Tuesday

Jul. 1, 2008

Melancholy

by Baron Wormser

Weakness—the pale succumbing to loneliness,
Refusing to admit anyone else, indulging
The blue perquisites of adolescence
Long past their sensible deliquescence.

He knew it but went on drinking and regretting,
Not calling his friends and regretting,
Making scenes over nothing and regretting.
It helped to make him despise himself,

Which was, he sensed, what he wanted. He was
Then, in his oblique way, at ease to wander
The city's brazen or quiet streets, conjuring
Random lives and how the slim arc
Of emotion was pulverized. Back home, he put
On some Monk, lay down, half-cried.

"Melancholy" by Baron Wormser, from Scattered Chapters: New and Selected Poems. © Sarabande Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of grammarian and professor William Strunk, Jr., born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He's best known for his work The Elements of Style, which he wrote in 1918, while he was an English professor at Cornell University, in order "to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." The original edition of 1918, printed privately, was only 43 pages long.

It became a classic when E. B. White, who was once a student of his, published a revised 1959 edition, about a decade after Strunk's death. White updated in 1972, this time replacing some of Strunk's outdated examples with modern ones; White published yet another edition in 1979. Strunk championed active voice over passive voice, staying with one verb tense, and precise, concrete language. In his book, he gave examples of poor use of language in one column, and then in a parallel column gave examples of correct, fluid, and lucid style.

William Strunk said, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

And, "It is worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."

It's the birthday of French novelist George Sand, (books by this author) born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin in Paris, France (1804). Her father died when she was four, and she was raised largely by her grandmother, with whom there was constant tension. She was sent to a convent to learn proper and becoming behavior, but she returned to her family's estate shortly after she left, and she was rebellious as she was before and began to wear men's clothing.

She met a young officer and bore two children, but her marriage was not a happy one and she left her family for Paris to work as a translator and artist. She met and fell in love with Jules Sandeau. Together they co-authored a novel, and then she wrote one by herself, Indiana (1832), about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, which she refers to as slavery.

She became friends with many influential artists and intellectuals, including Balzac, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, poet Alfred de Musset, and Chopin — the latter two with whom she was also lovers. She wrote more than 100 publications, which have enjoyed varying levels of success, but today she is remembered largely for the circle she moved in and her extraordinary lifestyle and personality.

Important works of hers include the novels La Mare au Diable (1846), Indiana (1832), Mauprat (1837), and Consuelo (1842). She also wrote the autobiography Histoire de ma vie (1855), and published some of her correspondences with literary luminaries.

It was on this day in 1858 that a paper by Charles Darwin about his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience. Darwin had actually come up with the theory 20 years before that, in 1837. Back then, he drafted a 35-page sketch of his ideas and arranged with his wife to publish the sketch after his death. Then, for the next 20 years, he told almost no one about the theory. He practically went into hiding, moving to a small town and living like a monk, with specific times each day for walking, napping, reading, and backgammon. He was so reclusive that he even had the road lowered outside his house, to prevent passersby from looking in the window.

Part of his reluctance to share his theory of evolution was that he was not known as a biologist, and he assumed that no one would take such a radical theory seriously from such an amateur. In fact, for most of his early career, he was known as a geologist. He only made his name as a biologist in the early 1850s when he wrote an influential study of the sexual behavior of barnacles.

He was still reluctant to publish his ideas, though, because he didn't want to create a controversy by offending anyone's religious beliefs. Atheism was a crime punishable by prison at the time, and Darwin feared that people would object to the idea that God hadn't created each creature individually. When he finally told one of his friends about his theory of evolution, he said it was like confessing a murder.

But then, in 1851, his oldest and favorite daughter, Annie, died of typhoid, and suddenly Darwin began to worry about the future of all his children. He was terrified that they would all have health problems and that they might not be able to provide for themselves. So, to help assure his children's well-being, Darwin began writing a book about evolution, which he hoped would become a scientific classic. He had kept notes on his theory for 20 years, but he began to run new experiments to test his ideas. He experimented with seeds in seawater, to prove that they could survive ocean crossings, and he raised pigeons to observe the traits they inherited from their parents.

Almost the same day he received that news, his household was struck by an epidemic of scarlet fever. His children and several nursery maids came down with the disease. Most everyone recovered, but Darwin's youngest son, Charles, died. And so it was that Charles Darwin wasn't even in attendance when his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience on this day in 1858. He was at home, grieving the death of his son. But his theory would go on to become the basis of all modern biology.

It's the birthday of crime writer James M. Cain, (books by this author) born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). His father was the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Cain went to school there, and he disappointed his father by refusing to take part in any campus activities. He didn't play any sports, didn't belong to any organizations, didn't hold any jobs, and turned down an offer to edit the campus magazine. He taught journalism for a while and wrote editorials for various newspapers, tried to produce a play, and finally went to Hollywood, hoping to strike it rich writing for the movies. Paramount Studios fired him after six months. He was 40 years old, living in the middle of the Great Depression, and trying to support his wife and children.

One day, he read a newspaper article about a woman who had murdered her husband so she could take over his gas station. Cain realized that he knew the woman in the article. He had gone to her gas station lots of times and had talked to her as she filled up his car with gas. He was fascinated by the idea that someone so ordinary could be so ruthless, and it gave him the idea for his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). He got the title from an old Irish proverb. The book got great reviews and became a best seller. He went on to write other novels such as Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943).

He said, "I write of the wish that comes true — for some reason, a terrifying concept."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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