Tuesday Dec. 16, 2014

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In Manhattan, I learned a public kindness
   was a triumph
over the push of money, the constrictions

of fear. If it occurred it came
   from some deep
primal memory, almost entirely lost—

Here, let me help you, then you me,
   otherwise we’ll die.
Which is why I love the weather

in Minnesota, every winter kindness
to obvious self-interest,

thus so many kindnesses
   when you need them;
praise blizzards, praise the cold.

"Kindness" by Stephen Dunn, from New and Selected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Seventy years ago today, in 1944, the Battle of the Bulge began. It took place in the Ardennes forest, a snowy mountainous region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, and lasted for more than a month. It was the last major German offensive, and it was the bloodiest battle of World War II for Americans troops. While estimates about the number of American casualties differ, the U.S. Defense Department lists 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 missing.

It was on this date in 1811 that two mega-earthquakes struck the Louisiana Territory. They were the first two in a series of four quakes that rocked the New Madrid fault line. The epicenter was in what is now southeastern Arkansas, and the quakes’ effects were felt over an area of a million square miles. Eyewitnesses reported that the Mississippi River appeared to reverse its course, the soil liquefied, and plumes of sulfurous gas shot up from the ground. The midnight quakes reportedly woke people in Pittsburgh, rang church bells in Boston, and toppled chimneys in Maine. The New Madrid earthquakes remain the most severe quakes ever to strike the Eastern United States, at a magnitude of about 8.0 on the Richter scale. The zone is still active, and some seismologists believe that the region is overdue for a repeat performance.

Although no official birth date has been recorded, it’s traditionally believed that Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this date in 1770. He started out life in Bonn, Germany, born into a family of court musicians. Beethoven’s father, mindful of the stories of the child prodigy Mozart, pushed a rigorous but disorganized musical education on his talented son. It wasn’t until the boy was 12 that he found a teacher that really proved valuable, and by the time he was 16, he had established a good professional reputation in Bonn. But he was feeling frustrated with the city’s limitations, and he left for Vienna to meet Mozart, who was preoccupied at that time with composing Don Giovanni, but Beethoven made an impression on him nonetheless. Mozart said: “Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.” He took the 16-year-old Beethoven on as a pupil. But the death of Beethoven’s mother, and problems with his father’s increasingly erratic behavior, brought the young man home to Bonn once more. By the time he was able to return to Vienna, Mozart had died, and Beethoven began studying with Franz Joseph Haydn.

In 1801, Beethoven wrote in a letter to a friend: “Your Beethoven is most wretched. The noblest part of my existence, my sense of hearing, is very weak.” He had been noticing symptoms for several years and tried a variety of medical treatments, but they didn’t help. His deafness didn’t seem to affect his music, or his success; he composed at a furious pace and performed piano concerts throughout Europe for several more years, until he became almost totally deaf in 1814. But as his hearing deteriorated, he also started suffering headaches and other health problems.

Beethoven died in 1827; the cause of his death was not determined, but he’d been bedridden for several months, and his autopsy showed severe liver damage. Schools were closed on the day of his funeral, and 30,000 people followed his casket through the streets of Vienna.

It’s the birthday of British author V.S. (for Victor Sawdon) Pritchett (books by this author), born in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, in 1900. Although he wrote five novels, he didn’t enjoy doing so; he preferred writing short stories, and that’s what he’s usually remembered for. He told The Paris Review: “I think I really wanted to be a short-story writer because I thought I was a man of short breath. I haven’t got the breath to write novels.” He also wrote travel essays and biographies, and was a regular contributor The New Statesman, where he eventually became literary editor.

And today is the birthday of Jane Austen (books by this author), born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). Our knowledge of her personal life is incomplete, since her sister, Cassandra, burned or heavily edited much of Austen’s correspondence after the author’s death at the age of 41. Austen was the seventh of eight children, and only the second daughter. Her mother wrote lighthearted verse for the family’s amusement, and her father, a clergyman, encouraged Austen’s writerly aspirations when it became apparent that she probably wouldn’t marry. He saw to it that she had a writing desk and plenty of paper. Austen’s brother Henry first approached publishers on her behalf, and managed to secure a deal for her novel Susan in 1803; the publisher never did publish the book, and Austen tried to buy back the rights in 1805. Unfortunately, because of her father’s sudden death and the family’s insecure financial position, she couldn’t afford the price the publisher set. Her first published work was Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. She was widely read in her lifetime, but published all her books as “A Lady,” rather than giving her name. Her health began to decline in 1816, and she died in 1817, possibly of Addison’s disease, lymphoma, or — as has recently been suggested — arsenic poisoning.

When her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh published a memoir of his aunt in 1870, a cult began to grow up around the author; other writers have had plenty to say about her. Virginia Woolf called her “the most perfect artist among women,” and imagined calling on Austen and finding “a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.”

Mark Twain had the opposite reaction, however: “I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

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