May 16, 2011

Summer Music

by May Sarton

Summer is all a green air—
From the brilliant lawn, sopranos
Through murmuring hedges
Accompanied by some poplars;
In fields of wheat, surprises;
Through faraway pastures, flows
To the horizon's blues
In slow decrescendos.

Summer is all a green sound—
Rippling in the foreground
To that soft applause,
The foam of Queen Anne's lace.
Green, green in the ear
Is all we care to hear—
Until a field suddenly flashes
The singing with so sharp
A yellow that it crashes
Loud cymbals in the ear,
Minor has turned to major
As summer, lulling and so mild,
Goes golden-buttercup-wild.

"Summer Music" by May Sarton, from Collected poems: 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of one of the first well-known female mathematicians of the Western world. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan (1718). Her father, Pietro, was a wealthy businessman and her mother, Anna Fortunata Brivio, was an aristocrat whom her father married to raise his status in Milan society.

Maria was a brilliant child. By age five, she spoke French as well as her native Italian. A few years later, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and her family called her the “Walking Polyglot.” At age nine, she addressed a group of academics in Latin on the subject of women’s rights and access to education, and soon she was leading complex philosophical discussions between her father and his scholarly friends. She also began to pursue mathematics.

Maria was shy and devout, and she longed to give up her public speaking and enter a convent. Her religious aspirations were dashed, however, when her mother died and she was left in charge of the household and the care of her many siblings.

She maintained her interest in math and philosophy. In 1738, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a collection of essays based on the talks she gave to her father’s circle of friends. That same year, she began working on a math textbook that she could use to teach math to her siblings. But the book grew into more than just a teaching tool. In it she wrote an equation for a specific bell-shaped curve that is still used today and is known — because of mistranslation of the Italian by a British mathematician — as the “Witch of Agnesi.” Analytical Institutions, which was published in 1748, was highly regarded in academic circles for synthesizing complex mathematical ideas with clarity and precision.

Analytical Institutions and the articulation of the Witch of Agnesi earned her a spot in the Bologna Academy of Sciences. But by that time, she had abandoned mathematics and devoted herself to charity work. When asked a decade later what she thought of recent developments in calculus, she said she was “no longer concerned with such interests.” She was eventually appointed director of a home for ill and infirm women, and she spent the rest of her life caring for the dying until her own death in 1799.

On this day in 1893, a patent was issued for a typewriter “type bar” that would make the results visible while typing. It was the first of its kind.

Typewriters became commercially available in the 1870s and featured an under-stroke type bar that obscured the writing from the typist. A magazine story called “The American Typewriter: A Story of Progress” that appeared in The Banker’s Magazine in 1911 recounted that most people were satisfied with the under-stroke machine. “Few looked for any radical change in the then accepted design, which had a large demand and was considered to be well nigh ultimate perfection.”

Underwood Typewriter Company was the first to adopt the new innovation, bringing a front-stroke “visible” typewriter to market in 1897. The machine was a tremendous success and soon there was a large demand for visible typewriters. The Underwood typewriter manufacturing plant in Hartford, Connecticut, could not keep up with demand and had to increase its capacity every year. By 1911, it was double the size of any typewriter factory in the world and employed more than 3,200 people.

Of the typewriter in America, The Banker’s Magazine notes: “The modern typewriter is the product of American inventive genius, coupled with the foresight, ability and aggressiveness of the American manufacturer, and supported by the confidence of the American capitalist. It stands as an industrial monument to the American commercial spirit which has in a few decades made the institutions of this country the marvel of the world.”

It is the birthday of American piano virtuoso and unparalleled showman Liberace. Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wisconsin (1919), Liberace was called Walter as a child. He had a twin who died at birth. His father, Salvatore Liberace, was a musician who worked odd factory jobs when music didn’t bring in enough money and he encouraged Liberace to pursue music. His mother, on the other hand, thought music was a waste of time and picked fights with Salvatore about better ways for young Walter to spend his time.

Liberace began playing piano at age four and his father held him to high standards. His passion for the piano helped him survive his teenage years, when other children mocked him for not playing sports or his love of cooking. At age 15, he began performing with a jazz ensemble at his school, but he quickly moved to performing at cabarets and strip clubs, where he earned a lot of money despite the Great Depression. He developed more confidence at school and began to have success turning his quirks into comedy.

