Monday

Aug. 1, 2011

The bee is not afraid of me

by Emily Dickinson

The bee is not afraid of me,
I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
Receive me cordially.

The brooks laugh louder when I come,
The breezes madder play.
Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists?
Wherefore, O summer's day?

"The bee is not afraid of me,..." by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

According to his contemporaries, today is the birthday of English alchemist and spirit medium Edward Kelley, born in Worcester, England in 1555. Kelley's early life is shrouded in mystery — he probably worked as an apothecary's assistant, he may have studied at Oxford under the name Edward Talbot, and he may have been sentenced to the pillory and locked in the stocks on public display as punishment for forgery or counterfeiting.

What is known is that, in his late 20s, Edward Kelley approached John Dee, one of the most learned men of the age, to offer his services as a scryer and seer. Dee was in his 50s, a close consultant to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and a mathematician and scientist at a time when science and magic were just beginning to separate, when astronomers were also astrologers and natural scientists were also alchemists. Dee had already been trying for some time to find a way of contacting angels when Kelley came to call. Dee hired him, and Kelley soon began receiving visions of angels in his crystal ball, angels who delivered messages made of strange characters written in tables like a literary Sudoku with all the cells filled in, messages that scrolled from the angels' mouths like ribbons of paper.

Dee and Kelley transcribed volumes of the angelic language, Kelley developed a red powder that he claimed could transform base metal into gold, and the pair left England for a nomadic life throughout Europe, seeking the patronage of various rulers and noblemen. For the better part of a decade, Kelley and Dee traveled to the courts of Europe — to the king of Poland, to Prague and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who made Kelley a baron — and the men were at times given fortunes and estates in exchange for the gold that Kelley repeatedly promised, but unfortunately failed, to make.

Kelley and Dee were both married, and it was during their European rambles that Kelley's angels began ordering the men to share everything they had, including their wives. Dee complied but then, heartbroken, took his family and returned to England, leaving Kelley behind.

Kelley's continual failure to produce any gold finally prompted the Emperor Rudolf to imprison him in a tower in a mountain town northwest of Prague in the hopes it would force the alchemist to comply. Kelley's end is known only through tradition: He either fell from his tower prison while trying to escape with too short a rope, or he sampled the alchemical "elixir of immortality" he'd created while in prison, and perished.

Today is the birthday of Maria Mitchell (books by this author), the first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. Although the American essayist Hannah Crocker explained that same year in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women that it was then a woman's "province to soothe the turbulent passions of men ... to shine in the domestic circle" and that "it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman's birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men," Maria Mitchell's Quaker parents believed that girls should have the same access to education and the same chance to aspire to high goals as boys, and they raised all 10 of their children as equals.

Maria's early interest in science and the stars came from her father, a dedicated amateur astronomer who shared with all his children what he saw as physical evidence of God in the natural world, although Maria was the only child interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. She would later say, in a quote recorded in NASA's profile of her, that we should "not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe," because "every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God."

By age 12, Maria was assisting her father with his astronomical observations and data, and just five years later opened and ran her own school for girls, training them in the sciences and math. In 1838, she became the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum and began spending her evenings in an observatory her father had built atop the town's bank.

On October 1, 1848, a crisp, clear autumn evening, Maria focused her father's telescope on a distant star. The light was faint and blurry, and Maria suddenly realized she was looking not at a star, but a comet; she recorded its coordinates, and when she saw the next night that the fuzzy light had moved, she was sure. Maria shared her discovery with her father, who wrote to the Harvard Observatory, who in turn passed her name on to the king of Denmark, who had pledged a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet so distant that it could only be seen through a telescope. Maria was awarded the medal the following year, and the comet became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet."

Mitchell's list of firsts is impressive: She'd made the first American comet sighting; in 1848, she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1853, she became the first woman to earn an advanced degree; and in 1865, she became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Vassar Female College as their astronomy professor and the head of their observatory, making her the first female astronomy professor in American history.

Mitchell also became a devoted anti-slavery activist and suffragette, with friends such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In her Life, Letters, and Journals, Maria declares that, "no woman should say, 'I am but a woman!' But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power."

Herman Melville was born (books by this author) on this day in 1819 in New York City. The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman's time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense.

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he'd likely expected: The cruelties he experience on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor's yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville's first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn't possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville's younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels — which he probably shared with his wife — a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in "admiration for his genius." Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville's power of language "unparalleled," while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville's fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville's career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he'd experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville's masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.

On this day in 1944, Annelise Marie Frank, best known as Anne Frank (books by this author), the adolescent author of the posthumously published Anne Frank: A Diary of a Young Girl, which chronicles her family's experiences while in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, wrote in her diary:
"As I've told you many times, I'm split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things [...] This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper, and finer.

"No one knows Anne's better side, and that's why most people can't stand me. Oh, I can be an amusing clown for an afternoon, but after that everyone's had enough of me to last a month. Actually, I'm what a romantic film is to a profound thinker — a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten; not bad, but not particularly good either.

"I'm afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side, a better and finer side. I'm afraid they'll mock me, think I'm ridiculous and sentimental and not take me seriously [...] If I force the good Anne into the spotlight for even fifteen minutes, she shuts up like a clam the moment she's called upon to speak, and let's Anne number one do the talking [...]

"I know exactly how I'd like to be, how I am...on the inside [...] I'm guided by the pure Anne on the inside, but outside I'm nothing but a frolicsome little goat tugging at its tether [...]

"If I'm being completely honest, I'll have to admit that it does matter to me, that I'm trying very hard to change myself, but that I'm always up against a more powerful enemy [...]

"[...] if I'm quiet and serious, everyone thinks I'm putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke [...] I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I'd like to be and what I could be if ... there were no other people in the world.

"Yours, Anne M. Frank."

This was Anne's final entry.

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

 









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