Sunday

Apr. 3, 2011

Fire

by Wyatt Townley

It's only the body
It's only a hip joint
It's just a bulging disc
It's only weather
It's only your heart
It's a shoulder who needs it
This happens all the time
It's very common
It's unusual
For people your age
For people your age
You're in great shape
Remarkable shape
It's nothing you did
The main thing is
It's temporary
It's only a doll
In a house that's burning

"Fire" by Wyatt Townley, from The Afterlives of Trees. © Woodley Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the father of the American author, statesman, and short-story writer Washington Irving (books by this author), born in 1783 in New York City. That same week, the British cease-fire was brokered and the American Revolution ended, and William and Sarah Irving named their youngest child in honor of its most famous general, George Washington. Young Washington was somewhat sickly as a child, and was pampered and petted by his older siblings; as a schoolboy, he often snuck out of evening classes to attend the theater. He eventually became a lawyer, although he barely passed the Bar, and when his health continued to be poor, his family sent him on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1804, where he skipped the usual tourist destinations, but nevertheless made many friends and cultivated a lifelong love of travel.

He began publishing commentary and theater reviews at the age of 19, under the name Jonathan Oldstyle. His earliest major writings were satires, and he wrote under assorted humorous pen names, like William Wizard, Launcelot Langstaff, and Geoffrey Crayon. He concocted an elaborate prank in 1809: He posted several "missing person" notices in New York newspapers, searching for information on the whereabouts of historian Dietrich Knickerbocker (another Irving pen name). Once people's curiosity and concern were piqued, he then published a notice by Knickerbocker's fictional landlord, saying that if the missing man didn't show up to pay his rent, the landlord would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind and keep the proceeds. The manuscript, written by Irving, was called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, and was a satire on self-important historical and political writing. The public ate it up, and the book was followed by collections of short stories and essays, including The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819), which contained his two most famous stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Crayon was his most often-used persona, although he did write under his own name from time to time — chiefly nonfiction, such as biographies of Columbus, Mohammed, Oliver Goldsmith, and George Washington.

Washington Irving wrote a collection of "sketches" called "Old Christmas," which revived many old English Christmas traditions and restored the holiday's prominence in America. Charles Dickens credits Irving for much of the holiday's portrayal in A Christmas Carol, and Santa's flying sleigh traces back to a dream sequence in Irving's A History of New-York, in which Saint Nicholas arrives in a flying wagon.

And Irving is also responsible for that misconception, which is still found in history textbooks, that prior to Columbus's discovery of America, Europeans thought the world was flat. In reality, belief in a flat Earth had gone out of favor in the 1300s and the argument among scientists in 1492 was the size, rather than the shape, of the world. In his biography of Columbus, Irving wrote: "Such were the unlooked for prejudices which Columbus had to encounter at the very outset of his conference, and which certainly relish more of the convent than the university. To his simplest proposition, the spherical form of the earth, were opposed figurative texts of Scripture." The problem is that Galileo, not Columbus, was the man who argued with the church on this point.

Irving was the first American author to gain acclaim and respect in Europe, and during his lifetime his home in Tarrytown, New York, known as "Sunnyside," was the most famous residence in America after George Washington's Mount Vernon. His legacy is much more a part of American life than most of us are aware of: He's the one who first used the phrase "the almighty dollar," and he coined one of New York's most enduring nicknames, "Gotham," which is Anglo-Saxon for "Goat Town," and which comes from a town called Gotham [GOAT-um] in Lincolnshire, England, which was famous for tales of its stupid residents. The residents of New Goat Town are sometimes known as "Knickerbockers," after one of his pseudonyms, and that's also where the New York Knicks basketball team got its name.

On this day in 1888, the first of London's Whitechapel Murders was committed. Over the course of three years, 11 women — all of them likely prostitutes — were killed in grisly fashion. The murders have never been solved, but at least five of them are thought to be the work of a single serial killer who became known as Jack the Ripper. The Whitechapel District, located in London's East End, was a cesspool of crime and poverty, and murders and assaults were commonplace. The first victim, Emma Smith, was brutally assaulted; she survived the attack but died the next day of her injuries. It was later thought by some that she was the first victim of Jack the Ripper, but she reported that she was attacked by a gang, which makes it unlikely.

The investigation into the Ripper killings marks the first attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to catch a murderer through the use of psychological profiling. The identity of Jack the Ripper has never been determined, though fascination with him persists and theories abound. The murders stopped in 1891, probably because the killer died, was imprisoned for another crime, or left the country altogether.

Today marked the opening, in 1895, of the sensational libel case, Wilde vs. Queensberry, in London. For a number of years, Oscar Wilde (books by this author) had been having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the handsome, spoiled, reckless son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde was utterly smitten with Douglas, known as "Bosie," and was quite happy to indulge his every whim. The Marquess, a hotheaded brawler most famous for creating the modern rules of boxing, had his suspicions about their relationship, and showed up at Wilde's home in 1894 armed with threats: "I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, and that is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you." Wilde responded, "I don't know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rules are to shoot on sight."

The following February, the Marquess left a calling card at Wilde's club, on which he had written, "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]." Since this amounted to a public accusation of a felony, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel, at the urging of his lover. Queensberry's only defense was to prove that the charges were true, and set about to do so with the help of an army of private detectives. He presented so much evidence that Wilde protested helplessly, "I am the prosecutor in this case." He dropped the case, on the advice of his lawyer, and Queensberry was acquitted, but soon afterward a warrant was issued for Wilde's arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor, the maximum sentence allowed under the law.

It was on this day in 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author) delivered his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support striking sanitation workers.

He said: "The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. … Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.'"

And ...
"We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."

And ...
"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

And ...
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

The next day, he was assassinated.

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

 









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