Nov. 25, 2006

Famous Last Words

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "Famous Last Words" by Robert Phillips, from Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. © The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Famous Last Words
for Dana Gioia

"It has all been very interesting!"
          declared Lady Mary Wortley Montague.
Examining his sickroom, Oscar Wilde railed,
          "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."
Told the angels were waiting for him,
          Ethan Allen quipped, "Let 'em wait."
"I am so very happy," Gerard Manley Hopkins cooed.
          Goethe pleaded for "More light, more light."

Madame de Pompadour cried out to God,
          "Wait a minute!" rouged her cheeks red.
"I suppose I am turning into a god?"
          The dying Emperor Vespasian said.
Henry James, succumbing to a massive stroke,
          "So it has come ... The Distinguished Thing."
Pancho Villa pleaded, "Don't let it end
          like this. Tell 'em I said something."

Gertrude to Alice B.: "What is the answer?"
          [Silence] "In that case, what is the question?"
"If this is dying, I don't think much of it,"
          Muttered Lytton Strachey. When undone,
Julius Caesar managed, "Et tu, Brute?"
          Edmund Kean: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
Chekhov: "It's been so long since I've had champagne."
          Goethe: "More light, more light," then departed.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835). He grew up in Scotland, working as a milk hand for $1.20 per week. But when his family immigrated to America in 1848, Carnegie took a job in a factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He sensed instinctively that education would help him work his way up in the world, but at the time education was hard to come by. There were public libraries then, but they weren't free. People were asked to pay an annual fee to become a library member. Carnegie couldn't afford the annual fee at his local library, so he wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, arguing that poor young people should be given free access to libraries so that they could improve themselves. The director of Carnegie's local library read the letter, and it persuaded him to change the rule.

With the help of the library, Carnegie began teaching himself how to do all kinds of things, including how to use a telegraph. He got a job as a telegraph operator, and then attracted the notice of an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and became the executive's personal secretary and telegrapher. By 1859, just 11 years after he had arrived in America as a poor factory worker, he was named the Pennsylvania Railroad's vice president. He became an investor, and built a steel empire, and then at the height of his career, he sold his company. The sale made him one of the richest men in the world, but he spent the rest of his life giving his fortune away to charity.

Among his many charitable acts was the construction of almost 3,000 libraries across the country. For every library he funded, he required that the town set aside a certain amount of tax funds to keep it running in perpetuity. He also required that many libraries inscribe phrases like "Free Library" or "Free to the People" over the entrance, so that the libraries would always remain free.

It's the birthday of one of the latest of late bloomers in modern publishing, the novelist Helen Hooven Santmyer, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1895). When she was five years old she moved with her family to the small town of Xenia, Ohio, where she grew up. She was inspired as a young girl by the Xenia Women's Club, an early feminist intellectual organization.

So she got a job as a secretary for Scribner's Magazine, where she met many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But after a few years of living in New York City, and then studying at Oxford, she moved back to Xenia, Ohio. She taught English at a nearby college and then worked as a librarian. She was writing all the time, and even published a few novels, but they had little success.

It was only after her retirement that Santmyer began to delve into the history of her hometown, eventually writing a collection of essays called Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia (1862). Then she began an epic novel about the history of a small-town women's group based on her own Women's Club of Xenia called And Ladies of the Club (1982), which reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list in 1985, when Helen Hooven Santmyer was 88.

It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas, (books by this author) born in Flushing, New York (1913). In 1973, he became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City, one of the world's largest facilities devoted to cancer research. It was only after he had established himself as one of the most renowned scientists of his field that he began writing literary essays, which he published in the back pages of The New England Journal of Medicine. In 1974, Viking Press collected 29 of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell, and it won the National Book Award in 1975.

It's the birthday of baseball player Joe DiMaggio (1914) born in Martinez, California. He is remembered as one of baseball's most graceful athletes. Many consider his 56-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1941 as the top baseball feat of all time.

DiMaggio said, "You start chasing a ball and your brain immediately commands your body to 'run forward, bend, scoop up the ball, peg it to the infield,' then your body says, 'Who me?'"

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




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