Jul. 10, 2011

Moonlight, Summer Moonlight

by Emily Bronte

'Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The solemn hour of midnight
Breathes sweet thoughts everywhere,

But most where trees are sending
Their breezy boughs on high,
Or stooping low are lending
A shelter from the sky.

And there in those wild bowers
A lovely form is laid;
Green grass and dew-steeped flowers
Wave gently round her head.

"Moonlight, Summer Moonlight" by Emily Bronte. Public domain. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the city of Dublin, founded in 988. The area had been occupied, more or less, since before the Roman invasion of Britain, and it appeared in Ptolemy's Guide to Geography in the year 140, but the first verifiable settlement came with the Vikings in about 831. They called it "Dyflin," which came in turn from the Irish Dubh Linn, which means "black pool." The reason it's considered to be founded in 988 rather than 831 is because that's the year the Irish king Mael Sechnaill reclaimed the city for Ireland. It's also the year he first forced people to pay him taxes, so Dublin's belonged to the Irish ever since, bought and paid for.

Dublin's contribution to literature alone has been remarkable. Ireland was one of the first countries to produce writing in the vernacular, and it's long had a tradition as a nation of scholars. A partial list of writers who are from Dublin, or who adopted it as their home, includes Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, John Millington Synge, and Seamus Heaney.

"Dublin University contains the cream of Ireland: Rich and thick." — Samuel Beckett

"When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence." — Brendan Behan

"When I die Dublin will be written in my heart." — James Joyce

"When I die I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin." — J.P. Donleavy

On this date in 1553, Lady Jane Grey was crowned Queen of England. Her cousin, Edward VI, was the only son of Henry VIII, who died when Edward was nine years old. Henry had provided for a council of regency to rule until Henry reached adulthood, and the end result was that the unscrupulous Duke of Northumberland controlled the government. When it became apparent that Edward was going to die of tuberculosis at age 15, without leaving an heir, Northumberland convinced him to exclude his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and designate his 15-year-old cousin, Jane Grey — who also happened to be Northumberland's daughter-in-law — as his heir instead.

She wasn't necessarily a bad choice, from Edward's point of view — she was beautiful, educated, and most importantly, a staunch Protestant, as he was — but she didn't really want the crown. She fainted when she was given the news. She ruled for only nine days before being deposed by Edward's half-sister Mary Tudor, who was the designated heir by act of Parliament and by Henry VIII's will. Mary had Jane Grey imprisoned in the Tower and she was later executed for treason.

It's the birthday of inventor Nikola Tesla (books by this author), born in Smiljan, Austria-Hungary, in 1856. He patented the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis for alternating-current machinery, and he also invented the Tesla induction coil, an essential component in radio technology. But he was also a poet, and when he sailed to America in 1884, he brought with him four cents, plans for a flying machine, and a few of his poems. He worked briefly for Thomas Edison, and then sold his patent for alternating-current dynamos to George Westinghouse in 1885. Tesla set up his own lab, and one of the things he did there was invite people in to see how safe alternating current was. He would hook himself up to an electric lamp and allow the current to pass through his body on its way to lighting the lamp. He had lots of ideas, and he had the financial backing of J.P. Morgan, so for a while things looked rosy. Then there was a financial panic and Morgan withdrew his support. Most of Tesla's ideas stayed just that: entries in his diary that inventors today are still combing for clues.

Here's his poem "Fragments of Olympian Gossip":

While listening on my cosmic phone
I caught words from the Olympus blown.
A newcomer was shown around;
That much I could guess, aided by sound.
"There's Archimedes with his lever
Still busy on problems as ever.
Says: matter and force are transmutable
And wrong the laws you thought immutable."
"Below, on Earth, they work at full blast
And news are coming in thick and fast.
The latest tells of a cosmic gun.
To be pelted is very poor fun.
We are wary with so much at stake,
Those beggars are a pest — no mistake."
"Too bad, Sir Isaac, they dimmed your renown
And turned your great science upside down.
Now a long haired crank, Einstein by name,
Puts on your high teaching all the blame.
Says: matter and force are transmutable
And wrong the laws you thought immutable."
"I am much too ignorant, my son,
For grasping schemes so finely spun.
My followers are of stronger mind
And I am content to stay behind,
Perhaps I failed, but I did my best,
These masters of mine may do the rest.
Come, Kelvin, I have finished my cup.
When is your friend Tesla coming up."
"Oh, quoth Kelvin, he is always late,
It would be useless to remonstrate."
Then silence — shuffle of soft slippered feet —
I knock and — the bedlam of the street.

