Aug. 12, 2009

The Bible Belt

by David Shumate

It's a vast and fertile land. Soybeans and corn grow in this soil.
Wheat and tobacco. A little sorghum. It's not dramatic terrain
with ocean waves crashing against the cliffs. It's mostly gently
rolling plains. Long stretches of prairie. You know you've entered
it when the signs along the highway begin telling you what God
wants you to do. Those who live here regard it as their duty to
make these things known. Otherwise the rest of the country
would be left in the dark. The bibles in this region are larger than
elsewhere. Most weigh over a hundred pounds. It takes two strong
men to lift them into a pickup truck to haul off to church. All the
women dress up on Sundays. And all the white men shake hands.

"The Bible Belt" by David Shumate, from The Floating Bridge. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Published with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton, (books by this author) born in Dresden, Germany (1867). She worked as the head mistress of a prep school, and in her spare time, she read Greek philosophy and literature. It wasn't until after her retirement that she began to publish books about Greek civilization, like The Greek Way (1930). Academics hated the fact that she didn't use footnotes, but her books were incredibly popular. For many years, most American children first learned about Hercules and Medusa and Odysseus from her book Mythology (1942), which was an illustrated retelling of all the important Greek myths.

It's the birthday of Norris McWhirter, (books by this author) born in London (1925), who gave us the Guinness Book of World Records, in which we learn that the longest amount of time that someone has balanced on one foot is 76 hours and 40 minutes (at a stadium in Sri Lanka, from May 22–25, 1997), and that the world's longest leg hair measured five inches (belonging to Wesley Pemberton of Tyler, Texas, on August 10, 2007), and that the "heaviest weight dangled from a swallowed sword" was recorded in 2005 in Sydney when an Australian man swallowed a sword and then held up a 44 lb. 4.96 oz. sack of potatoes attached to the sword's handle for five seconds.

Guinness World Records also notes the longest time spent waiting on a hospital gurney — a diabetic man in Britain was left on one for 77 hours 30 minutes at the Princess Margaret Hospital during February 2001. The longest backward motorcycle ride record is 93.21 miles, recorded in Binzhou City, China, in October of 2006. Incidentally, the world's "Best Selling Copyright Book" is Guinness World Records, which has sold more than 100 million copies. The Bible and Qur'an have sold more, but they are not copyrighted works.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh (1876). The first book she published, The Circular Staircase (1907), was a mystery novel, and it became a big hit, eventually selling more than a million copies.

On this day in 1884, the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, (books by this author) wrote to the father of 10-year-old May Mileham asking to "continue the friendship so suddenly begun" with his daughter. Lewis Carroll had met the girl a few days earlier while vacationing with her family in a British seaside village. He wrote in his diary that he "wandered on the beach and had some talk with a nice girl of about 10, 'May' Mileham."

Her parents were fine with it, and Lewis Carroll saw May almost every day from mid-August on. Her parents left town for a weekend and left her in the care of family friends; during this time, Lewis Carroll took her for a daytrip in London, where they dined at Charing Cross, and they went to the theater and then to his family home in Guildford. He wrote about her in his diary, and he wrote letters to her, like this one, from a year after they met:

Dearest May,
Thank you very much for the peaches. They were delicious. Eating one was almost as nice as kissing you: of course not quite: I think, if I had to give the exact measurement, I should say "three-quarters as nice." We are having such a lovely time here; and the sands are beautiful. I only wish I could some day come across you, washing your pocket-handkerchief in a pool among the rocks! But I wander on the beach, and look for you, in vain: and then I say, "Where is May?" And the stupid boatmen reply, "It isn't May, sir! It's September!" But it doesn't comfort me.

Always your loving

Lewis Carroll was a prodigious letter-writer, penning 97,000 letters in his lifetime, as well as a pamphlet called "Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing." For a couple of years, he continued to write May Mileham letters, but in early 1887, he recorded in his diary that May's parents "have now broken off our friendship." May eventually married a man several years younger than herself.

It was, incidentally, not the first 10-year-old girl that Lewis Carroll had befriended. It was 10-year-old Alice Liddell whom he'd first entertained with stories about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole. Alice Liddell insisted that he write it all down, and he did: The stories became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,published in 1865.

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