Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Category Archives: Literature and History

Read Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature Banquet Speech – Rolling Stone

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan


Quixotes from Guanajuato

Verona in Petrarch’s Time

“Verona, in Petrarch’s time, might have been classed among the major powers of Italy. Proud of her antiquity and her Roman theater (where one may still, of a summer evening, hear opera under the stars), enriched by the trade that came from over the Alps and down the Adige, Verona rose under the Scala family to a height where she threatened the commercial supremacy of Venice.”

The Solitary Guest From Alabama

From: A WORD OUT OF THE SEA. By Walt Whitman

Once, Paumanok, when the snows had melted, and the fifth-month grass was growing, up this sea-shore, in some briars, two guests from Alabama—two together, and their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown; and every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand, and every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest, silent, with bright eyes; and every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine! Pour down your warmth, great Sun! While we bask—we two together. Two together! Winds blow South, or winds blow North, day come white or night come black, home, or rivers and mountains from home, singing all time, minding no time, If we two but keep together.

Till of a sudden, maybe killed, unknown to her mate, one forenoon the she-bird crouched not on the nest, or returned that afternoon, nor the next, nor ever appeared again. And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea, and at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather, over the hoarse surging of the sea, or flitting from briar to briar by day, I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird, the solitary guest from Alabama.

Yes, when the stars glistened. All night long, on the prong of a moss-scalloped stake, down, almost amid the slapping waves, sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears. He called on his mate; he poured forth the meanings which I, of all men, know. Yes, my brother, I know; the rest might not—but I have treasured every note; for once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding, silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows, recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts, the white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing, I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair, listened long and long. Listened, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes, following you, my brother.

From the preface to Leaves of Grass, 1868

“During the summer of 1867 I had the opportunity (which I had often wished for) of expressing in print my estimate and admiration of the works of the American poet Walt Whitman. Like a stone dropped into a pond, an article of that sort may spread out its concentric circles of consequences.”


“Whitman is a poet who bears and needs to be read as a whole, and then the torrent of his power carry the disfigurements along with it, and away.”


“With all his singularities, Whitman is a master of words and sounds: he has them at his command–made for, and instinct with, his purpose–messengers of unsurpassable sympathy and intelligence between himself and his readers.”


“[If] anything can cast, in the eyes of posterity, an added halo of brightness around the unsullied personal qualities and the great doings of Lincoln, it will assuredly be the written monument reared to him by Whitman.”

An observation of Whitman, from a Mr. Conway: “I saw stretched upon his back, and gazing up straight at the terrible sun, the man I was seeking. With his grey clothing, his blue-grey shirt, his iron-grey hair, his swart sunburnt face and bare neck, he lay upon the brown-and-white grass–for the sun had burnt away its greenness–and was so like the earth upon which he rested that he seemed almost enough a part of it for one to pass by without recognition…he confided to me that this was one of his favorite places and attitudes for composing ‘poems.’…The books he seemed to know an love best were the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare: these he owned, and probably had in his pockets while we were talking…He confessed to having no talent for industry, and that his forte was ‘loafing and writing poems:’ he was poor, but had discovered that he could on the whole, live magnificently on bread and water…


“Walt Whitman occupies at the present moment a unique position on the globe, and one which, even in past time, can have been occupied by only an infinitesimally small number of men. He is the one man who entertains and professes respecting himself the grave conviction that he is the actual and prospective founder of a new poetic literature, and a great one–a literature proportional to the material vastness and the unmeasured destinies of America: he believes that the Columbus of the continent or the Washington of the States was not more truly than himself in the future of a founder and up builder of this America. Surely a sublime conviction, and expressed more than once in magnificent words–none more so than the lines beginning “Come, I will make this continent indissoluble.”(from Love of Comrades).


“I believe that Whitman is one of the huge, as yet mainly unrecognized, forces of our time; privileged to evoke, in a country hitherto still asking for its poet, a fresh athletic, and American poetry, and predestined to be traced up to by generation after generation of believing and ardent–let us hope not servile–disciples.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley, who knew what he was talking about when poetry was the subject, has said it, and with a profundity of truth Whitman seems in peculiar degree marked out for “legislation” of the kind referred to. His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken–that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere, the uttermost avatars of democracy will confess him more their announcer than their inspirer.” -W.M. Rossetti

Confetti in the Sunlight: General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Final Charge

Witness here a piece of Foote’s fitting account of the end of General Albert Sidney Johnston, a fine general who was esteemed by his comrades.  At the outset of the war, before Lee emerged god-like to him, Jefferson Davis thought him to be the South’s finest General.

