woman—grief-stricken, the features of her face lost in dark shadows. Continue reading

Two translations of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas

I’ve blogged before about the writing advice Robert Bly once gave me, and since then, I’ve translated pieces by Norwegian poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923; here) and Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Like Baumann, even though Dalgas is well-recognized in the canon of his country’s literature, none of his work exists in English. So, this is my attempt to fix that. (Let me know what you think!)

Both of these first appeared on my Instagram page, where I tend to accompany writing with my own drawings/illustrations. The story “Milkwort” is from Chronicles and Fairytales (1896), and the “Life and Death” excerpt is from Poems and Drama (1904).

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Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act

In 1993 Minnesota became the eighth state in the nation to outlaw gay and lesbian discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Unlike other states, Minnesota even went further to ensure these same protections extended to members of the trans* community. No easy feat, this was the culmination of two decades of legislative maneuvering and grassroots organizing orchestrated by people like Sen. Allan H. Spear, Rep. Karen Clark, Steve Endean, and Scott Dibble. Twenty years later, when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the story of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was something seasoned activists knew about but of which my generation was oblivious. For those curious about how such legislation could pass at a time when even advocates felt uneasy using the word “gay,” there was little (if anything) to turn to.

Wanting to learn more about this important moment in state history, in 2013 I applied for a Mondale Research Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Although my historical interests gravitate toward early-20th century politics, I was inspired to study the life of Allan Spear after reading his autobiography Crossing the Barriers. Published posthumously in 2010, it recounts his childhood, his experience as a gay man, and his careers as both an historian and state senator. Unfortunately, given his passing in 2008, the book was never finished–and even worse, since Spear wrote chronologically, the narrative ends abruptly in the 1980s, years short of his greatest legislative achievements. Although the former-state senator Steve Milton wrote a nice afterward, his was the unenviable (and impossible) task of summarizing the last twenty years of a vibrant life in just as many pages.

When I was awarded the Fellowship, then, I set out not only to produce good scholarship on Minnesota’s LGBT nondiscrimination law, but I also wanted to do Sen. Spear’s life justice. As his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would attest, he was a brilliant, caring man, and someone without whom our state would be lesser.

In doing my research, I relied upon the rich archives available at both the Minnesota Historical Society and UMN Elmer L. Andersen Library. Furthermore, I sat down for several one-on-one interviews with Gov. Arne Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Scott Dibble, and the late historian Hy Berman. It took a while to write (life happens) but my paper “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act” was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Minnesota History magazine. (The magazine’s staff even went so far as to make the video trailer posted above!)

Now that this project is behind me (always a strange feeling), I hope readers find some hope in the story of Sen. Allan Spear’s 20-year campaign to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. Especially in this political environment, it is worth remembering that progress is often incremental and that while setbacks can be disheartening, it does not mean the cause is foolish, hopeless, or dead. It just means that there is more work to be done. While we should pause and reevaluate our course in light of history’s lessons, we must keep pushing forward. The struggle is a part of movement building, and building a movement is one of the most-powerful tools we’ve got to make this world a more compassionate and accepting place.

You can buy a copy of Minnesota History here.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

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The Poems of Julius B. Baumann: Five Translations

Julius Baumann grave marker

Julius Baumann’s grave marker in Cloquet, MN, donated by the “Sons of Norway” in 1926.

Some of the best advice for a young poet is to learn translation. It’s the advice Pound gave to Merwin, and it’s the advice Bly gave to me. So, always one to try new things, in the winter of 2014-15 I began translating the work of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923). Reading up on the Nordic languages (and relying extensively on digital copies of turn-of-the-century Norwegian-English dictionaries) I translated ten pieces from Baumann’s Fra Vidderne: New Poems (Augsburg Publishing House, 1915; Google Books). As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have appeared in English.

To provide a little background on Julius B. Baumann, in 1869 he was born to a family of fishermen in Vadsø, Norway. At the age of twenty he befriended two emigrants who offered to pay his way to the United States, and it was with the young writer’s yearning for life and experience that he left his native land. As a logger in Wisconsin he saw his first pine forest, and it was later as a farmhand in North Dakota where he first gazed upon plains of prairie and wheat. Working in the timber industry for much of his life, in his later years he moved to Cloquet, MN, where he managed a lumber store and served multiple terms as Carlton County’s register of deeds. Continue reading

“Made while under fire”: Elijah E. Edwards’ Civil War sketches

Elijah Evan EdwardsBefore there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865).

