Feb. 7, 2006

Reading History a Year at a Time

by Joan McIntosh

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Poem: "Reading History a Year at a Time" by Joan McIntosh from Greatest Hits: 1975-2000. © Pudding House Publications. Reprinted with permission.

Reading History a Year at a Time

Lord Byron died the very year
that sperm were proved,
beyond all doubt, to be
essential to fertilization.
No more virgin births. That year
Beethoven's Choral Symphony
astounded the air. He was guided
gently to face the audience
that rose in an ovation
he couldn't hear. Tears
were everywhere. Who remembers
J.L. Prevost or J.B. Dumas
or knows how they unraveled
the mystery of sperm? That same year
workers finished the Erie Canal
and Simon Bolivar was proclaimed
Emperor of Peru. The canal workers
didn't know or care about Peru
nor did they hear the "Ode to Joy."
My great-great grandmother was born
that year, to later travel the length
of the canal. Three hundred million
sperm swim up the birth canal.
A few thousand reach the oviduct.
The ovum chooses one (on rare
occasions more). Then, as usual,
life went on. Joseph Aspdin developed
Portland Cement while the U.S.
House elected John Quincy Adams when
The voters couldn't make up their minds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1964 that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr arrived in the United States for their first American tour. Up until that point the Beatles had been largely a British phenomenon. At the beginning of that year the Beatles had gone on their first international tour, to France, where everybody hated them. The French critics wrote terrible reviews, the concerts were poorly attended and there were no screaming fans.

Then, on January 10, 1964, the Beatles got word that their song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" had reached number one on the American pop charts. No British musical artist had ever reached number one on the American charts before. By January 13, 10,000 copies of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" were being sold every hour in New York City alone. In less than three weeks it had sold 1.5 million copies, more than any other record single at that point in history. So naturally, the Beatles' manager decided to get them out of France and over to America.

When their plane landed at John F. Kennedy Airport on this day in 1964 there were four thousand fans waiting to meet them. Two nights later they made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The audience screamed so loudly that the music could barely be heard.

The Beatles ended their first tour in the United States on February 22. By the end of February, sixty percent of the records being sold in the United States were Beatles records.

It's the birthday of the novelist Charles Dickens who was born in Portsmouth, England (1812). His father struggled with debts throughout Dickens' childhood. Dickens was twelve years old when his parents decided he could help the family financially if he took a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by a friend of the family. Dickens' parents saw it as an opportunity for him to work his way up in the business world, but Dickens saw it as a prison sentence. He had to work ten hours a day pasting labels on the jars of boot polish.

A few days after he started the job Dickens' father was arrested for debt. Dickens was devastated. He decided that he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was never poor again. In his spare time he began writing sketches of the people imprisoned with his father and then began to write about other ordinary people on the streets of London, the cabdrivers, shoe shiners, pickpockets and clowns.

Dickens eventually got a job as a journalist and then began writing fiction. He invented the idea of selling his novels in serial installments which proved enormously successful. Within a few years, he had become the most popular novelist in the English-speaking world with novels such as The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1838), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

He was one of the first authors to go on huge international book tours. One of the people who went to see Dickens perform when he came to America was Mark Twain. Twain wrote, "That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face. ... But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty ... as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it ... that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions ... murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work."

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, born Laura Ingalls near Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was sixty-three years old she started writing about her pioneer childhood in books such as Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935).

When asked why she decided to write these books, she said, "I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginning of things, to know what is behind the things they see—what it is that made America as they know it."

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He's best known for his novel Main Street, which was a literary sensation when it came out in 1920. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small-town American life. The town of Sauk Centre, which Lewis had satirized in Main Street, now holds a festival every summer called Sinclair Lewis Days. The town also has a museum called the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and a street called Sinclair Lewis Avenue.

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