Wednesday

Nov. 27, 2013

435 Much Madness is divinest Sense

by Emily Dickinson

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you're straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —

"Much Madness is divinest Sense" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns (books by this author) borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh.

The fall of 1786 had been an eventful one for Burns. He wasn't making any money farming, and after he got his girlfriend Jean Armour pregnant, he decided he needed to find a way to support his new family — not to mention his illegitimate one-year-old daughter, whose mother was a servant in the Burns household and wanted money. Burns accepted a friend's offer to work as a clerk in Jamaica, and was set to leave in September.

A few weeks before his departure date, he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), hoping to raise enough money to pay his fare to Jamaica. Instead, the book was so successful that Burns began to doubt if he should leave Scotland. Then Jean gave birth to twins. At the same time, he received word that Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock liked his book and encouraged him to come to Edinburgh. Burns wrote: "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland — 'The Gloomy night is gathering fast' — when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." He borrowed a pony from a friend, and off he went.

The story goes that during his two-day trip to Edinburgh, he was entertained lavishly by farmers eager to meet the poet. A friend of his had arranged for a farmhouse where he could stay for the night. There were so many people excited to see Burns that when he arrived, one farmer raised a makeshift flag — a white sheet tied to a pitchfork — and on cue all the neighboring farmers arrived to host Burns for a huge meal. He rode on to another farmhouse for a large breakfast the next morning, and yet another farm for lunch. By evening of the second day, he finally arrived in Edinburgh.

He was delighted by his reception there, and everyone's enthusiasm about publishing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. About a week after his arrival, he wrote in a letter: "For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday, and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr. H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and by all probability, I shall soon be the tenth worthy, and the eighth wise man of the world. Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt, that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second edition."

It's the birthday of historian Charles A. Beard (books by this author), born in Knightstown, Indiana (1874). He was known as a "progressive historian" because of his new approach to considering American history. He thought that the founding fathers wrote the Constitution as a way to protect their own economic interests more than for any ideological reasons. Similarly, he saw the Civil War not as a war about slavery, but as a conflict between major economic forces: the agricultural economy of the South and the industrialized economy of the North.

His books include An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913); The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which he co-wrote with his wife, Mary Beard; and The American Spirit (1942).

It's the birthday of writer James Agee (books by this author), born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. Today, he is best remembered for his two books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the classic profile of three sharecropper families, photographed by Walker Evans, and A Death in the Family (1958), his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on his own father's tragic passing. The former was practically unread when it was published; the latter was published posthumously. What Agee was at least modestly known for during his lifetime was his film criticism, which he wrote for Time magazine and The Nation.

"You must be in tune with the times and prepared to break with tradition," Agee wrote, and his reviews followed his own advice. As he promised at the outset of his weekly column in The Nation in 1942, "As an amateur, then, I must as well as I can simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen, where the proof is caught irrelevant to excuse, and available in proportion to the eye which sees it and the mind which uses it." He did so, calling it as he saw it week in and week out, with little attention to popular sentiment or previous critical success — or failure. An article he wrote for Life magazine proclaimed silent film was "Comedy's Greatest Era," then a somewhat revolutionary idea, especially to an entire generation who'd never seen a silent movie and assumed them to be old-fashioned and schmaltzy. The article received one of the largest responses of any in the magazine's history; it was also single-handedly responsible for reviving and redeeming the career of silent film auteur Buster Keaton, who by then had been largely consigned to writing gags for studio scripts. "Perhaps because 'dry' comedy is so much more rare and odd than 'dry' wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton," Agee wrote. "Those who do cannot care mildly."

In 1944, two years after Agee began writing his column there, The Nation published a letter to the editor from W.H. Auden, in which the poet said: "... I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again. In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible — to me, rather unimportant — subject, that his articles belong in that very select class ... of newspaper work which is of permanent literary value. One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis."

It was only 14 years later, three years after Agee's early death in 1955, that the book Agee on Film collected much of his criticism; in the year 2000 it was reissued with introductions by filmmaker Martin Scorsese and film critic David Denby.

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