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.

“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

To recognize the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, this article is a follow-up to my last post,The Funeral of President Lincoln.” If you enjoyed this, you may also like my short piece on Minnesota newspapers’ reaction to the death of Charles Darwin.

"President Lincoln Assassinated!", The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

“President Lincoln Assassinated!”, The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

Lincoln has a special importance in the history of Minnesota not only because of his political legacy but also the fact that 1860 was the first presidential election the state could vote in. Although a few counties went for the Democratic candidate, the state overwhelmingly handed its four electoral votes to Lincoln. Months later when the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was one of the first to commit troops to the Union cause, and while the state and administration did not agree on every issue, the two were undoubtedly close. This made it all the more traumatic when news of the assassination reached the state.

One of the first Minnesota newspapers to report on the it was The St. Cloud Democrat, based out of the central part of the state. “He is Dead!” its editor, W. B. Mitchell, frantically announced, adding that God had struck “the light from our eyes” by taking “our great, good and mighty ruler.” He continued:

On Sabbath morning [April 15th] the terrible news fell upon us—crushing, stupefying, sickening. Men heard with blanched cheeks, and the blood cold—frozen—in their veins. To believe seemed impossible, and yet there was no room for hope—the truth was only too well established. Words were powerless. In the formation of language no such deed as this—the assassination of Liberty’s chosen son in a land that boasted to breathe only the air of freedom—had never been contemplated, and the brain of man had framed nothing for the tongue to express that was not weak and impotent. (April 20, 1865)

As the newspaper sorted through the details of the assassination — that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator and Secretary Seward a second victim — it worried about what was next. As Mitchell noted, the nation had lost a part of itself: “The heart of the nation had twined around that great body and taken it to themselves, and the great soul it contained had become a part of their soul.” For many, including Mitchell, Lincoln was an American Moses leading the country toward the Promised Land but never reaching it himself. Yet with the prophet gone, visions of this land became dubious and for some stained red.

"Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm," The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

“Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm,” The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

A week later The St. Cloud Democrat published a two-part letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm, an early supporter of Lincoln and one of the state’s most vocal abolitionists. Recording what she saw while in Washington, D.C., her correspondence is fascinating in that, written days apart, the two-halves capture the emotional shift that must have shaken so many. For example, the first is dated April 14, only hours before the assassination, and in it she observes the raised flags and “virtual peace” taking hold in the country: “[O]n this favored day the sun shines gloriously, after a long season of clouds and rain.” But three days later the storm returned:

It is sickening to pass the White House … so recently all gorgeous with flags and all manner of festive devices blazing with many colored lights, and reverberating with triumphant music, and witness the change to the sable emblems of woe. What made these garments even worse was the knowledge that just behind that draped wall lies the mangled body of our sainted, martyred President, and this visible presence adds greatly to the sorrow and gloom.

Finally, she seethed, the true character of the South had revealed itself by murdering the one person who would show them mercy:

The world at large—the masses of the Northern people—had no more just idea than had Mr. Lincoln of the animus of this most fiendish Rebellion[.] He was the one to test generosity, magnanimity, Christian charity and all that class of virtues to the utmost limit, and we have the result. As Christ was murdered by those He came to save, so has President Lincoln been sacrificed by the wretches he would have shielded from the just punishment of their crimes.

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Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884)

With the president gone, “Who now will stand between them and the reward of their two centuries’ of crimes against our common humanity, the thought of which makes the blood curdle in one’s veins?” She demanded that Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, not steady his hand in retaliation: “Nations have no hereafter, and National sins must meet their punishment in this life.” This was a position she maintained in successive letters to the newspaper, recanting any benevolence she may have once shown, insisting that “The nation can never be safe while these, her implacable and wily foes, are above the grounds” (May 6, 1865).

In the months following, Swisshelm was not alone in her bloodlust. As the “Radical Republicans” in Congress sought to punish the South and ensure the rights of free blacks, President Johnson advocated a more moderate approach. Trying to reunite the country as quickly as possible, his policies alienated individuals like Swisshelm, who feared weakness would validate treason. The new president’s efforts backfired when, in 1866, the Radicals swept the midterm elections.

Although Reconstruction may not have affected Minnesota in the same way it did the South and New England, it did ignite a debate over how to reach the “Promised Land” Lincoln prophesied. While Minnesota sent several of these Radicals to Washington (including former Governor Alexander Ramsey), on the state-level, Republicans pushed for a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution. This, though, was voted down twice (1865, 1867) before passing in 1868 and was the first step on a path the state would take nearly a century to travel.

