Sunday May 24, 2015

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On This Date

On this date many things happened.
Governments were heaved into being, creeds
were repeated, maps and speeches given and believed.

There was quiet on this date. A little boy lived.
There was sleep, and one birdcall stitched all the way through.

On this date there was longing. Someone walked
through a room. One hand brushed loose crumbs into the other.
The earth received them out the side door on this date, on this day.

“On This Date” by Annie Lighthart from Iron String. © Airlie Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1626, Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Indians. He paid them in useful goods like cloth, kettles, axe heads, and drilling awls — not trinkets, as the legend goes — worth 60 silver Dutch guilders. Was it the deal of a lifetime? It depends on how you calculate the value of a guilder by today's standards. In the 19th century, a historian reckoned the purchase price to be about $24, and that's the story that school kids still receive. If you calculate according to the actual weight of the silver, it worked out to around $72 in 1992 dollars. According to the Institute for Social History of Amsterdam, 60 guilders in 1626 was equivalent to about $1,000 today. Given the price of New York real estate nowadays, that's about a 17-billion-percent increase. It's not the best bargain in U.S. history though; the Louisiana Purchase just beats it out. At a purchase price of five cents an acre, the Louisiana territory has appreciated at 5.5 percent per year, compared to Manhattan's 5.3 percent.

The book New York City: a Short History (George Lankevich, 1998) maintains that Minuit bought the island from the Canarsie, not the Lenape, Indians. Like millions today, the Canarsies didn't live in Manhattan; they just worked there, commuting from their Long Island home. Because they sold territory that wasn't really theirs to sell, the island had to be purchased again later from its rightful owners.

It's the birthday of novelist Michael Chabon (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1963). He loved comics as a kid, and wrote his own. When he was 10 years old, he wrote his first short story starring Sherlock Holmes.

He went to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, and he wrote a novel as his thesis. One of his professors sent the novel off to an agent, and Chabon got a big advance. That novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), was a best-seller, but soon afterward his career stalled. He spent five years working on a novel that just kept getting longer. He finally gave up completely and started a new project. In just seven months, Chabon had completed Wonder Boys (1995), which became another best-seller.

Criticized by one reviewer for not being ambitious enough, Chabon decided he needed to go in a new direction. About that time, he said: "I found one remaining box of comics which I had saved and I'd been dragging with me for 15 years. When I opened it up and that smell came pouring out [...] I was struck by [...] a sense of my childhood self that seemed to be contained in there." Soon he wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), an epic story about 1940s comic book creators. The novel moves from the ghetto of Nazi-occupied Prague to the bohemian nightlife of New York City.

It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky (books by this author), born in Leningrad (1940). His father was a professional photographer, but since the family was Jewish, he was often denied work. As a young boy, Brodsky lived through the Siege of Leningrad, and as he grew up, it was clear that the city had not recovered — that "the suffering and poverty were visible all around."

Brodsky dropped out of school when he was 15, and he worked in a morgue, a ship's boiler room, and a lighthouse. He said: "I was a normal Soviet boy [...] But something turned me upside down: [Dostoevsky's] Notes from the Underground." By the time he was 18, he was publishing poems, and was mentored by the poet Anna Akhmatova.

When he was 23, he was charged with "malicious parasitism" and arrested by the KGB. He testified in court, and his testimony was copied down and smuggled out of Russia. When the judge asked Brodsky, "Who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?" he responded: "No one. Who assigned me to the human race?" He was sentenced to five years in a Siberian labor camp, but his testimony only made him more famous.

After 18 months of hard labor, he was released and went back to Leningrad, spending the next few years trying to make a living as a poet, but everything he did angered the authorities. In 1972, when Brodsky was 32 years old, the KGB showed up and put him on a plane to Vienna. There he was taken in by Carl Proffer, an American professor of Russian literature. Proffer introduced Brodsky to W.H. Auden, who was the young poet's hero.

Auden took a liking to him and helped secure Brodsky residency in the United States, where he was quickly offered teaching positions. In 1987, Brodsky won the Nobel Prize in literature. When he learned that he had won the prize, he said, "A big step for me, and a small step for mankind."

His books include Selected Poems (1973), A Part of Speech (1979), and To Urania (1988).

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