Apr. 21, 2005


by Walt Whitman

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Poem: "Reconciliation," by Walt Whitman.


Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever
again, this soil'd world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of scientist and fiction writer Thomas McMahon, born in Dayton, Ohio (1943), who throughout his life was able to meld the worlds of science and literature, using one to enrich the other. In 1977, McMahon and a colleague designed a "tuned" running track at Harvard University that improved running times by three percent while cutting injuries in half. In 1996, McMahon gained notice for experiments demonstrating how the basilisk lizard, known in South America as the "Jesus Christ" lizard—can scamper across rivers fast enough to walk on water. His three widely acclaimed novels, Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (1970), McKay's Bees (1979), and Loving Little Egypt (1987), are noteworthy for their blend of scientific descriptions with the lives and loves of the main characters. McMahon was a professor of applied mechanics and biology at Harvard University from 1977 until his death in 1999 at the age of fifty-six.

It's the birthday of writer, playwright, and critic John (Clifford) Mortimer, born in London, England (1923), who is best known in America for the BBC television series, Rumpole of the Bailey, created from Mortimer's stories about the comic adventures of a grumpy, aging defense lawyer. Rumpole of the Bailey introduced the world to Horace Rumpole, married to the intractable Hilda, better known as "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Mortimer still maintains a thriving law practice in England, and in the 1960s and 70s, became well known as a defender of free-speech and civil rights cases. He has also written his autobiography in two volumes: Clinging to the Wreckage (1982) and Murderers and Other Friends (1994), as well as adapting Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in 1981 for BBC television.

It's the birthday of humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Wheeler Shaw in Lanesboro, Massachusetts (1818). When he was forty-five, he began contributing humorous columns to a local newspaper under the name "Josh Billings." They didn't attract much attention until he changed his style and began using phonetic spelling to represent a rural dialect. He changed an article he had written as "Essay on the Mule" to "A Essa on the Meul bi Josh Billings," which was printed in a New York City paper and made him instantly famous. Billings, who said: "What the moral army needs just now is more rank and file and fewer brigadier generals."

It's the birthday of writer Charlotte Bronte, born in Thornton, England (1816), the eldest surviving child of Patrick and Maria Bronte, and sister to Branwell, Emily and Anne. Charlotte and her siblings spent much of their time creating fantasies in great detail about an imaginary world they called Angria. In 1845, Charlotte accidentally came across some poems written by her sister, Emily. She decided that the three sisters should publish a joint volume, which they did, under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book sold two copies. However, it started the girls writing, and in 1847, each had a book published: Anne's was Agnes Grey, Emily's was Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's was Jane Eyre. Charlotte, considered the best writer of the three, introduced a new type of heroine to English fiction—an intelligent, passionate woman who refuses to accept the traditional role of female subservience. The book was a great success. Unfortunately, within the following year, Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died.

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