Every choice is always the wrong choice,
Every vote cast is always cast away—
How can truth hover between alternatives?
Then love me more than dearly, love me wholly,
Love me with no weighing of circumstance,
As I am pledged in honour to love you:
With no weakness, with no speculation
On what might happen should you and I prove less
Than bringers-to-be of our own certainty.
Neither was born by hazard: each foreknew
The extreme possession we are grown into.
“Whole Love” by Robert Graves. Public Domain. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of artist Marc Chagall, born in Vitebsk, Russia (1887). He was one of nine kids in a family of modest means; his father worked for a salt herring factory, and his mother ran a shop. He wanted to be an artist, and he moved to St. Petersburg, where he failed his first entrance exams but eventually was accepted to art school. It was in Paris, surrounded by other artists, that he really began to develop his style. Though he was homesick and could not speak French, he later said, “My art needed Paris like a tree needs water.” Chagall is known for bright and complex colors, and his fantastical images from Russian-Jewish folklore and his childhood: ghosts, livestock, weddings, fiddlers, scenes of his village, Vitebsk, a couple floating in the sky, and fish.
On this date in 1930, Congress approved funds to build the Hoover Dam. The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains and draws water from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California in its 1,400-mile journey to the Sea of Cortez. As agriculture in the area grew, people began to look for ways to harness its resources. In the late 1890s, a speculator named William Beatty built the Alamo Canal to divert water into what he dubbed the “Imperial Valley” in California. The canal was unstable and expensive to maintain. In 1902, the Edison Electric Company of Los Angeles explored the idea of building a dam to generate power, but there was not yet a way to transport that power any great distance, so the company let its land options lapse.
In 1922, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover met with representatives from all the states through which the river flowed, and together they came up with the Colorado River Compact. The compact spelled out how the water from the Colorado would be divided among the states. From there, they began to plan the construction of a dam to control flooding, generate electricity, and distribute the water for irrigation. Planning the Boulder Canyon Project, as it was called, took six years; in 1929, President Coolidge signed the bill that would make Boulder Dam a reality. By the time Congress approved the funding, the man who started the project — Herbert Hoover — had been elected president of the United States.
Once the project was approved, the planners decided to build the dam in Black Canyon, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, rather than in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. It was a momentous and deadly undertaking. First, any loose rock had to be removed from the canyon walls at the future dam site. Workers hung from ropes 800 feet in the air, and used jackhammers and dynamite to shift any loose boulders. Then the river was completely diverted from the site, using four tunnels dug into the canyon walls. Concrete for the dam itself was transported via a pneumatic system. It was then poured, an inch at a time, into the forms. To prevent the concrete from contracting and cracking as it dried, chilled water was pumped through pipes to evenly distribute the heat generated by the curing process. The dam used enough concrete to pave a highway from San Francisco to New York.
Built as it was during the Great Depression, the dam’s construction employed more than 21,000 men, many of them unskilled. Conditions during the summer months of 1931 were brutal, with daily high temperatures averaging 120 degrees. Hoover Dam claimed more than 100 lives all told, many of them from heat prostration, and many more from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, although the construction company insisted that pneumonia had been the cause of death.
The dam was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget. It opened on March 1, 1936, and it lived up to its hype. The floods that used to threaten entire communities have been controlled. The hydroelectric plant housed in the dam produces over two thousand megawatts of electricity, enough to serve more than a million people in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Hoover Dam holds back Lake Mead, the largest manmade lake in the world. There’s a two-lane road that runs along the top of the dam, and until 2010 travelers on U.S. Route 93 had a jaw-dropping view from the top of the 726-foot-tall structure. Since 2010, traffic is rerouted onto a four-lane bypass.
Traditionally, American dams have been named after the president who is in office when they are built, so on all the paperwork the dam bore Hoover’s name. But Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt, ordered Hoover’s name removed; for many years, it bore the name “Boulder Dam,” until Harry Truman restored Hoover’s name in 1947. Ten thousand people showed up to see President Roosevelt dedicate the dam in 1935; Herbert Hoover was not invited. After the ceremony, FDR became the first U.S. president to visit the sleepy little town of Las Vegas.
It’s the birthday of composer Gustav Mahler, born in Kaliště, Bohemia (1860). He wrote 10 symphonies and served as the conductor for both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mahler said, “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower not faster.”
It’s the birthday of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri (1907). He wrote more than 50 novels and collections of short stories over a span of four decades. He’s best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a cult classic about a boy who is born during the first manned mission to Mars. He’s raised by Martians, then returns to Earth, starts a church, and preaches free love.
He called his books “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction,” in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. He tried to write about events that could actually happen, taking into consideration everything we know about the natural laws of the universe.
He said, “I think that science fiction, even the corniest of it, even the most outlandish of it, no matter how badly it’s written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change.”
It’s the birthday of historian and author David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). His first love was art, but when he was an undergraduate at Yale, the faculty included Brendan Gill, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Thornton Wilder, so eventually he started to think about life as a writer. A New York Times critic once said McCullough was “incapable of writing a page of bad prose,” although some academic historians remain unimpressed and have criticized him for being a “popularizer” and putting too much narrative in his books. Nevertheless, they’re popular among readers and also prize committees: He’s been awarded two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, and several others.
He enjoys immersing himself in the era and culture he’s writing about. “The years writing John Adams  and 1776  have been the most exhilarating, happiest years of my writing life,” he said in an interview with Powells.com. “I had never ventured into the 18th century before, never set foot in it. I told my wife the other day that I might never come back. I love it.”
“To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure,” he told National Endowment for the Humanities chair Bruce Cole. “It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.”
His books include Truman (1992), John Adams (2001), 1776 (2005), The Greater Journey (2011), and his most recent, The Wright Brothers (2015), which was published in May.