Thursday Jan. 19, 2017

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To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfum’d sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The agate lamp within thy hand,
Ah! Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land!

“To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain.  (buy now)

Snow fell in Florida on this date in 1977. Two fast-moving arctic fronts slammed into Florida, and meteorologists braced themselves to deliver the unlikely forecast: a chance of snow. The flakes first started falling in the predawn hours and continued throughout the morning. Schoolchildren raced out of their classrooms to try and catch the flakes on their tongues. Radio stations played “White Christmas,” even though the holiday had passed almost a month earlier. And 150,000 migrant farm workers lost their jobs statewide as the frigid temperatures decimated citrus and vegetable crops.

Miami only got a trace of snow, so it didn’t get recorded in the record books, but Tampa recorded over two tenths of an inch, effectively bringing the city to a standstill.

It’s the birthday of James Watt, born in Greenock, Scotland (1736). There were steam engines before Watt became interested in them, but they couldn’t do much real work; too much steam was lost when it condensed inside the chamber as it cooled, and the engines used too much coal to be worthwhile. Watt became obsessed with the problem, and spent two years making little model steam engines, one after another. He went through all his money, and his wife died; finally, he had to give up the project and go back to work to recover his fortune. “Of all things in life,” he wrote, “there is nothing more foolish than inventing.” Soon a mine owner who hoped to pump water out of his mines offered to buy out Watt’s partner. Watt advised his partner to accept the cash: “Consider my uncertain health, my irresolute and inactive disposition, my inability to bargain and struggle for my own with mankind: all which disqualify me for any great undertaking.” His sponsor did sell, but the mine owner asked Watt to work on the engine again; six years later he had solved the condensation problem, and by the time he died, his name was known all over the country.

Today is the birthday of Dolly Parton, born in Sevier County, Tennessee (1946). She was one of 12 kids, born and raised in a little cabin in the Smoky Mountains. She grew up “dirt poor,” in her words, and her father paid the doctor who delivered Dolly with a bag of oatmeal. One day, when she was about eight or nine years old, her ambition kicked in. “I didn’t hear a voice, but it was a knowing that came to me,” she remembered, “and it said, ‘Run. Run until I tell you to stop.’” She first started performing professionally when she was 10, and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry when she was 13. The day after she graduated from high school, she went off to Nashville. She had her first number one hit with “Joshua” in 1971.

Parton has never forgotten the poor people in the region where she grew up. Her theme park, Dollywood, is now the largest employer in Sevier County. She formed the Imagination Library, which sends a free book every month to every kid under the age of five. She’s donated money to hospitals and provided schools with much-needed technology. And after a wildfire devastated the region in late 2016, she hosted a telethon that raised 9 million dollars, which she used to financially support families who lost their homes in the fire. The My People fund will give each family a thousand dollars a month for the next six months.

It’s the birthday of Patricia Highsmith (books by this author), born in Fort Worth, Texas (1921). She wrote suspense novels in which unspeakable crimes often turned out to have been committed by unexpectedly mild-mannered people. Although Alfred Hitchcock filmed her first novel, Strangers on a Train, Hollywood wasn’t interested in any of the others; they were too morally ambiguous. Many of the characters were homosexual; good characters weren’t necessarily rewarded, and murderers weren’t necessarily punished. Her work sold much better in Europe, and she spent most of the rest of her life there, living as a semi-recluse with a menagerie of cats and dogs. Finally, after her death in 1995, her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was made into a film, 45 years after its original publication. She said she liked writing suspense because the genre was inherently lively, and the writer didn’t have to provide constant action. In fact, she said, “I think most of Dostoyevsky’s books would be called suspense books, were they being published today for the first time. But he would be asked to cut, because of production costs.”

It’s the birthday of the writer called “The Father of the Detective Story”: Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) was born on this day in Boston (1809). Poe’s birth parents were traveling actors employed by Mr. Placide’s Theatre Company in Boston. They were in Richmond, Virginia, when his mother died of tuberculosis (1811). Poe and his sister were given to separate Richmond families. Poe went with a wealthy, but strict and frugal, tobacco merchant named John Allan. That’s where the “Allan” in Poe’s name comes from.

Poe was a leisurely boy with a dark streak, which angered his adoptive father. He liked to write poetry on the backs of John Allan’s business ledger papers. They lived in a fine house in Richmond called Moldavia that featured a double portico. Jane Stith Craig Stanard, the mother of one of his school friends, encouraged Poe’s early literary efforts. He later wrote a poem called “To Helen” in her honor.

Poe went to the University of Virginia but left after accumulating gambling debts and quarreling with John Allan. He went to West Point, where he may have gotten himself deliberately expelled by appearing nude at drill, but no one knows for sure. In Boston, he published his first book of poetry at 18 years old. It was called Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) and only 50 copies were printed. In 2009, one of the remaining 12 copies was sold at the Smithsonian for more than a half million dollars.

Edgar Allan Poe worked as a literary magazine editor, reporter, and critic. He became a household name after The Raven was published, traveling widely and reading the poem to wealthy women in dimly lit parlors. He died a few days after being found penniless, incoherent, and alcoholic on the streets of Baltimore. Some say his last words were, “Lord help my poor soul.”

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