There really is no modern parallel to the anguish many Americans felt when President Lincoln was assassinated. Right when the nation’s bloodiest war was drawing to a close, it lost something greater than a man: it lost a symbol. As the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln represented a vision of what the United States could be, and as that “great soul … had become a part of [the people’s] soul,” for many it must have felt as if much more than just the president had died that day. Upon hearing the news, how many asked, What now?

The Funeral of President Lincoln

This month marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. Given the historical distance, though, it’s hard for us to really appreciate how traumatic this event was — especially when, in the days preceding it, there was so much to celebrate. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War. But ten days later, the colors of victory faded black as the president’s hearse moved solemnly through the streets of Washington.

The St. Cloud Democrat (Minnesota: April 27, 1865) ran an account of the three-mile-long procession, which I’ve reprinted below. As you read it, imagine for a moment what it must have been like watching the carriages move past. Though the war was over, tremulous times lied ahead. The reconstruction of a nation began with a tomb for its moral compass.


President Lincoln Funeral Newspaper Article - Saint Cloud Democrat

“President Lincoln’s Funeral,” from The St. Cloud Democrat (April 27, 1865)

PRESIDENT LINCOLN’S FUNERAL

The solemn funeral rites and obsequies of the late President Lincoln were performed today in the capital of the country. No greater love for the memory of the illustrious dead was ever demonstrated in the annals of civilization.

The dawn that was ushered in by the heavy booming of the salutes of minute guns from the fortifications surrounding the city, never broke purer or brighter or clearer than on this day.

The morn that succeeded, all the day that followed, even to the very setting of the sun, was the loveliest of the season. The heavens were undimmed by even one passing cloud.

Between 10 and 11 o’clock the military escort arrived and formed in line on Pennsylvania avenue, the left resting on Fifteenth street. The escort consisted of two regiments of infantry, two battalions of cavalry, eight pieces of artillery, and one battalion marines. The marines were headed by a full marine band, and the’other military companies were a’so accompanied by bauds.

By 12 o’clock Pennsylvania avenue was lined from street to housetop, all the way to the White House, with thousands of people of all ages.

At that hour the ceremonies commenced in the east room, where the ceiling was draped with crape, and where resplendent mirrors were hung with borders composed of emblems of mourning, while the drapery gave the room a dim light that added to the solemnity of the mournful scene.

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President Lincoln’s funeral procession in Washington, D.C.

All that remained of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, sixteenth President of these United States, lay in a grand and gloomy catafalque, which was relieved, however, by choice flowers.

Cards of admission to the executive mansion was issued to the number of 600—forty of which were to the clergymen and twenty to the members of the press. The rest included the Governors of nearly all the loyal States, friends of the family, and those mentioned already.

Perhaps the most touching grief, which moved all present, was that of little Thaddeus Lincoln, the favorite son. He and his elder brother were the only mourners of the family present during the funeral solemnities.

President Johnson stood beside the remains of his lamented predecessor during the funeral oration.

Gen. Grant stood at the head of the corpse, while the members of the Cabinet and ex-Vice-President Hamlin were grouped about these eminent personages.

Rev. Dr. Hall, Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, rose and read a portion of the Episcopalian service for the burial of the dead.

Bishop-Simpson, of the Methodist Church, then offered a prayer, in which he fervently alluded to the emancipation proclamation and other noted deeds performed by President Lincoln.

lincoln-body

President Lincoln’s body lying in wake in New York City.

Rev. Dr. Gurley then read a funeral oration. At 2 p. M. the funeral procession started. All the bells in the city were toiled, while minute guns were fi-ed. Pennsylvania avenue, from the Treasury building to the Capitol, was entirely clear from curb to curb.

The procession moved, headed by a colored regiment with arms trailed, pretty much in the order of the published programme.

From the house tops, where thousands were congregated, the sight was the most sublime and magnificent one ever seen in this city or country. The forts across the Potomac sent up their curling smoke to join the echo of the minute guns that were fired in the city limits.

Preceding the hearse was the military escort, over one mile long. At short intervals bands discoursed dirges and drums beat muffled sounds.

After the hearse came the family, consisting only of Robert Lincoln and his little brother, and their relatives. Mrs Lincoln did not go out.

The procession was two hours and ten minutes passing a given point, being about three miles long. The centre of it had reached the Capital and was returning before the rear had left Willard’s.

To-morrow the remains will lie in state, and the next day they will go under escort to Illinois by way of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Chicago, to Springfield, and thus will end the funeral of ABRAHAM LINCOLN.