The scene depicted is the lead up to his deadly charge amid a peach orchard in full bloom. Here a fine fighting general went to his grave on a cool spring day, guns blazing through blossoms that produced grizzly slaughter and confetti. It is romance and realism.

From Foote’s Civil War V1, p. 339.


At the end of the battle line, on the far flank of the Hornets Nest, there was a ten-acre peach orchard in full bloom. Hurlbut had a heavy line of infantry posted among the trees, supported by guns whose smoke lazed and swirled up through the branches sheathed in pink, and a bright rain of petals fell fluttering like confetti in the sunlight as bullets clipped the blossoms overhead. Arriving just after one of Breckinbridge’s brigades had recoiled from a charge against the orchard, Johnston saw that the officers were having trouble getting the troops in line to go forward again. “Men! They are stubborn; we must use the bayonet,” he told them. To emphasize the meaning he rode among them and touched the points of their bayonets with the tin cup. “These must do the work,” he said. When the line had formed, the soldiers were still hesitant to reenter the smoky uproar. So Johnston did what he had been doing all that morning, all along the line of battle. Riding front center, he stood up in his stirrups, removed his hat, and called back over his shoulder: “I will lead you!” As he touched his spurs to the flanks of his horse, the men surged forward, charging with him into the sheet of flame which blazed to meet them there among the blossoms letting fall their bright pink rain.

Foote Unloads on General Braxton Bragg

If you read Foote closely you can begin to tell which generals he is especially fond off, his disappointment and elation with their characters and performance both at particular instances as well as across time. So it is with all of the major characters in his trilogy. Foote can recite and respect the virtues of Jefferson Davis, for example, but he never really warms to him even as the reader can feel his unfruitful efforts and frustrations. Perhaps in the end the President of the Confederacy is too sanctimonious, too dogmatic and too rigid; this notwithstanding his immense education and experience that should have peppered him with more wisdom and humility, virtues that would have dulled the pride that too often impaired his judgment. More interesting is that mythology and hero-worship does not cloud his judgment of Lincoln; Foote was all too familiar with his Machiavellian steel and ruthlessness for those clouds to form. Nevertheless, he loved Lincoln best. As I have argued before, the Mississippian’s portraits of Lincoln are the finest devoted to any single character, and this includes books that bring to life colorful soulful Southern characters like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Peter Longstreet, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Foote does warm too these, sometimes a little too well as in the case of the devil Forrest, the war’s peerless fighting general.

But I digress. I simply wanted to post today that Foote can be as merciless in dressing down characters he frowns upon as he is in praising the virtuous. Georges Clemenceau, in one of the best insults ever uttered, once said of one of France’s most renown Generals, Fernidad Foch: “He was an average specimen of humanity whose main weakness was to imagine himself greater than he was.” No doubt Foote could have drubbed General Braxton Bragg with such a mighty club if he had chosen to. It’s a good thing that he did not for his best instruments were sharper and just as lethal. Witness here the dissection of poor Braxton Bragg:

“So [Bragg] said. But it seemed to others in his army that there was more to it than this; that the trouble, in fact, was personal; that it lay not within the situation which involved a shortage of rations and a surplus of bluecoats, but somewhere down deep inside Bragg himself. For all the audacity of his conception, for all his boldness through the preliminaries, once the critical instant was at hand he simply could not screw his nerves up to the sticking point. It was strange, this sudden abandonment of Stonewall as his model. It was as if a lesser poet should set out to imitate Shakespeare or Milton. With luck and skill, he might ape the manner, the superficial arrangement of words and even sentences; but the Shakespearian or Miltonic essence would be missing. And so it was with Bragg. He lacked the essence. Earlier he had said that the enemy was to be broken up and beaten in detail, Jackson-style, “by rapid movements and vigorous blows.” Now this precept was revised. As he left Munfordville he told a colonel on his staff: “This campaign must be won by marching, not fighting.”


It’s a pity that this general got a fort named after him.

Meet Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico was an early Renaissance painter. The lovely prose and introduction to Fra Angelico is from Will Durant’s, The Renaissance. (Simon and Schuster, 1953, pages 101-104). I particularly enjoyed the third paragraph.


