Apr. 12, 2014

It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free

by William Wordsworth

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,
And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

"It Is a Beauteous Evening" by William Wordsworth. Public Domain. (buy now)

The Civil War began on this date in 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Abraham Lincoln's election the previous fall had signaled, for many Southerners, that the time for compromise on the slavery issue was over. As one South Carolinian wrote to a friend, "South Carolina will secede from the Union as surely as that night succeeds the day, and nothing can now prevent or delay it but a revolution at the North." Assassination plots were hatched before Lincoln took office, and when he was inaugurated in March 1861, tensions mounted even higher.

Fort Sumter was built on a man-made island in Charleston's harbor, and it was the last Charleston fort still held by Union troops. They had been facing off with South Carolina's militia since the state had seceded from the Union in December 1860. Union troops were running out of supplies and in danger of starving, so Lincoln tried to send in ships to relieve them. South Carolina viewed this as an act of aggression, and so, on April 11, they sent a delegation rowing out to the fort to politely demand that Robert Anderson, the Union officer in charge of the garrison, lead an evacuation immediately. Anderson just as politely declined, saying, "It is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligation to my Government, prevent my compliance." Commander Beauregard opened fire just after 4:30 a.m., beginning a war that would ultimately cost 620,000 American lives.

The South Carolina militia fired about 3,000 shots at the fort, all told, and the Union finally surrendered 34 hours later. The battle inspired several other Southern states, including Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, to rally behind South Carolina and secede. Confederate forces held Fort Sumter for four years, finally abandoning it when William T. Sherman captured Charleston in 1865.

It was on this day in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Inquisition, for supporting the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In late April 1633, Galileo agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to an unlimited period of house arrest in his home in Florence. He gradually went blind and died in 1641. It wasn't until 1992 that the Catholic Church formally admitted that Galileo's views on the solar system are correct.

Gustave Flaubert's first novel Madame Bovary was published on this day in 1857 (books by this author). The book was almost an instant sensation, in part because of Flaubert's new painstaking style of Realism, but also due to the sensational trial the book had already starred in. First serialized in a magazine, Madame Bovary — about a woman who has multiple affairs to stave off the boredom of her empty existence — had caught the attention of the law, who charged Flaubert, the magazine's editor, and the printer with corrupting public morals. They were all acquitted, but the publicity from the trial guaranteed that readers would flock to the book.

Flaubert himself was angered by the very idea that anyone would take issue with a single word of a book he'd labored over for five solid years, but he seemed to understand that the outcome gave him a wider audience than he might otherwise have had. On this, the book's day of publication, he inscribed a copy to his lawyer, writing, "... It is to you, above all, that I owe [this book's] publication. By its inclusion in your magnificent presentation of my case, this work of mine has acquired for me an unforeseen authority."

It was on this day in 1945 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. That evening, Harry S. Truman took the oath of office. Eleanor Roosevelt called Truman to the White House with the news of her husband's death. He asked her, "Is there anything I can do for you?" And she replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

It's the birthday of children's book author Beverly Cleary (books by this author), born in McMinnville, Oregon (1916), and raised on a farm in nearby Yamhill. She became a children's librarian in a small town in Washington State, and over the years, she noticed that many of the children complained that they couldn't find books about children like themselves. It took her a while to get started, but Cleary eventually decided to write the kind of books those kids were looking for, books about ordinary children living ordinary everyday lives, whose parents struggle to pay the bills and hang onto their jobs. Her first book was Henry Higgins (1950), and it was a huge success. One of the minor characters in that book was a girl named Ramona Quimby, the kind of girl who wipes paint on the neighbor's cat, draws pictures in library books, and locks her friend's dog in the bathroom, without ever realizing that she's bothering anybody. She went on to become the main character of Cleary's most popular series of books, including Ramona the Pest (1968), Ramona the Brave (1975), and Ramona Forever (1984).

It's the birthday of poet Gary Soto (books by this author), born in Fresno, California (1952). He worked as a farm laborer and in factories while he was in high school, and he was a terrible student, but he said that he was already "thinking like a poet." He has written more than 50 books of prose and poetry for children and adults. His New and Selected Poems (1995) was a finalist for the National Book Award. He wrote:
They say you have a tattoo of a butterfly
On your thigh, but how will I know?
That you can uncurl cigarette smoke at will,
That you can cuss in six languages,
That your last boyfriend is using a whole box
Of Kleenex to wipe away his river of tears.
These are rumors, just rumors.
But I can see.

It's the birthday of jazz musician Herbie Hancock, born in Chicago, Illinois (1940). He grew up on Chicago's South Side a quiet, bright child who was interested in science and electronics as well as music. He started playing piano when he was seven years old—and at age 11, he had already performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He skipped a grade in school, so he was always the youngest kid in every class. He said, "If I wasn't as socially 'in' or attractive as others, people accepted me anyway because I was young. So it was okay to be bumbling in a way."

Hancock originally studied engineering in college, but switched to music halfway through. He began to play with different jazz combos, and in 1963 he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. He went on to record his own albums and pioneered the fusion of jazz with funk, rock, and synthesizers on albums like Future Shock (1983).

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