Sunday

Dec. 16, 2012

Noel

by Linda Pastan

Like a single
ornament,

the red cardinal
on a pine

outside
the window

is our only
decoration,

until
the snow.

"Noel" by Linda Pastan, from Traveling Light. © Norton, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this date in 1811 that two mega-earthquakes struck the Louisiana Territory. They were the first two in a series of four quakes that rocked the New Madrid fault line. The epicenter was in what is now southeastern Arkansas, and the quakes' effects were felt over an area of a million square miles. Eyewitnesses reported that the Mississippi River appeared to reverse its course, the soil liquefied, and plumes of sulfurous gas shot up from the ground. The midnight quakes reportedly woke people in Pittsburgh, rang church bells in Boston, and toppled chimneys in Maine. The New Madrid earthquakes remain the most severe quakes ever to strike the Eastern United States, at a magnitude of about 8.0 on the Richter scale. The zone is still active, and some seismologists believe that the region is overdue for a repeat performance.

Although no official birth date has been recorded, it's traditionally believed that Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this date in 1770. He was born in Bonn, Germany, into a family of court musicians. Beethoven's father, mindful of the stories of the child prodigy Mozart, pushed a rigorous but disorganized musical education on his talented son. It wasn't until the boy was 12 that he found a teacher that really proved valuable, and by the time he was 16, he had established a good professional reputation in Bonn. But he was feeling frustrated with the city's limitations, and he left for Vienna to meet Mozart, who was preoccupied at that time with composing Don Giovanni, but Beethoven made an impression on him nonetheless. Mozart said: "Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about." He took the 16-year-old Beethoven on as a pupil. But the death of Beethoven's mother, and problems with his father's increasingly erratic behavior, brought the young man home to Bonn once more. By the time he was able to return to Vienna, Mozart had died, and Beethoven began studying with Franz Joseph Haydn.

In 1801, Beethoven wrote in a letter to a friend: "Your Beethoven is most wretched. The noblest part of my existence, my sense of hearing, is very weak." He had been noticing symptoms for several years, and tried a variety of medical treatments, but they didn't help. His deafness didn't seem to affect his music, or his success; he composed at a furious pace, and performed piano concerts throughout Europe for several more years, until he became almost totally deaf in 1814. But as his hearing deteriorated, he also started suffering headaches and other health problems.

Beethoven died in 1827; the cause of his death was not determined, but he'd been bedridden for several months, and his autopsy showed severe liver damage. Schools were closed on the day of his funeral, and 30,000 people followed his casket through the streets of Vienna.

Today is the birthday of Jane Austen (books by this author), born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). Her sister, Cassandra, burned or heavily edited most of Austen's correspondence after her death at the age of 41, so not much is known of her personal life. We do know Austen was the seventh of eight children, and the second daughter. Her mother wrote lighthearted verse for the family's amusement, and her father, a clergyman, always made sure Jane had a writing desk and plenty of paper.

Her first published work was Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. She was widely read in her lifetime, but published all her books as "A Lady," rather than giving her name. Her health began to decline in 1816, and she died in 1817, possibly of Addison's disease, lymphoma, or — as has recently been suggested — arsenic poisoning.

Since the mid-1990s, there's been a full-fledged Jane Austen revival, thanks to many film and TV adaptations. Several contemporary authors have written their own sequels or satires of her books. Pride and Prejudice — and its hero, Mr. Darcy — are especially popular ever since the BBC aired a lavish and wildly successful miniseries version in 1995.

Today is the birthday of British author V.S. (for Victor Sawdon) Pritchett (books by this author), born in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, in 1901. Although he wrote five novels, he didn't enjoy doing so; he preferred writing short stories, and that's what he's usually remembered for. He told The Paris Review: "I think I really wanted to be a short-story writer because I thought I was a man of short breath. I haven't got the breath to write novels." He also wrote travel essays and biographies, and was a regular contributor The New Statesman, where he eventually became literary editor.

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

 









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