Sep. 18, 2011

Sunday at the End of Summer

by Howard Nemerov

Last night the cold wind and the rain blew
Hard from the west, all night, until the creek
Flooded, tearing the end of a wooden bridge
Down to hang, trembling, in the violent water.

This morning, with the weather still in rage,
I watched workmen already at repairs.
Some hundred of us came around to watch,
With collars turned against the rain and wind.

Down the wild water, where men stood to the knees,
We saw come flooding hollyhock and vine,
Sunflowers tall and broken, thorny bramble
And pale lilies cracked along the stalk.

Ours was the Sunday's perfect idleness
To watch those others working; who fought, swore,
Being threshed at hip and thigh, against that trash

Of pale wild flowers and their drifting legs.

"Sunday at the End of Summer" by Howard Nemerov, from New and Selected Poems. © The University of Chicago Press, 1960. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson(1709) (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England. He was a sickly boy, and had been since the day he was born — "almost dead," he said. He contracted the lymphatic form of tuberculosis, called scrofula, when he was two, and because it was popularly believed that the touch of royalty could cure scrofula, he was taken to the queen. She touched him and gave him a gold medallion, which he kept for the rest of his life. Her touch didn't cure him, and neither did various disfiguring treatments that left him scarred. But he grew up strong and tall, and enjoyed walking, swimming, and riding. He was also very intelligent, very proud, and somewhat lazy.

In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He set out to find an intelligent wife, since he was convinced that his parents' marriage had been unhappy because of his mother's lack of education. Around this time, he also started writing. He published some essays early in the 1730s, and began a play, the historical tragedy Irene. In 1738, he became associated with the first modern magazine — called The Gentleman's Magazine — and contributed poems and prose. The 1750s were his most productive period. Not only did he write more than 200 essays for the twice-weekly newspaper The Rambler, but he was also at work on a monumental undertaking: a dictionary of the English language. The dictionary took him nine years to write, and he wrote the Rambler essays because they gave him a steady income; even though money was his chief incentive, he was still quite proud of those essays. "My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine."

The dictionary was finally published in two volumes in 1755. Johnson's patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, had pretty much ignored Johnson and his project for several years; as a result, the dictionary entry for "patron" reads: "one who countenances, supports, and protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery."

In 1763, Johnson met young James Boswell, who was 22. They didn't get on terribly well at first, but they grew to be friends. Boswell kept remarkably detailed diaries, and he later wrote a comprehensive biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Boswell's scrupulous descriptions of Johnson's mannerisms led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome; his transcriptions of Johnson's many aphorisms made Johnson one of the most-quoted authors in the English language. Johnson said, as quoted by Boswell: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."

Today is the birthday of Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault (1819) (books by this author), born in Paris. He was trained in medicine, but became interested in physics. He developed a method for measuring the speed of light and discovered that light travels more slowly through water than it does through the air. He also invented a gyroscope. But he's best known for the pendulum that bears his name. He assembled it in 1851, a 62-pound iron ball swinging from a wire 220 feet long. He suspended it inside the dome of the Panthéon in Paris. He used it to prove that the Earth rotates on its axis. Once the pendulum is set in motion, it always swings along the same axis, but its position changes relative to the position of the Earth. As the Earth rotates counterclockwise, the pendulum appears to move in a clockwise direction. His pendulum caused a sensation among scientists and laypeople alike, and soon cities throughout Europe and America had suspended their own versions. You can still see them today in many science museums; sometimes a ring of dominoes is set up around the perimeter of the circle so you can see them being knocked down as the world turns.

Today is the birthday of the second-oldest paper in New York City: The New-York Daily Times was first published on this date in 1851. The paper would eventually drop the "Daily" and become known as The New York Times. It was founded by Henry J. Raymond and his partner George Jones. It was revenge that Raymond was after. He'd spent 10 years working for Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, but Greeley fired him when he caught a fever. Eventually, Raymond's paper would put Greeley's out of business, but not in Raymond's lifetime.

It was a penny paper, and it wasn't the only one: Dozens of papers were competing for readers in a city where a large percentage of the population was either uneducated or newly arrived in America. Raymond and Jones decided to set their paper apart by appealing directly to intellectuals, avoiding sensationalism, and not allying themselves to any political party or agenda. They built up a decent readership, but were losing $1,000 a week when Adolph Ochs bought it in 1896. He made some changes, dropping the price back down to a penny, adding a Sunday magazine, and eliminating the fiction section. He also gave it a slogan: "All the News That's Fit to Print." The paper maintains its conservative style. Nicknamed "the Gray Lady," it was one of the last papers to run color photographs. It also lends its name to one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the Big Apple: Times Square. The former Longacre Square was renamed in 1904 when the paper moved its headquarters there.

Today is the birthday of journalist and nonfiction author Chris Hedges (1956) (books by this author). He was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and grew up in upstate New York. His father was a Presbyterian minister and vocal advocate of the civil and gay rights movements, and an opponent of the Vietnam War.

Hedges studied English literature at Colgate University, and then went on to get a Master of Divinity from Harvard. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in war zones: the Middle East, the Balkans, Central America, and Africa. He started his career reporting from El Salvador. In his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003), he wrote, "War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning. It creates a feeling of comradeship that obliterates our alienation and makes us feel, for perhaps the first time in our lives, that we belong." After his father died, he resigned from The New York Times after 15 years because he had been officially reprimanded for denouncing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "I could comply with the paper's demand and pay fealty to my career," he wrote, "but to do so would mean betraying my Dad. This betrayal was something I could not do." His latest book is The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (2011).

It's the birthday of playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith (1950) (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland. She came from a middle-class African-American family; her dad ran a coffee and tea business, and her mom was a public school teacher.

After college, she headed out to San Francisco with a suitcase and $85, and she decided to take acting classes. Anna Deavere Smith has devoted most of her career to one-woman shows in which she chooses a particular experience in contemporary America, does extensive interviews with people about the experience, and then embodies each of her characters exactly as they speak, taking on their language, voices, and mannerisms. The New York Times wrote of her performances, "the ultimate impressionist, she does people's souls."

Her plays include Fires in the Mirror (1992), about the riots in Crown Heights between Jewish and African-American people there in 1991, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), about the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. She's currently on the road with her latest show, Let Me Down Easy, a collection of stories about illness, death, and dying.

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