Displaying articles for: May 2013

The Oneida Experiment

June 1: John Humphrey Noyes began the Oneida Community, one of nineteenth-century America's most enduring and controversial utopian settlements, on this day in 1847. Noyes and his followers had practiced their beliefs -- most notoriously, in a free love form of "complex marriage" -- for years in Vermont; with the authorities about to lay charges of lewd behavior, it seemed timely to move to Oneida and "commence the testimony that the Kingdom of God has come."

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Whitman's Birthday

May 31: Walt Whitman was born on this day in 1819, and on this day in 1889, his seventieth (and second-to-last) birthday, he was honored in a gala celebration. Though wheelchair-bound, he raised a glass or two as the speakers and the telegrams (from Tennyson, Twain, and many others) sang their songs of himself.

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The First Indy

May 30: The first Indy 500 race was held on this day in 1911. The $40,000 prize money and the marathon challenge attracted the top drivers of the day, and a crowd estimated at upward of 80,000 came to witness, as the Indianapolis Sun newspaper put it on race day, the "Promise of Speed and Prospect of Blood."

 

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Over the Top

May 29: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest on this day in 1953. In his memoir High Adventure, Hillary says that the accomplishment of the historic feat -- a dozen other climbs over the previous thirty years had failed -- "seemed difficult at first to grasp"; recent books on Himalayan mountaineering lament that the feat is now all too common.

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Seeking Walker Percy

May 28: Walker Percy was born on this day in 1916. Percy's books are full of seekers, the theme clear and compulsive from the first pages of his first, prizewinning novel, The Moviegoer: "Then it is that the idea of the search occurs to me," says Binx Bolling. "What is the nature of the search? you ask.… The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."

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Opening the Gate

May 27: The Golden Gate Bridge opened on this day in 1937. The 4,200-foot span across San Francisco Bay, says Kevin Starr in Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge, "announced to the world something important about the American imagination." John Bateson's The Final Leap explores the dark side of the bridge's history, its reputation as the top suicide spot on earth.

 

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Carver Country

May 25: On this day in 1938 Raymond Carver was born. Carver's poem "Luck," about a nine-year-old who wakes to an empty house and the leftovers of his parents' party, is all too autobiographical: "What luck, I thought. / Years later, / I still wanted to give up / friends, love, starry skies, / for a house where no one / was home, no one coming back, / and all I could drink."

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Brodsky the Parasite-Poet

May 24: Joseph Brodsky was born on this day in 1940 in Leningrad. Brodsky's constitutional skepticism was not compatible with the official Soviet alternatives, and by age twenty-five he was in prison, wrapped in cold, wet sheets as a cure for "having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism…except for the writing of awful poems."

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Hunting for Bonnie & Clyde

May 23: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died on this day in 1934, gunned down in a police ambush on a road in the north Louisiana woods. The Barrow Gang's crime spree was short and small time, but the young "celebrity bandits" were involved in thirteen murders, and their brazen photographs (most famously, of Bonnie the "cigar-smoking gun moll") became newsreel footage around the world.

 

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Game Time

May 22: The video game Pac-Man, featuring "the most iconic character from the golden age of arcade video games," was released on this day in 1980. Over the next decade, gamers spent over $2.5 billion in quarters on Pac-Man, making it the highest-grossing arcade video game of all time. Pac-Man is now in the Smithsonian, and the game world, say some analysts, is on a hyper-drive collision course with reality.

 

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Gypsy and the Ecdysiasts

May 21: The musical smash hit Gypsy opened on Broadway on this day in 1959. The bestseller upon which the show is based, Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir Gypsy, told her life as a rags-to-naked success story, and added to her case against H. L. Mencken, who had offered her profession a semantic makeover: "Ecdysiast, he calls me! Why, the man...has been reading books! Dictionaries! We don't wear feathers and molt them off.... What does he know about stripping?"

 

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Blue Jean Planet

May 20: Blue jeans celebrate their unofficial 140th birthday today, the dry goods merchant Levi Strauss and the tailor Jacob Davis receiving a patent on May 20, 1873 for "a new article of manufacture, a pair of pantaloons having the pocket-openings secured at each edge by means of rivets." The denim historians track the fabric back to Nîmes, France (denim = de Nîmes); anthropologists ponder how the garment became so universal and "deeply semiotic."

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The Surrealist Parade

May 18: Parade, the "first modern ballet," premiered in Paris on this day in 1917. The production was a collaboration of some of modernism's most famous -- music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Picasso, dancing by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, and program notes by Guillaume Apollinaire, these describing the event as "a kind of surrealism," the first print usage of that word.