For a while after high school, Liberace toured the Midwest playing only classical music. But in his early 20s, he began to combine classical music with pop songs, arrangements he dubbed “classical music with the boring parts left out.” One of his first arrangements was a mix of Chopin and “Home on the Range.” He also honed his showmanship during these years, adopting the signature candelabra on his grand piano and dressing in white tie and tails to be better seen in the concert hall. He bought a rare gold-leafed grand piano to match his increasingly theatrical and outsized image. In the late 1940s, he moved to Hollywood and performed for some of the era’s biggest stars.

Liberace was as good at self-promotion as he was at the piano. He played for Harry S. Truman, developed an extravagant Las Vegas act, and earned nearly $140,000 for a performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954 — a record amount for one night of performing. He was widely panned by critics but beloved by audiences.

He died from AIDS-related complications in 1987. An upcoming feature film about Liberace’s life will star Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover.

Liberace once said: “I don’t give concerts, I put on a show.”

To his critics, Liberace said: “Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank.” Years later, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Liberace updated the anecdote, saying, “I don’t cry all the way to the bank anymore. I bought the bank.”

On this day in 1975, Japanese mountain climber Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Tabei began climbing in college, where she was an English major. And when she graduated, she became an avid climber who was well known in Japan.

Two years later, a Japanese newspaper sponsored a team of women to climb Everest. Tabei and 15 other women were selected for the trip and began to train extensively. In early 1975, they began their ascent, but were struck by an avalanche while camping at 6,300 feet. The whole party was buried under the snow and Tabei lost consciousness for a few minutes. Miraculously, the Sherpa guides saved the whole party and even though Tabei hurt her back and legs, she continued to lead the team of women up the mountain. Twelve days later at 12:30 p.m., she reached the summit.

In 1992, she became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, and today she has climbed 69 of the world’s tallest mountains.

From the archives:

On this day in 1763, Samuel Johnson (books by this author) met his future biographer James Boswell (books by this author) in a London bookshop. Boswell was an aimless 23-year-old wannabe writer, but the only subject he could think to write about was himself. Johnson was 53 at the time and a highly regarded writer and scholar.

Their first meeting was not auspicious. They quarreled about a mutual friend and didn’t part on good terms. But Boswell attended one of Johnson’s parties a few weeks later and Johnson warmed up to the ambitious young man. They talked at length at the party and went on to become close friends. Boswell began to record everything Johnson said and did for the biography of Johnson’s life that would consume him for almost three decades.

Johnson died in 1784. Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791, and it quickly became a best-seller. But Boswell’s later years were by my most accounts unhappy. He felt like a literary failure, despite the success of the book, and he spent his free time drinking. He was a garrulous drunk and people were afraid to confide in him lest he spill their secrets while he was sloshed. He died in 1795 while at work on the third edition of Life.

Today, the word Boswell is used as a synonym for “constant companion.” Of Watson, Sherlock Holmes says, “I am lost without my Boswell.”

It is the birthday of writer and broadcaster Louis “Studs” Terkel (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York (1912). His family moved to Chicago when Terkel was 10 years old and his parents ran rooming houses. Terkel remembers all different kinds of people moving through the rooming houses — dissidents, labor organizers, religions fanatics — and that that exposure helped build his knowledge of the outside world.

In 1934, he attended the University of Chicago and graduated with a law degree. But he soon fell into radio broadcasting, working first on radio soap operas, then hosting news and sports shows, and ultimately landing his own show, where he played music and interviewed people.

He is best known for his powerful interviews of ordinary people, which became a series of successful books, including Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995). His last book, PS: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was released just after Terkel’s death in 2008. He was 96.

Terkel said: “Why are we born? We’re born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we’re born and we die? We’re born to live. One is a realist if one hopes.”

And, “With optimism, you look upon the sunny side of things. People say, ‘Studs, you’re an optimist.’ I never said I was an optimist. I have hope because what’s the alternative to hope? Despair? If you have despair, you might as well put your head in the oven.”

And, “I’ve always felt, in all my books, that there’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence — providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.”

It is the birthday of poet and essayist Adrienne Rich (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1929). She is the author of numerous poetry and essay collections, including Diving into the Wreck (1973), The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems (1991).

The first Academy Award ceremony took place on this day in 1929. It was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 270 people attended the event, and tickets cost $5.

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