Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "Writing"

If you were still around
I’d hold you
Shake you by the knees
Blow hot air in both ears

You, who could write like a Panther Cat
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swam you to your doom

If you were still around
I’d tear into your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers
Shreds of dread

I’d turn you
Facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Til you opened your mouth to this life

1/31/80
Homestead Valley, Ca.

(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)

they ooze and call each other “darlings”
they hire fortune tellers who lie
they frame pictures of the kid they’ve sent away
they call the old black bartender by his first name
they hire watered-down R&B bands and make them play acoustic
they frown on nude swimming
they confess to anyone who’ll listen
they each have an “oldest and dearest” friend
he’s usually the one they’ve confessed to the most
they hate being wished “Happy Birthday”
they love having not seen someone for such a long time
then they rush to the next one
their loneliness is covered with grins
their loneliness is smothered in a circle of “friends”

7/25/81
Hollywood, Ca.

(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)

Do books matter? Do they change minds — or do we just read into them whatever we want to know? We live in the most literate age in human history, yet many people today find few things less useful than books, and no books as useless as those of the philosophers. Many scholars today take for granted that philosophy is a technical discipline concerned with questions that can make sense only to a cadre of professionals trained to a perfection of irrelevance. The wider public, meanwhile, tends to think of philosophy as a place to stash all the questions that well up wherever our knowledge runs completely dry: the meaning of life, why there is something rather than nothing, the existence of the supernatural, and all that. Of the many attributes that seem to mark America’s Founders as residents of a foreign time and place, probably none is more astonishing today than their unapologetic confidence in the power of books — and in particular the books of the philosophers.

Insomnia is a chain
Insomnia is a loop
Insomnia is a vicious circle

Right now
Inside my skull
Inside the bones

My neck turns
Cartilage moves
I like the sound of my own bones

In the midst of this emergency
I think of you
And only you

In the midst of all this sleepless blood
Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched

I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on its own

5/17/82
Lancaster, Ca.

(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)

On August 27, 1858, Daniel Marshall brought his young son, Tommy, into Freeport, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, where nearly 15,000 people had gathered in a downtown square for the second of seven debates between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln.  Marshall was a solid Democrat who had moved his family to Illinois from Indiana a year earlier and supported the incumbent Senator Douglas.

In Freeport, under the debating rules set by the candidates, Lincoln spoke first for 60 minutes, Douglas spoke next for 90 minutes, and Lincoln finished with a 30-minute-long rebuttal.  The population of Freeport tripled on the day of the debate and the proceedings took place in unseasonably cool, cloudy weather for late-August.

As Lincoln and Douglas engaged in perhaps the most newsworthy debate of their historic series, 4-year-old Tommy Marshall found himself the best seat in the house.  While Lincoln spoke, Tommy sat in the lap of Stephen A. Douglas.  When Senator Douglas responded, Tommy sat in the lap of Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, after little Tommy Marshall had grown into Thomas Riley Marshall and became Vice President of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, sitting in the laps of history at the second Lincoln/Douglas debate remained one of his fondest memories.

I am writing all the time. I am writing when I am flying in a plane. I don’t mean literally writing; I am thinking about it. People often say to me, ‘How much of your time do you spend writing and how much of your time do you spend doing research?’ It is a great question, but no one ever says, ‘How much of your time do you spend thinking?’ That is probably the most important part of it — just thinking about it, thinking about what you have read, what you need to read, what you need to think more about. Putting things out literally on the table and looking at them. Putting a reproduction of a painting and really looking at that painting and thinking about that painting or the setting. Where things happened is very important to me. This whole book that I have just written [“The Greater Journey”] is set in Paris. Another book I wrote [“The Great Bridge”] was set in Brooklyn. Another was set in Panama [“The Path Between the Seas”]. Much of several books have been set here in Washington. I believe that the setting has great effect on the way things happened, the way things went. The setting is part of history, just as the ‘who’ is part of the why and so I really have to soak up the setting.
Historian David McCullough, explaining his writing process on CSPAN’s Q&A, May 2011

Don’t let my jokes about their names steer you away from the essay I wrote today about Pierce and Hawthorne. I think you’ll like it.


Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.

In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.

In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:

TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
.

On the next page, the dedication continued with a lengthy inscription beginning:
TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.

Hawthorne’s dedication ended with:
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE

Our Old Home was subtitled A Series of English Sketches and much of the book had been inspired (and written) by Hawthorne’s time as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, which allowed him to not only write, but to travel the English countryside. The Atlantic Monthly had published the manuscript as a serial, and editor James T. Fields was at the front of the queue demanding that Hawthorne drop any connection of the book with Pierce. Rather than scrubbing his idea of dedicating Our Old Home to Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared his undying friendship and appreciation for his friend with his inscription, in the strongest words possible. Understanding all of the accusations being made about Pierce, Hawthorne even offered a defense of his friend’s loyalty, reminding his readers that Franklin Pierce had spent nearly his entire adult life in public service and that the 14th President inherited his patriotism from his father, Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and early Governor of New Hampshire.

To Fields, Hawthorne responded, “I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.” Hawthorne stood his ground and the dedication remained once Our Old Home was published. Many others, however, did tear out the pages referencing Pierce, including Ralph Waldo Emerson who tore the dedication out of the copy he received directly from Hawthorne before allowing the book to join his personal library. It wasn’t just Our Old Home which was unpopular; Hawthorne wrote, “My friends have dropped off from me like autumn leaves,” to one of those who remained by his side.

Another who remained at his side was Franklin Pierce. In December 1863, Pierce’s long-suffering wife, Jane, died after years of lingering illnesses. Pierce was lonely when he was married — when a friend once asked him how the gregarious, fun-loving politician could marry someone with as such an opposite personality as Jane, Pierce answered, “I could take better care of her than anyone else was the reply.”. Life as a widower added to that loneliness, as well as the fact that his neighbors in Concord, New Hampshire shunned him, his political career allies had deserted him years ago, and one of his closest friends happened to be the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellious states then engaged with the Union in a bloody Civil War — Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It didn’t help that Pierce’s alcoholism was taking a severe toll on his health. But, as the dedication in Our Old Home had proven, Pierce still had Hawthorne at his side, too.

Hawthorne was at Pierce’s side in Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 as Jane was laid to rest. Pierce was devastated by his wife’s death, and Hawthorne was disturbed by seeing Jane in her open casket — he recognized that he, too, was nearing death. Hawthorne’s health had been failing for years and he had less than six months to live. As Jane’s casket was being lowered into her grave at Old North Cemetery, the grieving former President was thankful for his friend’s presence, but clearly worried about Hawthorne’s physical condition. At Jane’s graveside, Pierce took the time to adjust Hawthorne’s collar for him to keep him warm in the cold December wind of New Hampshire.

•••
"Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!" — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

In the spring of 1864, Hawthorne continued to decline. Stomach pain plagued him chronically, but he hoped that a trip to the White Mountains would be good for his health and asked Pierce to accompany him. Hawthorne’s friends worried that he was making a mistake by traveling in his physical condition and remained bitterly opposed to Hawthorne’s continuing connection with Pierce. But Hawthorne dismissed any concerns and his wife, Sophia, was supportive of the trip. Sophia, however, warned Pierce of how ill his friend really was and wrote, “He really needs to be aided in getting in and out of carriages, because his eyes are so affected by this weakness, and his steps are so uncertain.” In her letter of May 6, 1864, Sophia continued, “I would not trust him in any hands now excepting just such gentle and tender hands as yours,” and, “God bless you fear General Pierce for your aid in this strait.”

