Apr. 2, 2008

Once I Pass'd through a Populous City

by Walt Whitman

Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
    use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met there
    who detain'd me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long
    been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again she holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see her close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

"Once I Pass'd through a Populous City " by Walt Whitman, from Selected Poems. © Dover Publications, Inc., 1991. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of Charlemagne, born in Ingelheim, Germany (742). He never learned to read or write, but he admired scholars who could, and he brought many to his court. Up until that time, most schooling had been limited to the study of sacred texts. Charlemagne started schools that taught all kinds of worldly knowledge, and he said that they should "make no difference between the sons of serfs and of freemen, so that they might come and sit on the same benches to study grammar, music and arithmetic." He tried to get all his subjects to speak the same form of early German, so they'd stop praying in mutually incomprehensible dialects.

On this day in 1917, at 8:35 p.m., President Woodrow Wilson called Congress into special session and asked them to declare war on Germany. Appearing before a joint session of the Senate and House, he said, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

America had been able to maintain an uneasy neutrality for about three years while the war raged on in Europe. But the "Zimmermann Note" was made public in March. This message from German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann proposed that the Mexican government ally itself with Germany, in exchange for Germany's help in regaining Mexico's "lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona." The message also suggested that Mexico press Japan to ally itself with Germany. That note — and Germany's sinking of five American ships — changed public opinion about intervention in the war. When the war ended, a year and a half later (November 11, 1918), 9 1/2 million soldiers had died, in addition to 13 million civilians, who perished from massacres, starvation, and disease.

It's the birthday of the author of many of our best-known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, (books by this author) born in Odense, Denmark (1805). His mother was an uneducated washerwoman and his father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was 11 years old. He grew up in poverty.

At the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen to start a career as a singer, dancer, and actor. He knocked on doors of famous producers and directors, introducing himself as a poet and a playwright. Finally, he landed a spot in the Royal Theatre singing school and later the Royal Theatre ballet. The director of the theater saw that Andersen was a talented child and paid for him to go to grammar school when he was 17. There he studied with 10- and 11-year-olds and made up for his lack of an education as a younger child. He had a beautiful soprano voice, but had to leave the Royal Theatre school after his voice began to change.

He was extremely neurotic. One of his fears was that he would be buried alive, and to reassure himself each night he would prop a note next to his bed that read, "I only appear to be dead."

Andersen finished his first novel, The Improvisatore, in 1835. He was waiting for it to be published and he desperately needed money for rent, so he quickly wrote and published a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years. They were cheap paperback editions, and they grew to be extremely popular. He started off by retelling the stories he had heard from his parents as a child, but then he began making up his own. Between 1835 and 1872, he published 168 fairy tales, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale" and "The Ugly Duckling."

People often think of Andersen's fairy tales as light-hearted and optimistic, but he wrote many tragic tales with unhappy endings. The first English translations of the tales were done by a woman who deleted disturbing passages and made them more sentimental than Andersen intended. Many children today only know the fairy tales through cartoon movie spin-offs or simplified versions in children's picture books.

It's the birthday of novelist Émile Zola, (books by this author) born in Paris (1840) — France's best-known writer of the 19th century. Zola's most famous work is his monumental Rougon-Macquart cycle: 20 novels, published roughly one a year throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The cycle makes up a "fictional documentary" of two French families, the violent Rougons and the passive Macquarts, related to each other through the character Aunt Dide. Zola's over-arching title for the cycle was The Natural and Social History of a Family Under the Second Empire. The best-known novels within the cycle are The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885); some of the many other titles are The Kill (1872), Savage Paris (1873), and The Human Beast (1890).

Zola said, "I'm not very concerned with beauty or perfection. . . . All I care about is life, struggle, intensity."

And, "If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud."

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




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