Sep. 19, 2012

Cezanne's Seclusion

by Stephen Dobyns

"I have begun to think," he wrote in a late letter,
"that one cannot help others at all." This
from a man who once called friendship the highest
virtue. And in another he wrote: "Will I ever
attain the end for which I have striven so long?"
His greatest aspiration was certainty
yet his doubts made him blame himself wrongly,
perceiving each painting a disaster. These swings
between boldness and mistrust, intimacy and isolation
led him to stay at home, keep himself concealed,
becoming a sort of hermit, whose passion for the world
directed every brushstroke, changed each creation
into an expression of tenderness, which he dismissed
writing: "a vague sense of apprehension persists."

"Cezanne's Seclusion" by Stephen Dobyns, from Body Traffic. © Penguin, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of author William Golding (books by this author), born in Newquay, Cornwall, England (1911). His first novel is also his best-known book: Lord of the Flies (1954), written while Golding was working as a schoolteacher. It was rejected 21 times before a new editor at Faber & Faber of London took a chance on it. It didn't sell well at first, but enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, and is now one of the most frequently taught (and challenged) books in schools and colleges. Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1983.

On this date in 1940, Polish soldier Witold Pilecki allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis. He was a captain in the Polish resistance, and he wanted to find out what was going on near the town of Auschwitz. His superior officers believed it was just a German camp for prisoners of war, but Pilecki suspected that something else was happening there. He hounded his commanders until they finally gave him the go-ahead to join a crowd of Polish citizens who were being rounded up by Nazi soldiers. Pilecki, who left behind a wife and two young children, was taken to Auschwitz along with the others, just as he'd planned. He was given a number — 4859 — and soon realized the true purpose of the camp.

Pilecki remained there for nearly three years, during which time he smuggled out detailed reports of the atrocities with the camp's dirty laundry. His reports of gas chambers and ovens to dispose of human remains were so horrific that no one in the Polish underground believed him. And even though his reports made their way to the British and the Americans, suggesting ways to liberate the camp, still nothing was done. Meanwhile, he did what he could to arrange escapes for his fellow inmates.

Finally, in 1943, frustrated with the lack of action, Pilecki faked a case of typhus and escaped from the hospital. After the war, the Polish underground recruited him to spy on the country's new occupiers, the Soviets. But he was captured by the Polish Communist regime and executed for espionage, in 1948. His story was suppressed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

It was on this date in 1934 that Bruno Hauptmann was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. Charles Lindbergh Jr., the 20-month-old son of the famous aviator, had been taken from his crib on the chilly, rainy evening of March 1, 1932. A ransom note was left on the radiator, and a homemade ladder was found under the second-story window of the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey. The kidnapper demanded $50,000 for the safe return of the child. Lindbergh made it clear that he didn't want the authorities involved until the boy was home safely. The public was outraged at the kidnapping, and gangster Al Capone offered $10,000 to aid in the investigation, calling the crime "the most outrageous thing I have ever heard of."

Lindbergh delivered the ransom money to the kidnapper by way of a retired principal, John Condon, who was acting as a go-between. The Internal Revenue Service had supplied Lindbergh with gold notes — bills bearing a special seal, which were to be retired shortly and would thus be easier to track. Condon handed over the money in exchange for an envelope containing directions to a 28-foot boat called Nelly, where the boy could be found.

Only the boy wasn't found, and neither was the boat. Six weeks later, a truck driver stopped to relieve himself in the woods not far from the Lindbergh home. He discovered the body of the missing toddler, shallowly buried. Coroners determined the child had been killed by a blow to the head around the time of the abduction; it's possible the kidnapper slipped going down the ladder on that rainy night.

Two years later, a gas station attendant became suspicious when a man with a German accent paid for a tank of gas using a gold note. He remarked to the customer that the notes were pretty rare nowadays, and quietly penciled the man's license plate number on the gold note. After the note and plate number turned up at the bank, the plate was traced to the Bronx home of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and two days later, police arrested him for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.

Hauptmann's arrest kicked off one of the biggest trials of the 20th century. Journalist H.L. Mencken called it "the greatest story since the Resurrection." Hauptmann maintained his innocence, but witnesses came forward saying they'd seen him near Hopewell around the time of the kidnapping, the ladder had been repaired with wood from Hauptmann's attic, and Condon's phone number was found scrawled on a closet wall in the suspect's apartment. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

In recent years, some legal experts have questioned the verdict, due to the circumstantial nature of the evidence. Hauptmann's fingerprints weren't found anywhere on the ladder or in the nursery. A journalist later claimed that he planted Condon's phone number at the apartment after Hauptmann's arrest. Hauptmann's widow, Anna, spent the rest of her life trying to have the verdict overturned, but to no avail.

Thirty years ago today, in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman first suggested the use of a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis to represent happy and sad faces. He was participating in an online forum, and he felt it was necessary to give some sign if one was joking or sarcastic. "Read it sideways," he wrote, so readers would realize it looked like a smiley face :-). We now call them "emoticons" — a combination of "emotion" and "icon" — but it would be 12 years before someone coined the term.

Fahlman was the first documented user of a modern-day emoticon, but he wasn't the first to conceive such a thing. In fact, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov himself approved of the concept in 1969. When asked in an interview for The New York Times how he would rank himself among his contemporaries, he replied, "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question."

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




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