Feb. 3, 2009

I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ

by Walt Whitman

I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday
     morn I pass'd the church,
Winds of autumn, as I walk'd the woods at dusk I heard your
     long-stretch'd sighs up above so mournful,
I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard
     the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! you too I heard murmuring low through
     one of the wrists around my head,
Heard the pulse of you when all was still ringing little bells
     last night under my ear.

"I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ" by Walt Whitman. Public domain. (buy now)

On this day in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing all male citizens the right to vote regardless of their race. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, which imposed a federal income tax.

It's the birthday of the writer Richard Yates, (books by this author) born in Yonkers, New York (1926). When he was in his 30s, he published his debut novel, Revolutionary Road, and it was a finalist for a National Book Award. He continued to write and got great reviews, but he never sold more than 12,000 copies of a hardcover book. He spent his life struggling to pay his bills, and he considered himself a failure. He was an alcoholic, smoked constantly, and he had such bad emphysema that toward the end of his life he used an oxygen tank. When he died in 1992, most of his books were out of print, but he was still writing — working on a novel based on his experience as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy.

But now his books are back in print, and they are doing well. Many respected writers have championed him, and in the past few months, one of his novels has gotten a lot of attention: Revolutionary Road (1961), which was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

It's the birthday of the novelist Paul Auster, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). He is the author of many novels, including The Book of Illusions (2002) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005). Last year he published his 14th novel, Man in the Dark (2008), which begins: "I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness."

It's "the day the music died," the day in 1959 when Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, along with Ritchie Valens (who sang "La Bamba") and J.P. Richardson (known as "The Big Bopper"). Buddy Holly's career as a rock star only lasted a year and a half, but he recorded "Peggy Sue," "Everyday," "That'll Be the Day," "Oh, Boy!" and many more hits. Buddy Holly was 22 years old when he died.

It's the birthday of the first woman to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, born on this day in Bristol, England, in 1821. She wanted to become a doctor because she knew that many women would rather discuss their health problems with another woman. She read medical texts and studied with doctors, but she was rejected by all the big medical schools. Finally the Geneva Medical College (which became Hobart College) in upstate New York accepted her. The faculty wasn't sure what to do with such a qualified candidate, and so they turned the decision over to the students. The male students voted unanimously to accept her. Her classmates and even professors considered many medical subjects too delicate for a woman, and didn't think she should be allowed to attend lectures on the reproductive system. But she graduated, became a doctor, and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

It's the birthday of Gertrude Stein, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She dropped out of medical school and moved to Paris with her brother Leo. They started collecting art together, and a group of artists — including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso — gathered every Saturday evening at the Steins' home to discuss art and ideas.

Gertrude Stein became friends with Picasso while he was experimenting with Cubism, attempting to depict objects from multiple angles at the same time. So Gertrude Stein decided to do the same thing with language, and she created a style of repeating words and phrases to highlight the sounds of words instead of their meaning. She said, "Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting."

It's the birthday of the epic novelist James A. Michener, (books by this author) born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907), the author of Tales of the South Pacific. He said, "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."

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