Oh Canada…Oh Henry


Aren’t you sometimes struck by a peculiar conjunction of events in your life? This is what’s happening here now:

1. The Olympic Games taking place in Vancouver are wrapping up. Every night we’ve had views of the fantastically beautiful British Columbia.

2. In our current homeschooling block, North American History and Geography, we now happen to be studying Canada, at this moment the Great Expulsion of 1755, when the French residents of Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia) were forcibly removed by the British.

3. We are reading “Evangeline,” the poetic interpretation of that event through the story of two ill-fated lovers, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

4. Today is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s birthday (1807-1882).

Longfellow was born actually not far from the setting of the poem, in Maine when it was still part of Massachusetts. He hoped when still in his teens that his would be a literary path, and it was—professor of languages at Bowdoin and Harvard, translator of Dante, novelist, and, in his day, probably the most popular of American poets. He was admired for his character as well as for his work. Twice widowed tragically and never recovered from his grief, he nevertheless forged on, productive, kindly, modest, and gracious in the face of later artistic criticism.

His poetry is definitely that of another era: strongly rhythmical, musical, metaphorical romantic storytelling with a capital S. You can’t listen to “Paul Revere’s Ride” or “The Song of Hiawatha” or “Evangeline” without being carried away on the current of vivid word-pictures and harmonious sound, and chanting under your breath at odd moments during the day: THIS is the FORest primEVal… It is poetry meant to be read aloud. If you haven’t ever done so, read the opening lines aloud now in your best storytelling voice, and wish Longfellow a Happy Birthday.

Literary Washington

Here is the inside of the Washington DC Literary Map for which I posted the cover on 2/21. (The size in real life is 26 inches x 19 inches.)

The following is the description given on the Woman’s National Book Association website:

“The literary map identifies and celebrates locations in Washington and surrounding areas that are associated with 44 authors who have lived or worked here, including Rachel Carson, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Clare Booth Luce, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. The map also contains biographical information about the authors, a list of authors born or buried in the Washington area, other places with literary connections, and a selective list of books set in Washington.”

I was surprised myself to see how many writers have Washington, DC connections.



George Washington’s City


Today is the birthday of George Washington (1732-1799). Washington was a man of many gifts and a genuine 18th-century celebrity: a hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, intelligent, courageous, honorable, hard-working, serious, strong and muscular, modest yet dignified, an enthusiastic dancer, a fine dresser, and, according to a friend, “the best horseman of his age.” He was also unusually tall, which always seems to impress one’s fellow citizens mightily even if one is a prize dunce. The fact that he was pretty much universally admired made it possible for the wobbly, newly-unified country to survive its first few years. He brought people together. Without him we might not have remained the United States.

In fact Washington was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, an impressive fellow in so many ways that I cannot attempt to cover them in a single blog-post. So I offer here only one of his accomplishments, from our homeschool Local History and Geography lesson on The Founding of Washington, DC. And what a story it is, full of intrigue, scandal, and spurious investment opportunities. Plus ça change…

Once the squabbling Thirteen Colonies agreed to band together, shove the British aside, and govern themselves, they had to select a capital for the new nation. Several different cities had temporarily housed delegates and/or the Declaration of Independence itself throughout the Revolutionary years, and others put forward what they considered justifiable claims for their own beloved towns. Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies and so would have been a natural choice if it hadn’t been a hotbed of Quakers, free blacks, abolitionists, and other Yankee troublemakers. The southern states said, If you-all choose Philadelphia, so long USA, we are out of here.

A deal was finally made to carve out a brand-new capital in more southerly location somewhere on the Potomac, and who ought to be allowed to choose the spot? None but the universally trusted and unanimously elected First President. So Washington made an exploratory journey and selected a 10-mile by 10-mile piece of land that included the little ports of Georgetown and Alexandria, situated between the Chesapeake Bay/Atlantic highway and the tempting lands to the west.

No one was really delighted with the decision except perhaps Washington himself, who worked hard both during and after his Presidency to keep interest alive and oversee the exceedingly slow construction of the new Capitol and President’s House (see the young Congress’ unwillingness to pay for anything, Each Day post 2/21). Washington, DC slowly developed from a small muddy provincial village into an interesting city that is at last worthy of its namesake. (I believe a recognizable shift took place sometime during the Kennedy administration.) Happy Birthday, dear George Washington! Our debt to you is incalculable.

Now I am going to go bake a cherry pie.

(For those interested in this subject, I recommend the excellent Washington: The Making of the American Capital, by Fergus Bordewich.)

Washington’s Monument


Today is the 125th anniversary of the dedication (in 1885) of the Washington Monument. It was certainly a long time a-building, considering Pierre Charles L’Enfant had included a location for a monument to George Washington in his 1791 drawings for the new capital city. What L’Enfant had in mind, though, was an equestrian statue.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress thought a tomb might be a better plan—hey, how about right inside the Capitol? But his wife Martha wasn’t too happy with that idea. Progress stalled until the 1830s, when a group of impatient citizens raised funds themselves and held a competition for a monument design. The other entries were far more complicated: designs for monuments rich in Gothic windows, enlivened by multicolored stonework, festooned with all manner of carving and statuary. It makes me wonder how much the final choice was driven by budget. Even the award-winning design by Robert Mills originally had a colonnade at the base.

Construction began at last in 1848 and continued in fits and starts, slowed by the Civil War, lack of money, and anti-Catholic fervor (don’t ask). Congress occasionally offered funds. Reading American history I am struck by how reluctant the U.S. government used to be to spend money on much of anything, no matter the generally acknowledged need or value. When Congress finally decided to fund the rest, the monument went up quickly and immediately began to draw crowds. According to the National Park Service, it has over 800,000 visitors a year and is still the TALLEST STONE STRUCTURE in the WORLD. How about that.

You may be asking, “What the heck does this have to do with a picture of a Monument-Pen?” Well, uh… this image is the cover of a Literary Map of Washington DC commissioned by the Women’s National Book Association and featuring writers who have lived and worked here. For February 21st, I searched my work for a Monument image. And thereby hangs the tale. (Later this month I will post the illustrated map inside, so you can see what it looks like. It’s available at DC bookshops or through the WNBA.)

There is a celebration of the anniversary at 1pm today at the foot of the Monument.


From my series of doorway/window paintings. More on those later, I hope.

Really, this poem properly belongs to Valentines Day…


Wild Nights

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Emily Dickinson