Jul. 30, 2002

August 12

by David Lehman

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Poem: "August 12," by David Lehman from The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry (Scribner).

August 12

Did you know
that today in 1982
the great American bull
market began and today
in 1997 it didn't end?
I wonder what else happened
fifteen years ago it was
the day Henry Fonda died
where was I
in New York probably, looking
for work a publisher asked
me to write The Sinus Handbook
"if you don't think you're too
literary for that"
and no one that day had ever
heard of St.-John's-wort or
feng shui or carpal tunnel syn-
drome what a long way we've come
the Dow closed that day under 800
and today it's under 8,000
and the Dodgers are a game
and a half out of first
it's hot and I'm eating a bowl
of gazpacho to quicken my thirst.

It's the birthday of Emily Bronte, born in Thornton, Yorkshire (1818). Although all the Bronte sisters were subjected to the same, convent-like upbringing, Anne and Charlotte agreed that Emily was the shyest and most inward-turned of the three of them. She was sent off to teach at a girls' school for several months, but told her students one day that she regarded her dog more highly than any of them, and left shortly afterward. When it became clear that teaching would not support them, Charlotte decided they should turn to writing. She had discovered some poems Emily had written and judged them far superior to popular verse; she said they were "condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine." The volume of poetry was a failure-it sold two copies-and Charlotte decided they should write novels instead. Within a year, each of them had completed a book; Emily's was Wuthering Heights, a novel whose structure was so complex that critics suggested her brother must have written it for her. She died of tuberculosis a year later.

It's the birthday of William Gass, born in Fargo, North Dakota (1924). He's the author of Omensetter's Luck (1966) and The Tunnel (1995), which won the Pen/Faulkner award and the American Book Award. It took Gass almost thirty years to write. Excerpts were published in a dozen journals, though, and reviews and critical essays had already been written about it when it appeared.

On this day in 1918, Joyce Kilmer was found dead on a battlefield on the Western Front. He was thirty-three. When it became clear that America would enter the war, Kilmer enlisted in the 69th regiment, the famous "Fighting Irish." He was already well along in his career by that time, had published the poem "Trees," as well as several other volumes of poetry, and he had a job at the New York Times.

It's the birthday of Thorstein Veblen, born in Cato, Wisconsin (1857). He's the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class. He was familiar with twenty-five languages and had a solid education in fields from agriculture to moral philosophy; scholars called him "the last man to know everything." But he was an eccentric, too; he mumbled and ranted and gave the impression of wanting the whole world to go away and leave him alone. Marx had said that the working classes would rise up to destroy the upper class; Veblen said that they would try their hardest to join it. After Veblen died, his biographer made his farm upbringing sound like one of unrelieved poverty. When he read the account, Veblen's brother Andrew hit the roof. He wrote the biographer a pointed letter in which he described his father's economic circumstances more accurately. By Norwegian standards, Andrew said, his father had jumped into the landed gentry, sending all nine of his children to college on the profits from a farm far larger than anyone in Scandinavia but a few rich landowners could have hoped to own.

It's the birthday of Giorgio Vasari, born in Arezzo, Italy (1511). He was trained as a painter, but is remembered now for his Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors and Architects, more commonly known as Lives of the Painters. Vasari's work is still regarded as the best contemporary source of information about Renaissance art. Vasari invented facts when he could not find them, and he often got his stories wrong, but he was one of the first to claim that the artists of Italy had recovered the glories of classical art destroyed by the Goths, and to describe how they had done it.

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