After meeting Hawthorne in Boston, the two friends traveled to Pierce’s home in Concord to wait for the weather to improve before beginning their journey into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hawthorne was gaunt, weak, and clearly dying, but in good spirits as they traveled from PIerce’s home to Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Pierce and Hawthorne arrived at the first-class Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about 100 miles from Dixville Notch. In the evening, Hawthorne had a bit of food and a cup of tea, fell asleep for an hour on a couch and then woke up and retired to his room. Pierce described the next few hours in a letter to Sidney Webster in 1868:

Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. To Webster, Pierce noted that as they were traveling by carriage to the Pemagewasset House earlier that day, Hawthorne asked him if he had read William Makepeace Thackeray’s account of death and “remarked in a low, soliloquizing tone, what a boon it would be if, when life draws to its close, one could pass away without a struggle.” Closing his letter to Webster describing Hawthorne’s final hours, he wrote, “The boon of which he spoke in the afternoon had, before morning’s dawn, been graciously granted to him. He had passed from natural sleep to that from which there is no earthly waking, without the slightest struggle, evidently without moving a muscle.”

Pierce notified Sophia Hawthorne by telegram and made arrangements for Hawthorne’s return to Massachusetts, accompanying the body of the legendary author in a solemn conclusion to their final journey together. As he was packing up their belongings, he found a pocketbook that felt empty, opened it up and found that Hawthorne carried a photograph of Franklin Pierce with him everywhere he went.

At Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce’s friendship with Hawthorne and care of the author in his final days was overlooked by Hawthorne’s other friends, who still shunned the former President due to political differences. Pierce was heartbroken that he was passed over and not included as a pallbearer. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of less controversial names like Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce’s was treated with respect as a former President of the United States, but nothing beyond what was required for proper society. To most of the people at the funeral, Pierce wasn’t the man who Hawthorne chose to spend his final days with; to them, he was a Northern President whose Southern sympathies had led them to Civil War. To them, Franklin Pierce wasn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best friend; to them, he was a close friend of Jefferson Davis at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate abolitionists. Franklin Pierce’s closest ally at Hawthorne’s funeral was the man lying in the casket, and all he could do was sprinkle apple blossoms into the grave.

"I need not tell you how lonely I am, and how full of sorrow," Pierce wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, shortly after Hawthorne’s death. Still devastated by Jane’s passing and now without Hawthorne, Pierce increasingly turned to the bottle. Drinking was punishing his body, and he began to decline. By the end, on October 8, 1868, Pierce was suffering from liver failure and reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds. Hawthorne stood by Pierce until the end, Pierce accompanied Hawthorne in the author’s final hours, but in the former President’s remaining years, he was increasingly lonely. He had been able to visit his other famous friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, shortly before Davis was released from prison, but that was the last time they saw each other. The war, politics, and time had taken a toll on Pierce’s health and reputation, no matter his years of public service as a State Legislator, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, or President of the United States. His dear friend Hawthorne had once written, "A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world," and Franklin Pierce could not overcome his political failures or personal demons. In the end he died alone, but linked (or remaining in "concord"), in a way, to Hawthorne by their hometowns and final resting places — Pierce is buried in Concord, New Hampshire and Hawthorne is buried in Concord, Massachusetts.
Asker Anonymous Asks:
How would you describe your writing style?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Gas. Brake. Dip.

AND Magazine has been redesigning some areas of their website, and I love the new profile pages for contributors. I’ve always loved how great AND makes my articles look visually, and I really like how each article that I’ve written has a really cool visual gateway on my profile page that takes readers to my work.

Go check out my profile page at AND Magazine, and then read a bunch of articles so you can “like” them on Facebook, share them with the world, and comment about how wonderful I am. But in only that exact order unless you want to be banished to a barren island in the South Atlantic Ocean with no potable water and Ted Cruz.

Many of you who have been following me since I was posting on my personal blog (which I no longer update) and started Dead Presidents were also followers of my good friend, Keith, in the various incarnations that his Tumblr blog has taken over the years. Since Keith is a husband and father and works hard, he sometimes takes sabbaticals from writing because, quite frankly, he has better shit to do. But anytime that Keith is writing and creating is a good time because, as I’ve said for 15 years — even when people weren’t listening and didn’t care — Keith is the best writer that I’ve ever known.