The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards’ journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from “hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure.” “This is especially true of the battle scenes,” he added, “since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches.” (p.1). It’s these that distinguish Edwards’ written account from others.

In describing how he made his sketches, he noted that at least a few “were made while under fire, but none to the neglect of any of the duties devolving upon me as Chaplain.” Describing a few such cases,  he reflected upon “the difficulties in the way of an ‘artist on the spot’ who attempts to depict war scenes.” (p.1).

His art is a dangerous pastime. It will also suggest a reason for the differences between his sketches and those of the professional artist, who immured in his studio paints battle scenes from the descriptions of others aided by the suggestions of his own fervid imagination. (p.2).

The consequence of this, Edwards continued, is that

Conventional ideas of both the artist and the public require battle scenes in which human agents are conspicuous and active. There must be heroes in the fight. There must be martial music, the roar of artillery, the waving of banners, soldiers marching in serried gaily uniformed and keeping exact time as they march. There must be romantic accessories to the scene, or it is no true picture. This ideal is undoubtedly a survival of the old Ossianic and Homeric conceptions of war, and has but little foundations in the conduct of modern warfare. (p.2).

Thus, in his writing as well as his sketches, he aspired “to report only what I saw or learned from observers of what I saw myself, and in no case to create or vary from its realism for the sake of effect.” (p.2).

Elijah Evan Edwards - On the Road to PontotocElijah Evan Edwards - On the Way to TupeloElijah Evan Edwards - Imago Mortis

Elijah Evan Edwards - Body of Lewis Hardy

“Body of Lieut. Hardy carried from the Battle-Field of Tupelo, July 15th, 1864” and “General A.J. Smith, The Last to Leave the Field of Tupelo.”

While reading through the typescript, I was drawn to Edwards’ account of the Battle of Tupelo (July 14-15, 1864), a Union victory. After a vivid description of his experience (working primarily with the wounded) he writes of surveying the field and coming upon a Lt. Col. Lewis Hardy. Inspecting him, it was clear the young man was “was mortally wounded and could not be moved.” (p.27-28). So as ambulances and medics passed Edwards asked for their help, being told there was either no room or no hope.

Staying with Hardy, as the artillery came up followed closely by Union General Andrew J. Smith, the general looked over Hardy and “answered by a great oath that sounded like an evidence of Grace in heart, saying as he did […] that no brave soldier of his, man or officer, should be left living or dead on the field.” General Smith then halted a nearby artillery wagon and ordered Hardy be fastened to the box–but “by the time we had fastened the Lieutenant to the caisson, he had breathed his last.” (p.28).

Elijah Evan Edwards - Burial of Lewis Hardy

“Burial of 1st Lieu. Lewis Hardy, of Co. 7t Minn. July 15, 1864.”

Riding beside the corpse, when Edwards arrived at camp the unit came together and buried Hardy “near midnight and by torchlight.” As they did so, Edwards made a few sketches in his notebook of the scene as the Confederate artillery “continued shelling our deserted battlefield […] But he was too badly beaten to pursue us any great distance.” (p.28). The next morning the unit rose early and marched on toward Memphis.

When Sunday morning passed without service, the chaplain gloomily recorded:

My sole religious duties thus far have to speak a word of cheer to some soldier on the march, to commend the dying to the infinite mercies of God and lastly

“to carry off the wounded-
to cover up the dead.” (p.30)

Although I’ve read several history books about the Civil War, I’ve always been more interested in personal accounts like Edwards’ (i.e. letters, diaries, and journals). While (good) historical writing offers context and analysis and from many particulars draws designs of an era and its influences, it is just one of many ways to engage with history. The reason why I love personal accounts so much is precisely because it lacks these grand schemes and doesn’t hide its quirks, biases, and urgency. It’s this last trait that revives the dead and, for me, humanizes history–that very real, very human obsession to pick up a pen or, in Edwards’ case, sit down at a typewriter and say: I need to tell this story.