September 19, 2012

“Lincoln was always scribbling notes and putting them into his hat.” – Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman – And the Pursuit of Happiness

* I can’t say the grammar in this is at its finest.  I am exhausted.  I had to let out some word beauty though, my sweet outlet.

It’s an election year. It’s a love letter to democracy (democrazy).  It’s a story about men and their hats, or the tallness that sits upon their heads.  It makes me feel dumb because I can’t speak 9 languages and don’t collect paintings, or keep charts about my farm.  I don’t even have a farm or a garden.  I can barely rake the leaves in my backyard and remember to feed the birds.

Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness is a graphic novel about the history of the US.  What men were important and what is more important than their wars and the parchment they signed in their thick oak chairs?   It is a love letter to freedom, liberty, constitutional declarations.  A sweet swirly handwriting, a drawing of Abraham Lincoln that isn’t a stick figure with a large hat and hair combed-over.  It’s a history class in a graphic novel.   I wish I could teach her in my classroom, let my students see that people wish they could sleep in history, rather than sleep through it.  Go back and sit in balconies, invent electricity, write love letters to their wives over gunshots and tent flaps.

Maira Kalman isn’t a historian, but she’s an American and at some point we all become tiny historians on our tiny piece of the world.  I am the historian of my mother’s spoon and bowl upbringing of my brother, my father’s bald spot, the short history of my cats as they scale curtains and scratch furniture.  I am the historian of this bedroom covered in flowers and robins egg blue.  The teacher, the historian of my classroom with its sit down, stand up rules, its copies of worksheets that kill forests, and the smart board that will forever be my mortal enemy.

Maira Kalman – And the Pursuit of Happiness

Think about it.  We’re all historians.  Our tweets will build history books for our children’s children.  People will ask what the War in Iraq was like and we will tell them dusty, too many bombs, too many lost limbs and young men left broken.  Too many things no one told us before this started.   What was 9/11 like? Terrifying.  What was that town like that you lived in when you were small, the neighborhood pool, the fence built by hand up the alley of the main street.  You are the historian, you are the story teller, you are the voice for this bit part.  

Maira Kalman – And the Pursuit of Happiness

“I would confess to him that I would love to live in the Lincoln Memorial.  Just a simple cot in the center of the space.  I would make my bed and sweep.  Drink tea.  My neatness and happy aspect would amuse him. In the evening I would embroider his words onto fabric.  Words that seem so apt today” (90). I would confess to Ben Franklin that I would love to own a pair of bifocals to make me look smarter in snob coffee houses, when I snap my fingers to the stanzas.  I would wear loafers, penny loafers, and float in on pear perfume and fancy.

I think this book reminded me how much I love the superstars of history and literature.  Aren’t we all obsessed with some bearded man, someone who sweat over notes of declarations, or two scores, or the figures for electricity?

I have a special place in my heart for George Washington and his wooden teeth.  In middle school, I was picked on for my buck teeth, my fingernail gap.  I look at people’s teeth when they smile in the street, as they shake my hand.  I prayed for braces into my pillow and then I grew up and my teeth got coffee stains and floss.  There’s something special about a man who just filled his teeth with ivory (or wood)  and went on conquering.

I also adore John Adams.  I’ve read the letters between his wife and him.  Their romance was one for the storybooks, literally.  When I picture widows standing guard on the railings of Antellbellum homes, I think of Abigal Adams.  Abigal must be a close relative to Alice with their names being so similar, and their dresses frilled with petticoat lace.

Maira Kalman – And the Pursuit of Happiness

“After the 1850’s, thanks in part to Franklin’s influence, America became the land of ingenuity.  Here, in 1898, is Nikola Tesla, who talked to pigeons and worked with electricity, while calmly reading a book. I wish I knew what he was reading” (237).

I’m such an angry feminist.  Sometimes I forget all the gifts that men gave our culture when they weren’t busy being barbarians.  I didn’t know who Nikola Tesla was before this book, but I do love a man who talks to the birds.  Then, there’s Thomas Edison who “invented naps” because he was inventing so many things he needed to get into bed every afternoon at approximately 3pm just after a late tea.

Maira Kalman – And the Pursuit of Happiness

“Everything is invented. Language. Childhood.  Careers.  Relationships.  Religion. Philosophy.  The Future.  They are not there for the plucking.  They don’t exist in some natural state.  They must be invented by people.  And that, of course, is a great thing.  Don’t mope in your room.  Go invent something.”


You have a blog, write it.  You have a voice, sing.  How do you carve a bird with two stones?  How do you wrap an adult hand around the small pinky of a newborn baby?

For that matter, how do you answer a student who tells you on college ruled paper that he didn’t read, and he didn’t understand any of the stories, that he’s lost hope in ever passing your class? You pinky promise.  You invent handshakes and lessons.  You invent hope where there isn’t any and you create this small flame in his eyes.  You rest everything in your life on that one short sentence, a sentence that means hope in every way you say it….a pinky wrapped around the pink middle of another pinky, the inside of a heart, hanging open.

7 comments so far.

7 responses to ““Lincoln was always scribbling notes and putting them into his hat.” – Maira Kalman”

  1. alenaslife says:

    I have been so absent from the blog world, but I’m so glad your headline grabbed me this morning. I love, love, love this piece. You speak to me Cassie and I’m so glad to be a fellow “historian.” And it’s rare to find someone who loves John Adams as I do. He and Abigail are the greatest American love story. Thank you for this post. I needed it.

    • Cassie says:

      I’m so glad that you wrote this. I’m also happy I could create something along the way that you needed. 🙂 I love reading blogs that just speak to me somehow and it could be about anything! Sometimes, things just hit you. John Adams is amazing. My dad passed on a biography about him to me and after that I was hooked. His story and Abigail’s story are just too wonderful.

  2. Brianna Soloski says:

    Beautiful review. I regret, in the tiniest way, not paying more attention in history.

  3. Bea says:

    I actually commented earlier yesterday, but my computer fritzed mid comment, and so I will try again.
    I really enjoyed your blog, so much that I copied and pasted your last paragraph on my Facebook as a quote of yours.
    The book you reviewed sounds fascinating, and the author has found a new way to introduce us to so many characters from our past. It sounds like a good read.

  4. I have been all over the place this summer and am trying to catch up (can’t–it’s near impossible). I liked your review. I never liked history when I was young but something happened when I matured, I love it now.

    • Cassie says:

      I actually did only padeia in high school so I always mixed history with literature. Then, in college, I minored in history and took history classes that matched with what I was reading in literature. I’m a big geek about history even though I can never remember dates.

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Hi, I’m Cass

I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.

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