May 5, 2013
They're very close to us, the dead;
us in our taxis, them in their hearses,
waiting for the lights to change.
We give them precedence.
So close to us, unknown on television;
dead from hunger, earthquake, war,
suicide bomber, tsunami.
We count the numbers.
The famous dead — a double glamour —
we buy their music, movies, memoirs.
O! Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
in glorious technicolor.
In Venice, we glimpse the dead
drift to the island cemetery across the lagoon.
We float our gondolas along the green canals
and do not die.
Today is Cinco de Mayo, the Fifth of May, commemorating the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when 8,000 well-armed French troops were routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers. It wasn't a crucial battle in the course of the war, but became a symbol of Mexican pride and a celebration of Mexican culture in the United States. Cinco de Mayo isn't widely celebrated in Mexico outside the state of Puebla, but it has been adopted by many Americans regardless of their heritage, much like St. Patrick's Day and Oktoberfest. It's been celebrated in California since 1863, and grew in prominence in the rest of the country along with the Chicano movement of the 1940s. It wasn't until beer advertisers decided to promote the holiday heavily in the 1980s that American celebration of Cinco de Mayo became widespread.
It's the birthday of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (books by this author), born in Copenhagen (1813), the son of a wealthy wool merchant who left his son enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Kierkegaard rarely left Copenhagen, but he enjoyed going to the theater, taking carriage rides out into the country, and chatting with people he met, including servants and laborers, whom wealthy people would ordinarily ignore.
Kierkegaard is widely considered the father of existential philosophy. His work touched not only philosophy, but also theology, psychology, literary criticism, and fiction. He also came up with two concepts that are commonplace to us today: One is "subjectivity," the idea that we all perceive the world — and "truth" — differently; and the other is the "leap of faith," that faith is not possible without doubt. One must doubt the existence of God to have faith in the existence of God. Belief without doubt is just credulity. He published several books at his own expense, including Either/Or (1843), Works of Love (1847), and The Sickness Unto Death (1849). Kierkegaard was unknown outside of Denmark until the early 20th century, when his work was discovered by European writers and philosophers. He influenced writers like Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus.
Today is the birthday of journalist Nellie Bly (books by this author), born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania (1864). When she was 16, her family moved to Pittsburgh, where she read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled "What Girls are Good For." (The paper's answer was "not much," at least, not outside the home.) She wrote a furious reply and signed it "Little Orphan Girl." The editor was so impressed that he invited her in and offered her a job. She took it, and she borrowed the name "Nellie Bly" from a Stephen Foster song to use as her pen name.
Unlike most female journalists of the time, she didn't write about fashion or gardening, though. She wrote about the poor, and the way women were exploited in factories, sometimes posing as a sweatshop worker to report from the inside, which made companies nervous. They threatened to pull their advertising, so she was demoted to a beat that was deemed more suitable for a lady. She turned in her letter of resignation along with her story. She went to New York in 1887, and after several months with no job prospects, she talked her way into an opportunity with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Her assignment was to cover the notorious Blackwell's Island Women's Lunatic Asylum, and she went undercover, convincing doctors and judges that she was mentally ill. She was committed to the asylum and lived there in appalling conditions for 10 days. She wrote: "I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell."
In 1914, she went to work for the New York Evening Journal as America's first female war correspondent. She wrote from the front lines of World War I for almost five years. She returned Stateside in 1919 and died of pneumonia in 1922.
It's the birthday of the man who said, "No man is lonely while eating spaghetti": Christopher Morley (books by this author), born in Haverford, Pennsylvania (1890), the prolific author of a hundred books, including novels like Parnassus on Wheels (1917) about a travelling bookshop, and Kitty Foyle (1939), a sentimental best-seller about an Irish-American office girl.
Morley said, "You can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries."
Today is the birthday of Kaye Gibbons (books by this author), born in Nash County, North Carolina (1960), the daughter of a poor tobacco farmer. Her mother committed suicide when Kaye was 10 years old, and her father drank himself to death a year later. She said it was "the sort of childhood that encourages someone to either become a writer or to rob convenience stores." She went to college and started writing a novel based on her childhood, called Ellen Foster (1987). The novel begins: "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy. ... But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®