Oct. 16, 1999

London Bells

by Anonymous

Broadcast Date: SATURDAY: October 16, 1999

Poem: "London Bells" Anonymous, from the early 18th Century.

Today is the 72nd birthday of German novelist and playwright Guenter Grass [GUHN-tr GRAHSS], born in Danzig (1927)—who two weeks ago was declared this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy credited his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), with restoring honor to German literature "after decades of linguistic and moral destruction." Unlike the novel's narrator (a dwarf named Oskar Matzerath, whose voice is so shrill it can shatter glass), its author did not, at age 3, consciously stop growing as a protest against adulthood. But like Oskar, Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth. Drafted at 16, a year later he was almost killed when many young members of his company were ripped to shreds by shelling. After the German surrender, he was briefly held prisoner by the Americans. Later he supported himself as a black marketeer, a tombstone cutter, a jazz drummer and a speechwriter for Berlin's mayor, Willy Brandt. His other novels include Cat and Mouse (1963) and Dog Years (1965)—which, with The Tin Drum, make up The Danzig Trilogy. A new work, My Century: A Novel of Stories, came out this year in Germany and will be available in English translation next month—a collection of 100 stories, one for each year of the 20th century, each told in the voice of a different narrator.

It's the birthday of playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in New York City (1888) in a hotel room on Broadway. His actor father and morphine—dependent mother served as models for James and Mary Tyrone in his play Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956, produced after his death). His other plays include Emperor Jones (1921), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and The Iceman Cometh (1946). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

Today is the birthday of playwright and wit Oscar (Fingall O'Flahertie Wills) Wilde, born in Dublin (1854). After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin and Magdalen College at Oxford, Wilde wrote 9 plays between 1879 and 1894, but his fame rests on 4 comedies: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892); A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He also wrote a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); two collections of fairy tales; The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898—his account of inhuman prison conditions in England); and De Profundis (published in 1905, 5 years after his death—a long letter in which he berated his close companion Alfred Lord Douglas for having encouraged his dissipation). A leading light of the Aesthetic Movement in England, he promoted Art for Art' s sake, believing that style, in life as well as art, was of supreme importance.

On this day in 1846, the first operation with the patient under anesthesia was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. The surgeon was Dr. John C. Warren; the other was administered by Dr. William T. Morton, a dentist, while other local physicians looked on. After finishing, Dr. Warren looked around at his witnesses—many of whom had doubted the value of ether—and declared, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!"

On this day in 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined in Paris. With her thoughtless remarks and frivolous habits, this "queen consort" of King Louis the 16th had contributed mightily to general dissatisfaction with the monarchy, overthrown 14 months before her beheading. Her most famous words, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!", translated as "Let them eat cake," didn't help her case. Found guilty of treason and of plotting civil war, she was executed two weeks before her 38th birthday.

It's the birthday of lexicographer Noah Webster, born in West Hartford, Connecticut (1758)—who did more than anyone to form a sense of American English as our language. A patriot, he joined the Continental Army with his father, and was in the force that marched against Burgoyne. After the revolution he published The American Speller (1783) and his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

On this day in 1701, the forerunner of Yale University was founded. Congregationalists, alarmed by the trend toward liberalism that seemed to be taking over Harvard, split off to form the Collegiate School in Brantford, Connecticut. Fifteen years later the school was relocated 5 miles to the west, in New Haven, and took the name Yale College.

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