Oct. 8, 2012

Columbus sailed the ocean blue...

by Ramon Montaigne

Columbus sailed the ocean blue
Back in 1492.
He sailed across and spotted land,
A beach, and people on the sand.

He called them Indians because
He had no idea where he was,
India was just a guess.
When in doubt, declare success.

"Columbus sailed the ocean blue..." by Ramon Montaigne. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after 10 weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña. Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba, he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan. Legend has it that only Columbus believed the earth was round, but that's not true; most educated Europeans at the time knew the earth wasn't flat. However, the Ottoman Empire had cut off land and sea routes to the islands of Asia. Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime. And over the next century, his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

It's the birthday of the British novelist, essayist, poet, philosopher, and orator John Cowper Powys (books by this author), born in Derbyshire England (1872). In 1930, he retired to upstate New York and turned to full-time writing: It was here that he produced such masterpieces as Weymouth Sands and his autobiography, A Glastonbury Romance. He returned to Great Britain in 1934, settling in North Wales in 1935, where he wrote the historical novels Owen Glendower and Porius, the critical studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky, and The Brazen Head and other inventive fantasies. Powys was at heart a luddite, for whom virtually every modern invention was anathema. He never drove a car and never used a typewriter. He thought television was pernicious. He didn't like talking on the telephone, because he didn't want his words violated by a tangle of wires.

Powys said: "A great modern novel consists of and ought to include just everything."

Today is the birthday of poet Philip Booth (books by this author), born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1925. He went to college at Dartmouth, where he met and became a protégé of Robert Frost. His poetry is rooted in the Maine coast, where he grew up and where his ancestors lived for hundreds of years before him. "Almost all my mother's ancestors — my grandparents, great-grand-parents, great-great, and so on — are buried in the cemetery here," he said in an interview with The American Poetry Review. "In the November of the year, I often go and look at their graves and see their names and the years carved on them. It gives me a very pleasant and not at all morbid sense of the relations, the relationships, that one has with a place."

It's the birthday of the comic book writer and essayist Harvey Pekar (books by this author), born in Cleveland, Ohio (1939). He is the creator of American Splendor, one of the first-ever autobiographical comic book series, which was eventually made into a movie starring Paul Giamatti.

His parents were Jewish immigrants. His father was a Talmudic scholar who supported the family by working as a grocer. Pekar was a smart kid, but he dropped out of community college and got a job as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital. He spent his free time reading literature and collecting jazz records. He owned about 15,000 records at the height of his collecting obsession.

It was through record collecting that Pekar became friends with the legendary comic book artist Robert Crumb. One day, while discussing the future of comics as an art form, Pekar complained to Crumb that comic books were all about superheroes or monsters. Even the new alternative comics, geared toward adults, tended to be about sex maniacs and drug addicts. Nobody wrote comic books about real people and their ordinary struggles. After that conversation, Pekar decided to write a comic book about his own life.

Pekar spent the next few weeks writing about his daily difficulties at the supermarket, his interactions with his co-workers, his ordeals with lost keys, and his dating life. Since he couldn't draw anything other than stick figures, he let Robert Crumb illustrate.

The first issue of American Splendor came out in 1976, and Pekar continued publishing a new issue every summer, each one illustrated by a variety of different artists. He printed 10,000 copies of each new issue himself and distributed it to independent bookstores and comic book shops across the country. After 15 years, he was picked up by a publishing house.

Pekar wrote about nearly every important aspect of his life: his job, his friends, meeting his wife, marrying her, their struggles as a couple, buying their first house, and going through his cancer treatment. His work inspired a whole generation of artists to write autobiographical and realist comic books. An anthology of his work was published last year as American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.

When asked why he wanted to turn his life into a comic book, Harvey Pekar said, "I wanted to write literature that pushed people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them."

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




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