May 18, 2014

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander' d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman. Public Domain. (buy now)

Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president on this day in 1860. The Republican National Convention was held in Chicago that year; it was only the second national nominating convention for the fledgling party. The lanky Kentucky-born lawyer had gained national attention for his debates on slavery with Illinois senator Stephen Douglas two years before. Douglas, a Democrat, had argued that the question of slavery was best left to the individual states to decide, while Lincoln — formerly a Whig — had argued to curb the expansion of slavery. This ended up being one of the more moderate positions among the contenders for the Republican nomination. Two of his rivals — William Seward and Edward Bates — supported the complete eradication of the practice of slavery nationwide. Delegates knew they would have to win voters from the West and South to win the presidential race, so Lincoln was their choice. After his election, every one of his rivals ended up a member of his Cabinet.

It was a speech that Lincoln gave in New York City just three months before the convention that won over skeptical Easterners. Some 1,500 curious New Yorkers crowded into Cooper Union in the East Village to hear what Lincoln had to say. Most of them doubted that this uneducated Westerner had what it took to lead a nation in crisis. One eyewitness reported that he was appalled at how tall, awkward, and ungainly Lincoln was. Once the presidential hopeful began to speak, however, "his face lighted up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling [and] cheering for this wonderful man."

It is the birthday of British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (books by this author), born in Ravenscroft, Monmouthshire (1872). He wrote Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), A History of Western Philosophy (1945), and The Principles of Mathematics (1903). He won the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature. He is one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

It is the birthday of comedy writer and actress Tina Fey (books by this author), born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (1970). Her mother, Jeanne, worked in a brokerage firm and her father, Donald, was a university grant proposal writer. She has one older brother, named Peter.

She was a high school honor student, a member of the drama club, and she performed in a summer theater group. She enrolled at the University of Virginia, where she studied playwriting and acting, and after graduation in 1992, she moved to Chicago, where she took night classes at the improv training center The Second City, while working at a YMCA during the day. In 1994, she began performing with The Second City, traveling around the country and doing eight shows a week for two years. Three years later, she was hired as a sketch writer for Saturday Night Live and she quickly rose to head writer.

A while later, producer Lorne Michaels approached Fey to appear on SNL's weekend edition alongside comedian Jimmy Fallon. Her performance was well received. A longtime glasses-wearer, she had wanted to wear contacts on camera, but when someone commented on how great her glasses looked during a run through, she wore them instead. They became part of her signature look — and, as it would happen, enhanced her resemblance to the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. She played Palin in a series of sketches during the run-up to the 2008 election.

Fey also wrote, produced, and starred as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, a comedy she created in 2006, based on her experiences as head comedy writer at SNL. Her memoir Bossypants (2011) quickly went to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

In response to people who claim that women are not funny, she said: "My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."

It's the birthday of film producer, director, and three-time Academy Award winner Frank Capra, born in Bisacquino, Sicily (1897). He moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was a young boy, and he worked odd jobs until he finally landed work at Columbia studios. In 1928, he signed a contract with the studio and began making his signature films, which include It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Capra said, "I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show