Oct. 30, 2005

A Scientist's Acrostic

by Jennifer Gresham

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Poem: "A Scientist's Acrostic" by Jennifer Gresham, from Diary of a Cell. © Steel Toe Books, Bowling Green. Reprinted with permission.

A Scientist's Acrostic

Scientists are like beetles
Crawling over the earth, antennae twitching,
In tune with the mysteries
Einstein whispered under a star-polished
Night sky. He chose the celestial playground by
Convention-even logic, as beetles know, can be
Enhanced by beauty.

Illumination dawns after years of
Scratching through dark leaves, dirt.

Lying on one's back, legs flailing,
Is temporary, and not, as some imagine
Fundamental failure or
Even such a bad thing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, born near Dublin, Ireland (1751). He's best known for his play The Rivals (1775), about a couple, Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, who want to get married against the wishes of their elders, Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute. The first performance was an hour too long and much too bawdy for the audience. Sheridan rewrote it, and the play was re-produced 11 days later to an enthusiastic reception. The play became so successful that Sheridan was able to buy the theater it played in.

Richard Sheridan said, "The question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again, night after night, but God knows the answer to that is: Don't we all anyway? Might as well get paid for it."

It's the birthday of a man who was a kind of boxing promoter for modernist literature, Ezra (Loomis Weston) Pound, born in Hailey, Idaho (1885).

He supported and helped shape the work of writers such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot. He said, "[I have] to keep alive a certain group of advancing poets, to set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization."

It's the birthday of journalist and biographer Robert Caro, born in Manhattan (1936). He started out as an investigative journalist for New York Newsday, but he found that the newspaper format was too confining. He wanted to explore everything in more depth and detail than his editors would let him. He said, "[With the newspaper format] I couldn't tell people the complete truth."

What Caro wanted to write about more than anything was the legendary public works commissioner Robert Moses, who had built most of the modern highways, bridges, parks, and public buildings in and around New York City, and who had been called the most powerful non-elected public official in American history.

So Caro got a grant to write the book and quit his job. He thought the book would take him a year to write, but it dragged on for seven. Part of what took him so long was that he found a city storage room that contained a carbon copy of every document that Robert Moses ever produced as a city official, and he read every single document. Caro said he'd once been told by a newspaper editor to turn every page, never assume a thing. So that's what he did.

His wife was working as his research assistant, so the family had no income other than the meager advance from a publishing house. They eventually had so little money that Caro was ready to give up and go back to working as a reporter, but his wife wanted him to finish the book, so without asking him, she sold their family house on Long Island.

Caro was miserable when he found out what his wife had done, but the money from the house allowed him to keep working, and the result was his book The Power Broker (1974). It had to be trimmed down from almost 2,000 pages to about 1,100, but it won the Pulitzer Prize and was named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century.

Since 1974, Caro has been working on a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. He says he picked Johnson to write about because he wanted to write about political power, and he believes Lyndon Johnson was the most masterful getter and user of political power in the 20th century. For his research on Johnson, Caro has gone through 34 million documents at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, and he has conducted more than 1,000 interviews. He lived in Johnson's hometown for three years so that he could get to know the people there well enough that they would open up to him. He also tracked down every living member of Johnson's grammar school class.

Caro eventually uncovered the fact that Johnson had committed an unprecedented series of lies, manipulations, and vote tampering on his way to becoming a United States Senator. But what fascinated Caro was the fact that a politician who would commit such crimes in order to get power could still use that power for good. He points out that, when Johnson got into office, he became the greatest advocate for civil rights of any politician since Abraham Lincoln. Caro's most recent volume about Johnson, Master of the Senate, came out in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

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