Today is the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) (1913-27). It's Proust's own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood. That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.

He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally, he realized that he had to do two things first: He needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the philosophical underpinnings of the novel would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist's task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his "rusk epiphany" in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June.

It's the birthday of American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875), born Mary McLeod in Mayesville, South Carolina, to former slaves. She went to school at Scotia Seminary in Concord, South Carolina, and later at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She married Albertus Bethune in 1898, then became a schoolteacher, and in 1904, she opened her own school in Daytona Beach, Florida: the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. In 1923, her school was merged with the Cookman Institute for Men to become Bethune-Cookman College. She was president of the college until 1942.

In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, and in 1936, President Roosevelt appointed her to the National Youth Administration as director of the Division of Negro Affairs. She was also vice president of the NAACP from 1940 to 1955.

She said, "If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs."

Today is the birthday of the man who designed the ubiquitous "Smiley Face," Harvey Ball, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1921.

He was co-owner of an advertising and public relations firm in Worcester in 1963, and when two insurance companies went through an unfriendly merger, he was hired to create a "friendliness campaign" to ease tensions between resentful workers. He thought of the color yellow, which is cheerful, and drew a circle with a smiling mouth inside. That wouldn't do, though, because if you looked at it upside down, it looked like a frown; he added eyes and the Smiley was born. "There are two ways to go about it," he told the Associated Press. "You can take a compass and draw a perfect circle and make two perfect eyes as neat as can be. Or you can do it freehand and have some fun with it. Like I did. Give it character."

He was paid $45 for the design, and the first order was for 100 buttons. Within just a few months, they were selling by the millions. He never tried to copyright the design or expressed any regrets over not getting a cut of the profits, according to his son. "He wasn't a money-driven guy. He used to say, 'Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time.'"

Today is the birthday of novelist and television writer Earl Hamner Jr. (1923) (books by this author). He was born in Schuyler, Virginia, the first of eight kids, and money was tight. The family library contained two books: the Bible, and a manual on beekeeping. But Earl Jr., the oldest child, was writing his numbers at age two, and reading at four. His poem "My Dog" was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when he was six, and he says that's when he knew he wanted to be a writer.

His first novel, Fifty Roads to Town, was published in 1953, but it's his second, Spencer's Mountain (1961), heavily based on his own family, that he's best known for. It was made into a movie in 1971, and then became a television series, The Waltons. Hamner was the narrator for the series, which ran for nine years; the main character, John-Boy, is the oldest son, and he wants desperately to be a writer.

On this date in 1925, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" began in Dayton, Tennessee. In March of that year, the state had declared that it was unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals." The American Civil Liberties Union set out to find a teacher who would be willing to challenge the law. Eventually, they found 24-year-old high school biology teacher John T. Scopes; he hadn't actually taught evolution, but he had assigned readings on the subject while filling in as a substitute, and that was good enough. Clarence Darrow represented the defendant, and William Jennings Bryan prosecuted. Columnist H.L. Mencken covered the trial, which ran for 11 days. The judge stipulated that neither the constitutionality of the law nor the validity of the theory of evolution could be debated in the court; the only issue to be determined was whether or not Scopes had broken the law. The jury ruled that he had, and he was fined $100.

It's the birthday of Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (1931) (books by this author), born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario. Her father was a farmer who built the family house and raised foxes and mink for their pelts. She married young and had her first child when she was 21. She took writing time wherever she could find it: During her children's naptimes, and, later, when they were at school. "I used to work until maybe one o'clock in the morning and then get up at six," she told The Paris Review. "And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I'll die, this is terrible, I'll have a heart attack. I was only about 39 or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I've got that many pages written now. They can see how it's going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don't have that kind of energy now."

She often sets her stories in provincial Ontario towns. She says: "The physical setting is perhaps 'real' to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as 'scenery' but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human experience though doesn't seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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