Tuesday

Jan. 3, 2012

Harmony in the Boudoir

by Mark Strand

After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and
tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything
he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each
word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more be-
hind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true
self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.
"So you see," he says, kicking off his slippers, "I am more than
what I have led you to believe I am." "Oh, you silly man," says
his wife, "of course you are. I find that just thinking of you
having so many selves receding into nothingness is very excit-
ing. That you barely exist as you are couldn't please me more."

"Harmony in the Boudoir" by Mark Strand, from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of women's rights reformer Lucretia (Coffin) Mott, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1793. She went to public school in Boston for two years, and then, when she was 13, she enrolled in a Quaker boarding school near Poughkeepsie, New York. After two years there, she was hired on as an assistant, and then a teacher. She quit when she found out that she was being paid less than half of what the male teachers all made, simply because she was a woman; the experience sparked her first interest in women's rights. In 1811, she married fellow teacher James Mott, and the newlyweds moved to Philadelphia. Ten years later, she became a minister in the Society of Friends, as the Quaker church was called, and she was a popular public speaker on matters of religion and social reform.

She was active in the abolitionist movement when she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a ship to London; both were on their way to the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. They were attending as delegates, but found that the convention would not let them speak because they were women; they were even seated in a separate area, behind a curtain. The two women resolved then and there to organize a convention for women's rights as soon as they returned home. It took eight years, but eventually they did: the Seneca Falls (New York) Convention of 1848.

Mott wrote, "The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source."

Herman Melville (books by this author), age 21, set sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet on this date in 1841 from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean. Melville had no experience as a whaler, and not much as a seaman, either, although he'd sailed to Liverpool, England, and back during his few weeks as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. But he loved the sea, and he was eager to learn. Whaling was still big business in 1841; whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.

Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling, helping to harpoon the whales, harvest them, and process their oil aboard the ship. He also listened to the tales his fellow whalers told, particularly of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick. Knickerbocker Magazine had described the whale in 1939: "this renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, ... he was white as wool! ... Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws." Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase's account. It gave him material for Moby-Dick, which begins, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

On this date in 1870, construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge. New York City legislators agreed to hire John Roebling, a noted designer of suspension bridges, to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge became the world's first steel suspension bridge and, at the time, it was also the longest, spanning 1,600 feet between its towers.

Workers — usually immigrants paid about $2 a day — dug out the foundation beds at the bottom of the river with the help of caissons: airtight wooden boxes that were lowered to the river bottom, trapping the air inside them. The workers, called "sandhogs," would then dig down to the bedrock, sometimes through as much as 78 feet of mud and boulders. The caissons would then be moved to the next section, and the process would begin anew. The caissons and the airlocks that transported the workers down to the job site were hot and uncomfortable, and the air pressure was very high; workers were usually brought up too quickly, and suffered from "caisson disease" or "the bends": joint pain, paralysis, convulsions, and even death. The master mechanic described the experience: "Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance. There was a confused sensation in the head, like 'the rush of many waters.' The pulse was at first accelerated, then sometimes fell below the normal rate. The voice sounded faint [and] unnatural, and it became a great effort to speak. What with the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, if of a poetic temperament, [you] get a realizing sense of Dante's inferno. One thing to me was noticeable — time passed quickly in the caisson."

The bridge opened in 1883, and for several years afterward, it was the tallest structure in the western hemisphere. It cost more than $15 million and at least 20 lives, but it's an enduring New York City landmark.

Today is the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien (1892) (books by this author), born to English parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was working in a bank. Tolkien was always fascinated with languages, he went to school at Oxford, first studying Classics, and later, English Language and Literature. He came across an Old English poem by Cynewulf, which contained a couplet that fascinated him: "Hail Earendel brightest of angels / Over Middle Earth sent to men." The couplet found new life in the universe of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1955), which takes place in Middle Earth and includes a half-Elven character named Earendil the Mariner, who eventually becomes a star.

In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford University as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and, later, English Language and Literature. One day, while grading exams, he discovered that a student had left one whole page in his examination booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This single line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and from there, a book: The Hobbit (1937).

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