Amid these exciting novelties Fra Angelico went quietly his own medieval way…His talent ripened quickly, and he had every prospect of making a comfortable place for himself in the world, but the love of peace and the hope of salvation led him to enter the Dominican order (1407)…[where] in happy obscurity, he illuminated manuscripts, and painted pictures for churches…he practiced religion with such modest devotion that his fellow friars called him the Angelic Brother–Fra Angelico. No one ever saw him angry or succeeded in offending him…

Painting, with [Fra Angelico], was a religious exercise as well as an aesthetic release and joy; he painted in much the same mood in which he prayed, and he never painted without praying first…His aim was not so much to create beauty as to inspire piety…In each of the half hundred cells the loving friar, aided by his friar pupils, found time to paint a fresco recalling some inspiring Gospel scene…

No painter except El Greco ever made a style so uniquely his own as Fra Angelico; even a novice can identify his hand. A simplicity of line and form going back to Giotto; a narrow but ethereal assemblage of colors–gold, vermilion, scarlet, blue, and green–reflecting a bright spirit and happy faith; figures perhaps too simply imaged, and almost without anatomy; faces beautiful and gentle, but too pale to be alive, too monotonously alike in monks, angels, and saints, conceived rather as flowers in paradise; and all redeemed by an ideal spirit of tender devotion, a purity of mood and thought recalling the finest moments of the Middle Ages, and never to be captured again by the Renaissance. He was the final cry of the medieval spirit in art.





Meet General Philip H. Sheridan: “I intend to make the cavalry an arm of the services.”

Philip H. Sheridan is one of my favorite Union generals during the war. Perhaps only Sherman was more colorful. Perhaps only Forrest was tougher.

What follows is from Volume 3 of Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative (pages 135-136):


In conference with Lincoln and Halleck, soon after his return from Tennessee and before he established headquarters in the field, he [Grant] had expressed his dissatisfaction with cavalry operations in the eastern theater. What was needed, he said, was “a thorough leader.”… Halleck came up with the answer. “How would Sheridan do?” he asked. This was Major General Philip H. Sheridan, then in command of an infantry under Thomas near Chattanooga. His only experience with cavalry had been a five-week term as colonel of a Michigan regiment after Shiloh, nearly two years ago, and he had not only never served in Virginia, he had never even been over the ground in peacetime, so great was his dislike of all things southern. But Grant said that he would do just fine in command of the eastern army’s three divisions of 13,000 troopers. “The very man I want,” he said, and Sheridan was sent for. He arrived in early April, checked into Willard’s, and went at once to the White House, much as Grant had done the month before. The interview was marred, however, when [Lincoln] brought up the familiar jest: “Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?” Sheridan was not amused. If he had his way, there were going to be a great many dead cavalrymen lying around, Union as well as Confederate. Back at Willard’s with friends, he said as much and more. “I’m going to take the cavalry away from the bobtailed brigadier generals,” he vowed. “They must do without their escorts. I intend to make the cavalry an arm of the services.”

Sheridan was different, and he brought something different and hard into the army he now joined. “Smash ’em up, smash ’em up!” he would say as he toured the camps, smacking the palm with his fist for emphasis, and then ride off on his big galloping horse, a bullet-headed little man with close-cropped hair and a black mustache and imperial, bandy-legged, long in the arms, all Irish but with a Mongol look to his face and form, as if something had gone strangely wrong somewhere down the line in Ireland. Just turned thirty-three, he was five feet five inches tall and he weighed 115 pounds with his spurs on; “one of those long-armed fellows with short legs,” Lincoln remarked of him, “that can scratch his shins without having to stoop over.” Mounted, he looked about as tall and burly as the next man, so that when he got down from his horse his slightness came as a shock.” The officer you brought on from the West is a rather little fellow to handle your cavalry,” someone observed at headquarters, soon after Sheridan reported for duty. Grant took a pull from his cigar, perhaps remembering Missionary Ridge. “You’ll find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him,” he said. And in point of fact, the under-sized, Ohio-raised West Pointer held much the same views on the war as his chief, who was Ohio born and had finished West Point ten years earlier, also standing about two thirds of the way down in his class. Those views, complementing Sheridan’s even more succinct “Smash ’em up, smash ’em up!” could be stated quite briefly, a staff physician found out about this time. They were sitting around idle after a hard day’s work and the doctor asked the general-in-chief for a definition of the art of war. Grant turned the matter over in his mind — no doubt preparing to quote Jomini or some other highly regarded authority, his listeners thought — and then replied, as if in confirmation of what his friend Longstreet was telling Lee’s staff about now, across the way: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can, and strike him as hard as you can. And keep moving on.”

That was to be the method…




Will and Ariel Durant, “The Renaissance”

One of the books I enjoy rereading is “The Renaissance” by Will and Ariel Durant. I do so because of the humor, wit, and beautiful sonorous writing. It’s filled with funny and delightful well constructed sentences, like this:

“John’s successor was a man of gentler mold. Benedict XII, the son of a baker, tried to be a Christian as well as a pope; he resisted the temptation to distribute offices among his relatives; he earned an honorable hostility by bestowing benefices of merits, not for fees; he repressed bribery and corruption in all branches of Church administration; he alienated the mendicant orders by commanding them to reform; he was never known to be cruel or to shed blood in war. All the forces of corruption rejoiced at his early death (1342).”


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