Friday Nov. 27, 2015

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Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools
turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer
for forty years. The screwdriver misted with rust
once slipped into my young hand, a new householder’s.
Obliviously, tools wait to be used: the pliers,
notched mouth agape like a cartoon shark’s; the wrench
with its jaws on a screw; the plane still sharp enough
to take its fragrant, curling bite; the brace and bit
still fit to chew a hole in pine like a patient thought;
the tape rule, its inches unaltered though I have shrunk;
the carpenter’s angle, still absolutely right though I
have strayed; the wooden bubble level from my father’s
meagre horde. Their stubborn shapes pervade the cellar,
enduring with a thrift that shames our wastrel lives.

"Tools” by John Updike from Selected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

New York City’s Pennsylvania Station opened on this date in 1910. Better known as Penn Station, the 1910 version bore absolutely no resemblance to the structure as we know it today. It was a grand example of the Beaux-Arts style, built of pink granite, with stately columns and a skylit interior modeled after a Roman bath. The main waiting room alone was a block and a half long, with 150-foot ceilings. Its tunnels, which ran under the Hudson River, were engineering marvels.

By the late 1950s, though, air travel had gotten cheaper, and the new, smooth, interstate highways tempted people to take automobile trips rather than boarding a train. The rail company couldn’t afford to keep its showplace clean, and plans were made to replace Penn Station — at least the above-ground portion of it — with a multi-use entertainment venue, to be called Madison Square Garden.

The stately Beaux-Arts building was leveled in 1963, and replaced with a subterranean, air-conditioned warren lit by cold, fluorescent bulbs. New Yorkers were outraged at the demolition. One New York Times editorial from 1963 read, “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” That outrage helped jump-start the architectural preservation movement in the United States. The New York Landmarks Law was passed two years later, just in time to save Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, and thousands other historical landmarks from a similar fate.

Train travel through Penn Station has bounced back; today, it’s the busiest train station in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, a writer for the BBC recently called the modern Penn Station an “architectural crime scene,” and added, “Outside of the U.S. penitentiary system, it is hard to think of a more joyless building.” Vincent Scully, a professor of architecture at Yale, commented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

William Shakespeare (books by this author) married Anne Hathaway on this date in 1582. We don’t know too much about Anne Hathaway, nor much about any aspect of Shakespeare’s private life. We do know that she was eight years older than the playwright, and that she lived in Shottery, a small hamlet a mile up the road from Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford. She was the oldest of eight children; both her parents were dead, and she lived with her brother. At 26, she was an old maid by 16th-century standards. We don’t know how the 18-year-old Shakespeare wooed this older woman, or even how they met, but we can infer a few juicy details about their courtship, based on the fact that their first child, Susanna, was born just six months after the wedding. Their wedding was hastily planned, and because Shakespeare was still under the age of consent, his father would have to have given his permission. The newlyweds then lived together with Shakespeare’s parents. Young William probably helped his father, John, with his business dealings, and Anne would have helped her mother-in-law with the housework. Anne gave birth to twins two years later: a boy and girl, named Hamnet and Judith, named after close friends of William and Anne.

Sometime after the twins were born, Shakespeare moved to London to pursue an acting career, and by 1592 he was well established. He came back to Stratford occasionally, but Anne never visited him in London. The couple spent most of the rest of their marriage apart, but Shakespeare moved back to Stratford when he retired from the stage, and they spent the last six years of his life together. In his will, Shakespeare bequeathed his “second-best bed” to Anne. Much has been made of this line in his will, but it probably was not intended to be insulting, as the “best bed” was generally reserved for guests and was passed down as a family heirloom. Shakespeare died in 1616, and Anne followed in 1623. She is buried next to him in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford.

It’s the birthday of the writer who said: “A little bit of too much is just enough for me.” That’s James Agee (books by this author), born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). His father died when he was six, and he was sent to an Episcopal boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains. His history teacher Father Flye became a lifelong mentor and friend. Flye helped Agee get into Phillips Exeter Academy and from there to Harvard. Agee served as president of Harvard’s literary magazine, the Advocate, and he helped publish the Advocate’s parody of Time, the relatively new magazine run by Henry Luce. After Agee graduated, he got a job at Luce’s new venture, Fortune magazine, partly on the strength of his Time parody. Agee felt confined by his assignments; he wrote to Father Flye: “I’m emotionally stupefied, and have very little and dull and unextensive imagination [...] If I am, as I seem to be, dying on my feet mentally and spiritually, and can do nothing about it, I’d prefer not to know I was dying.” In 1936, Agee and photographer Walker Evans spent two months living with sharecroppers in Alabama on assignment for Fortune. Fortune decided not to publish the resulting article, so Agee turned it into a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold just 600 copies, but is now considered a classic.

During his lifetime, Agee was best known for his film criticism, especially his weekly reviews for The Nation. W.H. Auden wrote the Nation’s editors to tell them that he spent all week looking forward to Agee’s column, and that it was “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” In 1955, Agee died of a heart attack in a taxicab at the age of 45. His autobiographical novel A Death in the Family (1957) was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the article that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee wrote: “A human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.”

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