Jan. 11, 2010


by W.D. Snodgrass

What was I looking for today?
All that poking under the rugs,
Peering under the lamps and chairs,
Or going from room to room that way,
Forever up and down the stairs
Like someone stupid with sleep or drugs.

Everywhere I was, was wrong.
I started turning the drawers out, then
I was staring in at the icebox door
Wondering if I'd been there long
Wondering what I was looking for.
Later on, I think I went back again.

Where did the rest of the time go?
Was I down cellar? I can't recall
Finding the light switch, or the last
Place I've had it, or how I'd know
I didn't look at it and go past.
Or whether it's what I want, at all.

"Looking" by W.D. Snodgrass, from Selected Poems: 1957 - 1987. © Soho Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who coined the term "stream of consciousness" and who said that "the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook" — psychologist and philosopher William James (books by this author) (1842), born in New York City to one of the most prominent intellectual families in the history of America. His brother was writer Henry James, his sister was diarist Alice James, his dad was a famous theologian, and his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He was tone-deaf, got motion sickness easily, suffered from depression and was suicidal for long intervals, had chronic back pain, recurring digestive ailments, and problems with vision. He told people he had "soul-sickness."

He got an M.D. at Harvard but never practiced medicine; instead, he spent his life in academia at Harvard. There he taught physiology, then anatomy, and then, for many years, psychology and philosophy. Over the years, he lectured to many future famous Americans, including Teddy Roosevelt, W.E.B. DuBois, and Gertrude Stein, a favorite of his. On an in-class exam he gave, Gertrude wrote, "Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but I do not feel a bit like writing an examination paper on philosophy today." He wrote back, "Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly. I often feel like that myself."

He was an enormously prolific writer. Scholar John McDermott put together a bibliography of William James' writings that was 47 pages long. His most well-known work is probably the 1,200-page Principles of Psychology, published in 1890 after more than a decade of research and writing. While working on the book, he did first-person research on the psychology of mystical experience, and to aid in this he sometimes used narcotics. He said that he could only really understand the German idealist philosopher Hegel when he was under the influence of laughing gas.

He wrote a lot about the psychology of pragmatism. He argued that a person's beliefs were true if they were useful to that person. And he said, "Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact."

He also wrote: "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

He hung out with Freud, Jung, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, and many other intellectuals. He once said, "Wherever you are, it is your own friends who make your world." And he said, "Properly speaking a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him."

It's the birthday of the man whose face appears on our $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton, born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies (1757). He was the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury.

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, (books by this author) born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and he wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding that he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

It was only after he'd left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home. And when he got back to his hotel room, he started writing his novel Cry of the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller.

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