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"The Genius They Forgot"

May 17: On this day in 1873 the innovative British novelist Dorothy Richardson was born. While Richardson may not be "the genius they forgot" (the subtitle of one biography), she was once compared to Proust and Joyce; her writing was the first to be described as "stream of consciousness"; and Virginia Woolf credited her with the invention of something that Woolf herself would go on to make famous -- "the psychological sentence of the feminine gender."

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Terkel's American Lives

May 16: Studs Terkel was born on this day in 1912. Terkel's dozen books of oral history, compiled over a half century, are regarded as essential chronicles of this American life, especially as lived by the blue-collar class into which he was born. Terkel described himself as a "neo-Cartesian" -- one who believed not only "I tape, therefore I am" but "I tape, therefore they are."

 

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Eiffel's Tower

May 15: The Eiffel Tower opened on this day in 1889. Built just a few years after New York had erected the Statue of Liberty (its internal structure also by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel), the tower was regarded by most at home as an opportunity for France to regain the world spotlight. But some thought the tower an outrage, one petition signed by Alexandre Dumas and others complaining that not even "the commercial nation of America" would want it.

 

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Thoreau's "Disobedience"

May 14: Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience was published on this day in 1849.  An anthem for the idea of principled, independent behavior, Thoreau's essay was inspired by the nation's battle over slavery and its land-grabbing war with Mexico -- or by those complicit fellow citizens who "sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say they know not what to do, and do nothing."

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The Jamestown Experiment

May 13: After months crossing the Atlantic and then weeks exploring the Virginia coast, English settlers anchored at Jamestown on this day in 1607. When the 104 colonists disembarked the next day, they established what would be the first permanent New World settlement, "rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit that would shape and define the American character."

 

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The Oldest Dated Book

May 11: The world's oldest dated book, the Diamond Sutra, was published "by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long" -- this day in 868. The Buddhist text is a meditation upon the detachment necessary for transcendent wisdom: "Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: / A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; / A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, / A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream."

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Grahame and the Open Road

May 10: On this day in 1907 Kenneth Grahame wrote the first (or the first extant) of a series of letters to his son, Alastair, describing the Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger adventures that eventually became the beloved children's classic The Wind in the Willows: "Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his…."

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Rabbits Silly and Serious

May 9: Richard Adams was born on this day in 1920, and Shel Silverstein died on this day in 1999. Silverstein's posthumously published Runny Babbit is a billy sook of Spooner-bunnies; Adams's Watership Down is a story of man-rabbit Armageddon.

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The Real Thing

May 8: The Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton sold his first drink of Coca-Cola on this day in 1886. The humble, homey origins of the world's most ubiquitous soft drink are a cornerstone of the Coca-Cola legend and marketing scheme. In For God, Country and Coca-Cola, his study of the drink and the company, Mark Pendergrast says, "There is no question that The Coca-Cola Company loves its own history," even when inaccurate.

 

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Beethoven's Ninth

May 7: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on this day in 1824, with the totally deaf composer on stage for the first time in twelve years, though only as a secondary conductor. Contemporary accounts describe Beethoven "as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus"; others remember him several measures behind, and having to be turned around to at least see the audience's cheers, many thinking to add a waved handkerchief or raised hat to their five standing ovations.

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"Our Pan Is Dead"

May 6: On this day in 1862 Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four. In his eulogy, Emerson suggested that Thoreau never lived up to his potential -- "instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party" -- but he also praised his friend as a "born protestant" with unique gifts. In her memorial poem, Louisa May Alcott lamented, "'Our Pan is dead; / His pipe hangs mute beside the river / Around it wistful sunbeams quiver, / But Music's airy voice is fled….'"

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Joyce's Wake

May 4: James Joyce's Finnegans Wake was published on this day in 1939. Joyce had hoped to have the book come out on his birthday, as Ulysses had done in 1922; this proved impossible, but one advance copy was delivered for February 2nd, and a birthday-book celebration was quickly organized. With the looming uncertainty of war, and the certainty that Joyce did not have another seventeen-year book in him, the party became something of a career celebration.

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Swimming the Hellespont

May 3: On this day in 1810 Lord Byron swam the Hellespont in emulation of Leander's legendary swims to visit his beloved Hero. Byron was twenty-two, and ten months into his two-year tour of the Mediterranean. He was not yet famous for his poetry or his profligacy, although he had just finished the first draft of Childe Harold, and had just ended, while in Malta, his first serious affair with a young woman who fit what would become the Byronic type.

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Boleyn & the Bible

May 2: Queen Anne Boleyn was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on this day in 1536, charged with adultery, incest, and witchcraft; two weeks later she was found guilty and beheaded. Among the many recent books about Boleyn are several that explore a less familiar and more influential side of her life -- her role as champion of the English Bible, the King James Version of which was published on this day in 1611.

 

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Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.