Aug. 27, 2011


by Grace Paley

My father was brilliant     embarrassed     funny     handsome
my mother was plain     serious     principled     kind
my grandmother was intelligent     lonesome for her
                                 other life     her dead children     silent
my aunt was beautiful     bitter     angry     loving

I fell among these adjectives in earliest childhood
and was nearly buried with opportunity
some of them stuck to me     others
finding me American and smooth slipped away

"Family" by Grace Paley, from Begin Again: Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1859, petroleum was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It's been called "the most important oil well ever drilled" because it marked the beginning of the modern petroleum age. Petroleum had been discovered elsewhere, of course, but this was the first well successfully drilled in search of the stuff. Locals had noticed oil seeping from the ground for years; evidence even suggests that Native Americans harvested the oil for medicinal purposes as early as 1410, and European settlers had long used it to fuel their lamps and lubricate their farm machinery. A New York lawyer, George Bissell, had the idea to somehow collect the oil, refine it, and sell it commercially, and he co-founded the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company to that end.

The Drake Well was named for railroad conductor Edwin Drake, who figured out a drilling system to access and collect the oil. Within a day of striking oil, other people were copying Drake's drilling system. The Drake Well only produced about 20 barrels a day, but it transformed the quiet farming community almost overnight, attracting would-be oil company executives and coopers to make the hundreds of barrels needed to collect the crude. Until the Texas oil boom of 1901, Pennsylvania was responsible for half of the world's production of oil, and it spawned the motor oil brands Pennzoil and Quaker State. Edwin Drake never patented his drilling process, and died in poverty in 1880.

It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser (books by this author), born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He arrived in Chicago as a youth and became a newspaper reporter. As a reporter, he wrote his first novel, his great masterpiece, in just a year. Sister Carrie was about a chorus girl who becomes a success, and it came out in 1900.

Sister Carrie begins: "When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterised her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken."

On this date in 1883, the Indonesian island of Krakatau exploded after its volcano erupted. The island lies along the convergence of the Indian-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates, between the islands of Java and Sumatra, and it was formed from the cones of three dormant volcanoes, which had fused. One of the cones became active again in May 1883, producing rumbling explosions and sending ash clouds miles into the air. It settled down again by the end of May, but resumed again on June 19. On the afternoon of August 26, a series of increasingly violent explosions rocked the island, and at 10 a.m. on the 27th, a cataclysmic explosion sent ash 50 miles into the air, produced atmospheric pressure waves that were recorded around the globe for almost five days, and triggered tsunamis that killed nearly 40,000 people. The explosion was so loud that it was heard in Perth, Australia, 2,200 miles away, and it rocked buildings 500 miles away. Ash fell over a 300,000-square-mile area, and the seas were choked with floating pumice. The sky in the area was darkened for two and a half days, and fine dust drifted over the entire world. Weather patterns were disrupted for years. All that was left of the island of Krakatau was a small islet. The volcano was quiet by the next morning, and remained more or less so until 1927, when a new series of eruptions formed a new island, which is called Anak Krakatau, the Child of Krakatau.

It's the birthday of Ira Levin (books by this author), author, dramatist, and songwriter. He was born in New York City in 1929. For the first 13 years of his life, his family lived in the Bronx, but as their toy business prospered, they moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His first produced play was No Time for Sergeants (1956), which was about a Southern country boy in the U.S. Marines. Many of his novels were made into movies, sometimes multiple times, including A Kiss Before Dying (1953); The Stepford Wives (1972); The Boys from Brazil (1976); and his best known, Rosemary's Baby (1967). His play Deathtrap (1978) ran for nearly 1,800 performances on Broadway. His works were never held up as masterpieces of literary fiction, but they provided a good thrill, and sometimes a chill, and inspired the likes of Stephen King, who once called him "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels," and added, "He makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores."

Today is the birthday of Anglo-Irish author Lady Antonia Fraser (books by this author), born Antonia Pakenham in 1932. She's written several books of nonfiction, including biographies of Oliver Cromwell (1973), Marie Antoinette (2001), and Mary, Queen of Scots (1969). She's also written a series of detective novels featuring the character Jemima Shore.

She married Sir Hugh Fraser, a conservative MP in the House of Commons, in 1956. In 1975, she began an affair with the also-married playwright Harold Pinter; two years later, Fraser's marriage ended, and Pinter finally obtained a divorce from his wife in 1980, and the two were married. She wrote a memoir about their lives together, Must You Go?, after Pinter's death in 2008; in it, she wrote of their relationship: "I always wanted to be in love. Ever since I was a little girl. And I always wanted to know a genius, which I suppose Harold sort of is, but that did not lure me to him in the first place. I was lured, compelled by a superior force, something drawn out of me by him, which was simply irresistible."

It's the birthday of philosopher Georg Hegel (books by this author), born in Stuttgart (1770). He started out as a theologian, particularly interested in how Christianity is a religion based on opposites: sin and salvation, earth and heaven, finite and infinite. He believed that Jesus had emphasized love as the chief virtue because love can bring about the marriage of opposites. Hegel eventually went beyond theology and began to argue that the subject of philosophy is reality, and he hoped to describe how and why human beings create communities and governments, make war, destroy each other's societies, and then build themselves up to do it all over again.

He came up with the concept of Dialectic, the idea that all human progress is driven by the conflict between opposites, that each political movement is imperfect and so gives rise to a counter movement which takes control — which is also imperfect — and gives rise to yet another counter movement, and so on to infinity. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx argued that the most important dialectic of history was between worker and master, rich and poor, and their ideas lead to the birth of Communism.

Hegel wrote, "Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights." And, "We do not need to be shoemakers to know if our shoes fit, and just as little have we any need to be professionals to acquire knowledge of matters of universal interest."

It's the birthday of Cecil Scott, or C.S. Forester (books by this author), born in Cairo (1899) to British parents. He created the character Horatio Hornblower, an English naval officer who is heroic but also introverted, suffers from seasickness, is a fanatic about efficiency and discipline, and hates the poetry of Wordsworth. He also wrote The African Queen (1935), which was made into a movie in 1951 by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. In it, Forester wrote, "When a man who is drinking neat gin starts talking about his mother he is past all argument."

He also wrote, "A man who writes for a living does not have to go anywhere in particular, and he could rarely afford to if he wanted." And, "When I die there may be a paragraph or two in the newspapers. My name will linger in the British Museum Reading Room catalogue for a space at the head of a long list of books for which no one will ever ask."

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