Jul. 7, 2011

She and My Granddad

by David Huddle

My grandfather—who died in 1970—
the year Sexual Politics was published—

called objects—screwdrivers, blow torches, trucks
—and sometimes even abstractions—winter,

pain, time—by the singular feminine
pronoun—she or her. For instance he would say,

I reckon she's coming up on quitting time,
or (of a favorite hammer), I guess

she ain't nowhere to be found. Kate Millett,
asked about the future of the woman's movement,

said, How in the hell do I know? I don't run it,
to which Granddad—at war with Gradmama all

my life but drawn to women, always polite—
would have said, Yes ma'am, can't nobody run her.

"She and My Granddad" by David Huddle. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Gustav Mahler (1860), born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. His father was an Austrian Jewish tavern-keeper, and Mahler experienced racial tensions from his birth: He was a minority both as a Jew and as a German-speaking Austrian among Czechs, and later, when he moved to Germany, he was a minority as a Bohemian. His father was a self-made man, very fiery, and he abused Mahler's mother, who was rather delicate and from a higher social class. Mahler was a tense and nervous child, traits he retained into adulthood. He had heart trouble, which he had inherited from his mother, but he also had a fair measure of his father's vitality and determination, and was active and athletic.

Mahler began his musical career at the age of four, first playing by ear the military marches and folk music he heard around his hometown, and soon composing pieces of his own on piano and accordion. He made his public piano debut at 10 and was accepted to the Vienna Conservatory at 15. When he left school, he became a conductor and then artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera. He became famous throughout Europe as a conductor, but he was fanatical in his work habits, and expected his artists to be, as well. This didn't win him any friends, and there were always factions calling for his dismissal. He spent his summers in the Austrian Alps, composing.

The year 1907 was difficult for Mahler: He was forced to resign from the Vienna Opera; his three-year-old daughter, Maria, died; and he was diagnosed with fatal heart disease. Superstitious, he believed that he had had a premonition of these events when composing his Tragic Symphony, No. 6 (1906), which ends with three climactic hammer blows representing "the three blows of fate which fall on a hero, the last one felling him as a tree is felled." When he composed his ninth symphony, he refused to call it "Symphony No. 9" because he believed that, like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, his ninth symphony would be his last. He called it A Symphony for Tenor, Baritone, and Orchestra instead, and he appeared to have fooled fate, because he went on to compose another symphony. This one he called Symphony No. 9 (1910); he joked that he was safe, since it was really his 10th symphony, but No. 9 proved to be his last symphony after all, and he died in 1911. Most of his work was misunderstood during his lifetime, and his music was largely ignored — and sometimes banned — for more than 30 years after his death. A new generation of listeners discovered him after World War II, and today he is one of the most recorded and performed composers in classical music.

On this date in 1863, the United States began its first military draft during the Civil War; the Confederacy had passed a draft law the year before. Both sides allowed conscripts to hire substitutes to fight in their place. The North also allowed anyone to buy an exemption for $300. Because that amounted to nearly a year's wages for many working people, in practice it meant that only the wealthy could afford to buy their way out of service. When the first drawing of names began in New York on July 11, widespread riots broke out, causing $1,500,000 in damage.

In the end, the Civil War draft was poorly handled, and didn't make much difference in enlistment since only about 2 percent of the military forces were draftees. The draft was discontinued until World War I.

It's the birthday of director George Cukor (1899), born in New York City to nonobservant Jewish parents. He grew up on the Lower East Side and began performing in amateur plays when he was little. In high school, he sometimes worked for the Metropolitan Opera when they needed people to fill out crowd scenes, and for this he received 50 cents per appearance, a dollar if he appeared in blackface. When he graduated from high school, he also graduated to stage manager jobs, and he moved to Hollywood in 1929, when talkies first came on the scene. He started as a dialogue coach, and directed his first feature in 1931. It was Tarnished Lady, starring Tallulah Bankhead.

His first big success came two years later, when he directed Katharine Hepburn in an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1933). The timing was right for the sentimental, wholesome story: People felt beaten down by the Depression, and Hollywood had lately come under fire for releasing some racy pictures. Conservative groups embraced Little Women, it was a big hit, and Cukor and Hepburn became close friends. He would go on to direct her in some of her best films: The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam's Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952). He had a reputation as a "woman's director" because of his work with both Hepburns — Katharine and Audrey — as well as Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, and Judy Garland, and his impressive catalog of films featuring strong female leads. He resented being pigeonholed, though, especially since he also directed Oscar-winning performances by male actors like Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Coleman, and Rex Harrison.

He told Gavin Lambert, "Anyone who looks at something special, in a very original way, makes you see it that way forever."

It's the birthday of filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, born in Sora, Italy, in 1901 or 1902. He grew up in Naples and his family was quite poor; he went to work as an office boy to help with expenses. He began his film career as an actor when he was about 17 — a small role in a silent film in 1918. He had roles in movies and musical theater throughout the 1920s, and by the '30s he had made a name for himself as a leading man in romantic comedies, a kind of Italian Cary Grant.

His main contribution to Italian cinema, though, was as a director. He was at the forefront of the Italian Neorealist movement, which favored a documentary style, simple storylines, child protagonists, improvisation, and nonprofessional actors; his 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is one of the best examples of that genre. It features a working-class father who combs the streets of Rome with his young son in a desperate search for his stolen bicycle, which he needs for his new job.

Today is the birthday of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907) (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri. He's considered one of the most literary science fiction writers. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy and then served in the Navy for five years after he graduated in 1929. He was discharged from service when he contracted tuberculosis, and he went to graduate school in Los Angeles, where he studied physics and math for a while without completing a degree. He published his first science fiction story in a pulp magazine in 1939.

His early work was aimed at younger readers, but in the late 1950s he began writing for adults and tackling controversial themes like incest, cloning, and religion. "The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up," he wrote in Time Enough for Love (1973), "is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history."

Heinlein underwent a dramatic shift in his political views immediately after World War II. Though he had formerly been a "flaming liberal," according to Isaac Asimov, he became a far-right conservative almost overnight. Asimov credits his divorce from a liberal woman, and subsequent remarriage to a "rock-ribbed" conservative, for the transformation. Even so, his best-known book, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), became a kind of holy text for the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Hippies latched onto the story of a human raised by Martians, who returns Messiah-like to start a new religion and save the Earth's people from themselves. The neo-pagan Church of All Worlds lifted its philosophy, and even its logo, straight from the book.

Sliced bread was sold for the first time on this date in 1928. Up until that time, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting an eponymous invention, the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries. They scoffed, and told him that pre-sliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn't work. Finally he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread." Sales went through the roof. Rohwedder not only gave Americans the gift of convenience and perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he also provided the English language with the saying that expresses the ultimate in innovation: "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

It's the birthday of historian and author David McCullough (1933) (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His first love was art, but when he was an undergraduate at Yale, the faculty included Brendan Gill, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Thornton Wilder, so eventually he started to think about life as a writer. A New York Times critic once said McCullough was "incapable of writing a page of bad prose," although some academic historians remain unimpressed and have criticized him for being a "popularizer" and putting too much narrative in his books. Nevertheless, they're popular among readers and also prize committees: He's been awarded two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, and several others.

He enjoys immersing himself in the era and culture he's writing about. "The years writing John Adams [2001] and 1776 [2005] have been the most exhilarating, happiest years of my writing life," he said in an interview with "I had never ventured into the 18th century before, never set foot in it. I told my wife the other day that I might never come back. I love it."

"To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure," he told National Endowment for the Humanities chair Bruce Cole. "It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is."

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