Monday Mar. 30, 2015

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Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”

“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”

The conversation became general.
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
                                          In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.

“Chocolates” by Louis Simpson from Collected Poems. © Paragon House, 1988. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). He's the painter of sunflowers and starry nights whose work was just beginning to be acknowledged when he committed suicide at the age of 37. His brother Theo was an art dealer, and for years he had supplied Van Gogh with a small monthly stipend; in return, Van Gogh gave his brother every canvas he painted. He wrote thousands of letters to Theo. In one letter he wrote: "How much sadness there is in life. The right thing is to work." He moved to a small town north of Paris and painted feverishly until insanity overtook him. Two days before he died, he wrote: "I feel a failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned — I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Black Beauty (1877), Anna Sewell (books by this author), born in Yarmouth, England (1820). When she was 14 years old, she fell while running and injured her ankles so badly that she had trouble walking for the rest of her life. She became dependent on horses for transportation, and drove her father to and from work every day on the family's horse-drawn carriage.

She didn't start writing Black Beauty until the final years of her life, when she was confined to her house because of her ankle injuries. Black Beauty is subtitled "The autobiography of a horse, Translated from the original equine." It's narrated by the horse himself, who was based on one of the horses Anna grew up with. The novel is full of detailed passages about how to care for horses, and it was largely thanks to Sewell that several laws against the mistreatment of horses were established in England.

On this day in 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million dollars. It had belonged to Russia for about 125 years, since Russians had been the first European explorers to get to the place and had proclaimed it their territory in 1741.

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and a couple of years later, on this day in 1867, the deal to buy Alaska was negotiated and signed by President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, William Seward. He announced that someday this big chunk of land would be a U.S. state. The American public by and large was not sold on the purchase of frozen tundra. People thought it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a faraway place, which they alternately referred to as Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden" and "Seward's Icebox." In fact, the purchase became commonly known as "Seward's Folly."

But then gold was discovered there in the 1890s and the Klondike Gold Rush followed, with tens of thousands of people heading north to try to strike it rich. They settled in as fishers and miners and trappers and producers of minerals, and Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912. It became the 49th state of the union, the largest one (consisting of 663,268 square miles) and also the least densely populated state. In 1968, oil was discovered at the far northern part of the state, at Prudhoe Bay. A pipeline was built and began to pump oil in 1977, and now the area near Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in the U.S.

It's the birthday of playwright Sean O'Casey (books by this author), born John Casey in Dublin, in 1880. Although he grew to have a reputation as a "slum dramatist," O'Casey was born into a middle-, not working-, class Protestant family. His father died when he was six, however, and money troubles soon followed as his large family moved from tenement to tenement. As a child, he had an eye condition that interfered with his vision, and so he wasn't able to get a formal education for several years, but eventually he taught himself to read by the age of 13. At 14, he left school and went to work, taking jobs as a newspaper delivery boy and a railwayman. In the early 1900s, he became involved in the growing Irish nationalism movement; in 1906, he joined the Gaelic League, learned to speak Irish, and changed his name to Sean O'Casey.

Though he'd put on plays with his brother in their family home since childhood, he wasn't moved to write in any organized way until 1917, when his friend Thomas Ashe died during a hunger strike. O'Casey wrote two laments for his friend, one in prose and one in verse, but then turned his attention to writing for the stage. He was the first Irish playwright to put the lives of the working class in a central role. He produced his three most famous and influential plays, known as his "Dublin Trilogy," over a brief span of time in the 1920s: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926). They all portray the effects of war and revolution on the city's working class and its slums, and cast a jaundiced eye at the Irish nationalism movement's leaders, refusing to romanticize them. The plays were presented at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, which was run by W.B. Yeats. The message of The Plough and the Stars was not especially well received by audiences, however, and sparked a riot during the fourth performance. Yeats was not entirely surprised by this, having lived through it some years earlier at a production of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and had his remarks prepared ahead of time. He took the stage and berated the audience: "You have disgraced yourselves once again; is this to be the recurring celebration of Irish genius?" Although, or perhaps because, the play was so controversial, it was a box office success.

While in London to supervise a production of Juno and the Paycock, O'Casey met and fell in love with Eileen Carey, who was cast as Nora. The two were married in 1927.

Yeats turned down O'Casey's next play, The Silver Tassie, for production at the Abbey, and this began a disenchantment with his homeland that persisted for the rest of the playwright's life. He declared himself a voluntary exile and remained in England with Eileen, where he lived until his death in 1964. At one point, he went so far as to ban production of any of his plays in Ireland. His work would never again deal directly with his country and her history; he turned away from the realism he had been known for, and adopted allegory and expressionism. In The Flying Wasp (1937), a collection of essays on theater, he wrote: "We do not want merely an excerpt from reality; it is the imaginative translation of reality, as it is seen through the eye of the poet, that we desire. The great art of the theatre is to suggest, not to tell openly; to dilate the mind by symbols, not by actual things; to express in Lear a world's sorrow, and in Hamlet the grief of humanity. Van Gogh, and particularly Cézanne, took from the extravagance of Cubism its possibilities and, uniting these with the greater possibilities of Realism and Impressionism, burst into a new art of painting. Now that is what I want to do in Drama!"

On this day in 1858, Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia patented the first pencil to have an attached eraser. The eraser-tipped pencil is still something of an American phenomenon; most European pencils are still eraserless. The humble pencil has a long and storied history, going back to the Roman stylus, which was sometimes made of lead, and why we still call the business end of the pencil the "lead," even though it's been made of nontoxic graphite since 1564.

Pencils were first mass-produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662, and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century really allowed the manufacture to flourish. Before he became known for Walden and "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau and his father were famous for manufacturing the hardest, blackest pencils in the United States. Edison was fond of short pencils that fit neatly into a vest pocket, readily accessible for the jotting down of ideas. John Steinbeck loved the pencil and started every day with 24 freshly sharpened ones; it's said that he went through 300 pencils in writing East of Eden (1952), and used 60 a day on The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945).

Our common pencils are hexagonal to keep them from rolling off the table, and they're yellow because the best graphite came from China, and yellow is traditionally associated with Chinese royalty. A single pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, or write around 45,000 words. And if you make a mistake, thanks to Hymen Lipman, you've probably got an eraser handy.

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