Wednesday Nov. 5, 2014

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November Fifth, Riverside Drive

The sky a shock, the ginkgoes yellow fever,
I wear the day out walking. November, and still
light stuns the big bay windows on West End
Avenue, the park brims over with light like a bowl
and on the river
a sailboat quivers like a white leaf in the wind.

How like an eighteenth-century painting, this
year ‘s decorous decline: the sun
still warms the aging marble porticos
and scrolled pavilions past which an old man,
black-coated apparition of Voltaire,
flaps on his constitutional. “Clear air,
clear mind” -as if he could outpace
darkness scything home like a flock of crows.

"November Fifth, Riverside Drive" by Katha Pollitt, from Antarctic Traveller. © Knopf, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. All across Britain, people light bonfires to remember this day in 1605, when King James I broke up the Gunpowder Plot. Catholics were persecuted under the reign of King James, so a group of Catholics hatched a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the king so that they could install a Catholic head of state. They managed to stash 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar underneath the House of Lords. On the evening of November 5th, one of the men, Guy Fawkes, was alone guarding the gunpowder when the king's authorities stormed in and arrested him. They had been tipped off by an anonymous letter. Fawkes was tortured and eventually executed along with some of his co-conspirators.

On the night that Guy Fawkes was arrested, King James encouraged his subjects to light bonfires as a "testimony of joy" in celebration of his survival — as long as the bonfires were kept under control. Bonfires quickly lit up the night; one citizen, who lived near St. Paul's Cathedral in London, wrote that there was "great ringing and as great store of bonfires as ever I thincke was seene." The celebration became an annual event, with a spectacular display of bonfires and fireworks, but it also became an excuse for anti-Catholic demonstrations. Figures of Guy Fawkes were burned in effigy, as were other unpopular figures, especially the pope.

The English nursery rhyme "The Fifth of November" begins: "Remember, remember! / The fifth of November, / The Gunpowder treason and plot; / I know of no reason / Why the Gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot!" and continues with lines like: "A rope, a rope, to hang the pope, / A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, / A pint of beer to wash it down, / And a jolly good fire to burn him."

On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis (books by this author) to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Lewis thought it was a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke: Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He wasn't sure he deserved it and told a friend at the time, "This is the end of me ... I cannot live up to it." He used his Nobel lecture to talk about all the other writers that might have been chosen: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Willa Cather; and he ended the lecture by mentioning the younger writers he considered the future of American literature, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, each of whom had just published his first few books. Lewis said, "Young Americans ... are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them."

It's the birthday of one of the original muckrakers, Ida Tarbell (books by this author), born in Hatch Hallow, Pennsylvania (1857), who was working for McClure's Magazine when she was assigned to write an exposé about John D. Rockefeller's company Standard Oil. It just so happened that Ida Tarbell's father had owned an oil refinery, and he'd nearly been driven out of business by Standard Oil — Ida had grown up listening to her father complain about Standard Oil. So she spent the next two years investigating, and her friend Mark Twain put her in touch with a company insider named Henry Rogers, who gave her evidence that Standard Oil was colluding with railroad companies to drive smaller refineries out of business. After her articles were collected into the book The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), the federal government began an antitrust prosecution, and the breakup of the company was finally decided by the Supreme Court on May 15, 1911. It was the first time that a journalist had ever brought down a major American corporation.

It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant (books by this author), born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885), who, with his wife as researcher, wrote an 11-volume history of the human race, aimed at the general reader, called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). The books got terrible reviews from academic historians, but they were best-sellers, and the 10th volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The complete set was offered for sale by the Book of the Month Club for $29.95, or about one penny for every 1,500 words, and it sold more than 500,000 copies.

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