He’s back to posting on his Tumblr, Divided By Frames, so you may want to check it out and follow him. Now, Keith isn’t for everybody, and he’s certainly not writing about history. But if you are a fan of erotica and general assholery, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy Divided By Frames.

Before I close, I’d like to share a personal note about Keith. Now, this would be a great opportunity for me to let you know how good of a friend that he has been to me, and how he did more than just about anybody to convince me to leave a bad situation in Texas and spend time in Missouri to get my head right and recharge my batteries. This would be a good place to talk about how he let me stay in his home as I got settled in Missouri, and that if I killed somebody and had to get rid of the body, I’d only need to text Keith and he’d say, “I’ll bring the Pepsi and the shovel.” This is a perfect opening for me to share how amazing of a father he is to his adorable daughter. There is no better time than now to share all of those things.

But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to tell you about how this anti-establishment rebel, this non-conformist wordsmith of provocative erotica is a complete and utter phony. You see, before I left Missouri, Keith had asked if I knew where to find a copy of a certain book that he was having a hard time finding for a reasonable price. Even used copies were being sold at a minimum of $75-$90, he said. So, I said I’d see if I could help and figured it must be something really fascinating — something rebellious or radical, real cutting-edge literature that shocked and frightened the mainstream audience, something that was so seditious, so outrageous, so stimulating and exciting, that the reason the price was so high for the book was because few copies existed either because they were destroyed by people disturbed by the content, or held on to tightly by people inspired by the very fact that someone would write something so intoxicating.

Was it some crazy writer from the Beat Generation that I’d never heard of? First edition copies of Hunter S. Thompson classics? Some type of literature that I had never even imagined was being created? What was the book that Keith was looking for?

No, it was this:

That’s right, Keith desperately wanted to get his hands on a copy of Knowing Bass: The Scientific Approach to Catching More Fish by Dr. Keith A. Jones, PhD. That’s not some creative title masking subversive literature; it is what you think it is — a scientific study on the habits of BASS in order for nerds to “understand” them better when they go FISHING. I’m still disgusted in my friend.

We couldn’t find it cheaply online, but on my first trip to the wonderful Beers Books store after returning to Sacramento, I looked for the book and immediately found it for $12. So, the story has a happy ending for Keith, even though I hope that he is eventually ravaged by freshwater sharks or piranha or goldfish or whatever monsters are living in the water whenever he uses his “scientific knowledge about bass” while going fishing.

Don’t let this depressing story turn you away from Keith’s blog, Divided By Frames, however. As I said, he’s an amazing writer, even if he is an embarrassing excuse for a human being who needs a scientific study to help him catch stupid fish. Oh, and make no mistake about it — if I hadn’t found that copy of that silly book here in Sacramento and sent it to him, I am positive he eventually would have paid $90 for a copy.

Go read his shit, though, and try to pretend you don’t know this awful information about him when you’re enjoying his writing.

This is the workspace of a crazy man, and I am exhausted. Can somebody just please give me a book deal? Because the work is done. And I can’t stop writing.

I’ll probably need an editor, too, because nobody publishes or reads books that are over 6,000 pages long.

billscheft:

(Some background: In the last 16 years, I have written two pieces over 1000 words that haven’t been published. I have written several 800-word pieces which never saw the light of day…until now for the seven of you. 800 words is the length of a single-page magazine humor essay. So, when you…

I’ve said this many times, but if you’re not following Bill Scheft, a great author and humorist, you are missing out on one of Tumblr’s gems. So follow him and check out his new novel, Shrink Thyself (BOOK | KINDLE). Oh, and by the way, he’s been writing for a TV show hosted by some dude named David Letterman for nearly a quarter-century.