Saturday

Jan. 11, 2003

The Broken Home

by James Merrill

SATURDAY, 11 JANUARY 2003
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Poem: Excerpt from "The Broken Home," by James Merrill from Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf).

From The Broken Home

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.

Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit-rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.

He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.


It's the birthday of author Alice (Caldwell) Rice, born in Shelbyville, Kentucky (1870), who is best remembered as the author of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901).

It's the birthday of agriculturist and philanthropist Ezra Cornell, born in Westchester Landing, New York (1807). He made his fortune as the business partner of Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. In 1865, he and his friend Andrew Dickson White gave three million dollars to found Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, primarily to advance agricultural learning.

It's the birthday of founding father Alexander Hamilton, born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies (1757). He moved to New York when he was seventeen, and by the age of twenty had published several widely-read pro-Whig pamphlets. During the Revolutionary War, he became George Washington's secretary, aide-de-camp, and close confidant. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1782, became a vocal advocate for a strong, centralized government, and wrote more than half of the Federalist Papers.

On this day in 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean. She departed Wheeler Field in Honolulu on January 11, 1935 and landed 2,408 miles away in Oakland, California to a cheering crowd of thousands.

It's the birthday of writer and political activist Alan Paton, born in Pietermartizburg, South Africa (1903). He attended the University of Natal, South Africa, and said that during that time he walked over every section of Natal with his college friends, sometimes traveling thirty miles a day. After graduation, he became a teacher, but left his position in 1935 to become Principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for young offenders, near Johannesburg. The reformatory had just been transferred from the Department of Prisons to the Department of Education. In the 1940s, Paton visited prisons and reformatories in Sweden, Norway, England, the United States and Canada. While in Norway, he began to write what became his most famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a passionate tale of racial injustice. The story was later adapted for the stage by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill under the title Lost in the Stars (1949). Several months after the publication of his novel, the National Party came to power in South Africa and instituted apartheid. His second novel, Too Late the Pharalope, was published in 1953. During this time, he began to take a more active interest in politics, become the vice-president of the Liberal Party, and in 1956, the party chairman. In 1960, Paton's passport was confiscated when he returned to South Africa from New York, where he had just been presented with the annual Freedom Award. He kept his post until 1968, when the government forced the party to disband.

It's the birthday of philosopher and psychologist William James, born in New York City, New York (1842). He wrote The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902), and Pragmatism (1907). After receiving his degree from Harvard, he began teaching anatomy and physiology there, and later taught psychology and philosophy. During his long tenure on the faculty at Harvard, he became one of the founders of the philosophical school known as Pragmatism, a method of philosophy in which the truth is not an abstract idea, but can be judged only by practical, concrete results. One student at Harvard described him as "Brilliant, high-strung, dynamic, vivacious, resilient, unexpected, unconventional, and picturesque." One of his favorite students was Gertrude Stein. On an exam he gave in class, she wrote, "Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but I do not feel a bit like writing an examination paper on philosophy today." And he wrote back, "Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly. I often feel like that myself." He once said, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."


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