Thursday

Sep. 4, 2014

Cezanne's Success

by Stephen Dobyns

The girls he followed down the street, the heartbreaks
he pretended to suffer, the giddy letters he wrote
to Zola with pages of bad poetry, bad jokes
to conceal his fear of being dull, the self-doubts
he laughed about, the shyness overcome by wine,
this world began to collapse when he undertook
his own inflexible path, his discipline
leading him further into isolation. "Whoever lacks
a taste for the absolute, meaning perfection,"
he wrote, "contents himself with mediocrity."
His misfortune was his own determined study:
"Art is a religion. Its aim is the elevation
of mind." No jokes, no girls, no wine. The friends
stopped calling. Harsh wind at night, no loving hands.

"Cezanne's Success" by Stephen Dobyns, from Body Traffic. © Penguin Books, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1888, in Rochester, New York, that George Eastman received a patent for his new, easy-to-use camera, the Kodak. Eastman began to study photography in 1877 while working in a Rochester bank. In 1880, he perfected a process for making "dry plates" and took his first photograph: a view of the Charles P. Ham building, across the street from his window.

He left the bank and founded the Eastman Dry Plate Company. Four years later, he devised a paper-backed film, which he marketed in roll form. In 1888, he introduced an inexpensive, simple camera he named, for no reason except it was easy to remember, the Kodak. "You push the button," the ads promised. "We do the rest."

It was on this day in 1998 that Google was first incorporated as a company. Google was the brainchild of two Ph.D. students at Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They designed a search engine with one important difference from all the others: Instead of giving you results based on how many times your search term appeared on a Web page, they created software that would figure out how many times each relevant Web site was linked to from other relevant Web sites and sorted those and then laid them out for you, all on a clear, simple screen. Google is now an incredibly powerful and profitable company. At a time when most major companies are losing money, Google continues to grow, and reported revenues of $5.52 billion in the second quarter of this year. In June of 2006, "Google" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb.

Although September 4th is the official day of Google's incorporation, as Google's own help center explained: "Google opened its doors in September 1998. The exact date when we celebrate our birthday has moved around over the years, depending on when people feel like having cake." Most years, it is celebrated toward the end of September.

On this day in 1882, Thomas Edison switched on the world's first commercial electrical power plant. The inventor — financed by J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family — had founded the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, and with their support he had developed a long-lasting electric light bulb. Now he just had to find a way to create a demand for his product. If electricity could be delivered to thousands of homes in the New York area, then all the people living in those homes would want to buy his light bulbs. So, in 1880, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company was founded to develop a central generating and distribution system. Edison had already installed self-contained systems in some buildings he owned, so it was just a matter of expanding into the neighborhoods surrounding the plant.

Edison followed the example of gas and water distribution companies, and laid the electrical cables under the streets of Manhattan, but he still needed to invent and test all the electrical equipment — fuses, sockets, meters, fixtures, and switches — that would go into people's homes. He built his power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan; it was powered by six steam-powered dynamos, each weighing 27 tons and putting out 100 kilowatts of electricity — enough to illuminate 1,100 lights.

On September 4, Edison and one of his engineers synchronized their watches. The engineer closed the circuit at the plant, and Edison flipped the first light switch in J.P. Morgan's Wall Street office, at precisely three o'clock p.m. A New York Post reporter wrote, "The light was perfectly pure, pleasant to the eye, and so much like gas in color that when covered by a ground-glass globe, no one can tell whether it is gas or electricity." Within a month, the utility had 59 customers in lower Manhattan. The plant has served as the model for every central electrical generating station that followed. Eventually, Edison Electric was swallowed by a larger conglomerate, which was in turn swallowed by Consolidated Gas. In 1936, the utility's name was changed to Consolidated Edison — ConEd, for short.

It's the birthday of novelist Mary Renault (books by this author), born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England (1905). She went to Oxford, where one of her tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien — she was so inspired by him that she wrote a medieval novel, which she eventually burned. She left Oxford without much direction, but with a love of Plato. She found work as a nurse, and at the Radcliffe Infirmary, she fell in love with a fellow nurse, Julie Mullard. At the same time, she began writing fiction between her shifts and published her first novel, a hospital romance called Purposes of Love (1939). Throughout World War II, she continued to work as a nurse, and wrote and published several novels in her extra time.

In 1948, she won an MGM award for her fourth novel, Return to Night (1947). The award was $150,000, a huge sum. The British government took 80 percent of the money in taxes, but with what was left, Renault and Julie Mullard left England for South Africa, which was more tolerant of homosexuality — not to mention tax-free. In South Africa, the women found a community of gay expatriates. Renault never returned to England, even for a visit.

Her novels gradually became more explicit in their treatment of gay relationships. Her sixth novel, The Charioteer (1953), was a gay love story set during the War. Her American publisher refused to publish it. After that, she wrote a series of best-selling historical novels, all of them set in ancient Greece. She wrote romanticized portraits of heroes like Alexander the Great and Theseus, but she was obsessed with accuracy in historical details. Once she became furious with her American publishers when the cover art for one of her paperbacks showed characters in Greek rather than Mycenaean clothing.

Her novels include The King Must Die (1958), Fire from Heaven (1969), and Funeral Games (1981).

On this day in 1893, Beatrix Potter (books by this author) sent an illustrated note to Noel Moore, age five, who was quarantined with scarlet fever. "I don't know what to write you," she began, "so I shall tell you the story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter ..." Seven years later, she enlarged the story and submitted it to several publishers, who rejected it. She used her savings to have it privately printed, and was pleased that the 250 copies sold swiftly. One of the publishers then reconsidered, on condition that Beatrix also provide color illustrations, which she did.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination." That's writer Richard Wright (books by this author), born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi (1908). He's the author of Black Boy (1945), White Man, Listen! (1957), and American Hunger (1997), as well as a number of short stories and a volume of haiku.

But he's best known for his novel Native Son (1940), about a black man named Bigger Thomas who gets a job as a chauffeur for beautiful young white woman and accidentally kills her. Native Son was a huge best-seller when it came out, and was soon afterward made into a Broadway musical. It's now required reading at many high schools across the country.

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

 









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