For Abraham Lincoln, it happened on February 12, 1813, during the Presidency of James Madison. The little 4-year-old boy was utterly unaware of the War of 1812 raging on distant frontiers. He lived on Knob Creek Farm, Kentucky, though his father’s title to this land was in a dispute that eventually sent the family over the Kentucky-Indiana border (the Ohio River). He probably fought often with his sister, who was two years and two days older than him. As Christopher Hitchens later said, unlike any other great President, it’s hard to imagine him as anything other than American; no doubt that relates to his scruffy-headed toddler days, which emulated and happened along the borders of a young, expanding nation.
For Susan B. Anthony, it happened on February 20, 1825, during the last days of the Presidency of James Monroe. The little 5-year-old girl was still living with her parents in her birthplace of Adams, Massachusetts, though they, along with her six brothers and sisters and many, many other industrious New Englanders, would move to upstate New York the following year with the completion of the Erie Canal (and witness the beginnings of feminism as textile workers gathered together for their rights). Back in 1825, she was developing her sturdy New England moral character, and even then she was interested in education and religious studies (her parents were of different Christian faiths). The 5-year-old girl wasn’t so unlike the 50-year-old country, full of possibilities.
For Mark Twain, it happened on November 30, 1846, during the Presidency of James Polk, when he was 11. Though he would later suggest that this period of his life resembled the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, there’s reason for doubt: his father had just given over his own office to set up the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, America’s then-westernmost railroad, and the riders of the Pony Express and the constant flow of soldiers on their way to and from the Mexican-American War (like John Fremont) would probably have given any boy enough excitement. In any event, he was already working for his father, and after he died the next year, Twain would formally become a printer’s apprentice. 1847 was a good time to be a scrappy 11-year-old, at the Western edge of a place that had just learned the term “manifest destiny.”
For Thomas Edison, it happened on February 11, 1863, during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, when he was 16. The Civil War was disastrous for some of his older siblings (he was the seventh of seven), but in many ways good for teenage Thomas, who was young enough to avoid the draft, enterprising enough to found his own newspaper in a time when news was highly coveted, and far enough from the action (Port Huron, Michigan) not to live in danger. Whatever his growing pains, Edison at 16 was hustling: selling candy and vegetables on trains, conducting chemical experiments, studying qualitative analysis, and eventually becoming a telegraph operator (after saving, from an oncoming train, the life of the 3-year-old son of the lead telegraph operator). Edison was learning how to be equal parts scientist and businessman, a skill that would serve him and the country well.
For Booker T. Washington, it happened on April 5, 1872, during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when he was 18. Born a Virginia plantation slave and overseen by his black mother who never spoke of his white father, Booker was moved to the newly free West Virginia shortly after Grant helped end the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation became enforceable. At 18, Booker was still catching up on all the school he’d missed as a slave, and working in salt furnaces and coal mines to make ends meet. He was already an outstanding student, showing flashes of the civil-rights leader and exceptional orator he’d one day become. In a way, this was the year that America set the terms for its future adulthood – the retreat from Reconstruction, the terms established for the Gilded Age.
For Emma Goldman, it happened on June 27, 1892, during the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Goldman is one of our best-known immigrants, having emigrated from Lithuania (then Russia) to New York when she was 16; within a year, she read about the Haymarket riots, and by 1892, at the age of 23, she was already a somewhat well-known writer and orator advocating anarchism and women’s rights (including birth control). Goldman was one person who saw the freedom that America implied but sometimes failed to offer, and wasted no time trying to reconcile the difference. Sure, Goldman wasn’t for everyone, just like the young America wasn’t every nation’s idea of a good country. But she, and we, shined with idealism. (Before America began its imperial adventures.)
For Duke Ellington, it happened on April 29, 1930, during the Presidency of Herbert Hoover, when he was 31. Sir Duke was then leading the house band at the Cotton Club, leading a prestigious (white) revue which included comedy, dance, burlesque, vaudeville, and the like; Ellington’s band broadcast weekly over national radio, and by 1930 he had a few hits with what some called his “jungle” sound. In 1930 he had just appeared in his first two films, an all-African-American 19-minute film called Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930) with Amos and Andy. Despite (because of?) the Depression, Ellington in 1930 became the lead exponent of the sound that people wanted to hear, that people associated with America; in the 30s and 40s he toured throughout Europe, scored films and musicals, was credited with at least 1000 compositions, and generally put “jazz” and “big band” in the same place as “classical” music.
For Jackson Pollock, it happened on January 28, 1944, during the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, when he was 32. In some ways, few men were as unlikely to move modernism to post-modernism as the Wyoming-raised WPA muralist; in other ways, Pollock’s natural iconoclasm combined well with the failure of modernism to adequately confront the chaos of the Second World War. In 1943, Pollock signed his fateful contract with Peggy Guggenheim, and by January he had produced Mural (which was actually on canvas, not a wall, per Marcel Duchamp’s suggestion), a work that, like early noir films, spoke to the alienation and disillusionment felt by a generation of returning GI’s.
For Cesar Chavez, it happened on March 31, 1962, during the Presidency of John Kennedy, when he was 35. Born in Arizona and a longtime field worker and community activist, Chavez had been urging Mexican-Americans to register and vote as well as looking for ways to bring dignity and justice to migrant farm workers. March of 1962 was a pivotal month: he left the “Community Service Organization” to found what would become the National Farm Workers Association, then later the United Farm Workers. Perhaps Kennedy wasn’t a direct influence, but JFK proved that a young hardworking leader could accomplish things, and the next three years of Chavez’s door-to-door recruitment eventually paid off with the Delano grape strike, establishing for the first time Latinos as a potent political force.
For Toni Morrison, it happened on February 18, 1967, during the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when she was 36. One wonderful thing about Morrison, for us late bloomers, is that she didn’t actually publish her first novel until she was almost 40. Of course, it’s not as though she were doing nothing; in 1967, as war raged in Vietnam, she was working for Random House as an editor, doing her part to bring more African-American literary voices into the mainstream, as well as laying the groundwork for what would become her own first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), written even while she was raising two children and teaching at Howard University. In a way, America was just getting ready to hear from black women in 1967; in another way, Morrison would have to beat down every door by herself.
For Bob Dylan, it happened on May 24, 1981, during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, when he was 40. This was the conclusion of Dylan’s so-called “born again” period, when the singer-songwriter of classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” finally began to lose interest in gospel and return to some of his rock/folk roots, with the album “Shot of Love” that was released in 1981. (Bono would name it as one of his favorites.) Was it the election of Reagan that turned the iconoclastic Dylan away from a sort of beatific consciousness and back toward a more engaged one? We know Dylan will never say.
For me, it happens tomorrow, March 14, 2015. That’s the day I turn 44, the only day in my life where my age exactly matches the “th” value of our current U.S. President. Every American born since the Constitution was ratified gets one such day. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to take stock and compare one’s life to others and to that of the nation. Well, looking outside my wonderful family, it does seem like President Obama has encouraged…new voices, while at the same time I’ve been lucky enough to write some books and make some films (though I’ve hardly reached the heights of fame of the preceding people). I also feel good to do my part to keep their reputation and immortality flowing through another year…perhaps like Obama, I’m proud to be one small keeper of, and even smaller contributor to, the American pantheon. I’ll be spending my 44th birthday as a groomsman for a friend who decided to get married tomorrow knowing full well about my day. In a sense, we’re both beginning new chapters of our lives as part of our ongoing American dreams. We’re lucky to be alive, lucky to see and touch so much of what’s in this world and pass it on to the next people. On my once-in-a-lifetime, I’ll be remembering how precious my entire lifetime is.