Saturday Jan. 23, 2016

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Love: Beginnings

They’re at that stage where so much desire streams between them, so
            frank need and want,
so much absorption in the other and the self and the self-admiring entity
            and unity they make—
her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back so far in her
            at his laughter,
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual in the headiness of
            being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again, touch again,
            cheek, lip, shoulder, brow,
every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away soaring back
            flame into the sexual—
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin, that fill-
            ing of the heart,
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart, snorting again,
            stamping in its stall.

“Love: Beginnings” by C.K. Williams from Flesh and Blood. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1922, a fourteen-year old Canadian boy with diabetes became the first patient to receive treatment by insulin injection. The treatment had been developed by two Canadian physicians, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered the connection between diabetes and the insulin-producing pancreas gland. The treatment was a dramatic success, and by 1923 insulin was widely available as a treatment for diabetes. Banting and Best went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Today is the birthday of pharmacologist Gertrude Elion, born in New York City in 1918. She was a bright girl who loved every subject in school and agonized when she had to choose just one path in college. The death of her beloved grandfather of cancer tipped the scales in favor of science; she wanted to use her intellect to fight the disease. She majored in chemistry at Hunter College, and then hit a brick wall when she tried to enter the job market in her field. “Nobody ... took me seriously. They wondered why in the world I wanted to be a chemist when no women were doing that. The world was not waiting for me.” She went to secretarial school so she could pay the bills, and finally she got a job as an unpaid lab assistant. With World War II came more opportunities for female scientists, and in 1944, she went to work for the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome. It was there that she formed a research partnership with Dr. George Hitchings that would last more than 40 years. Over the course of her career, Elion developed drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, herpes, and AIDS. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988.

It was on this day in 1977 that the miniseries Roots was premiered on ABC. It was based on Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) by Alex Haley (books by this author), who is also famous for collaborating with Malcolm X to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Haley based Roots loosely on research into his own family's history of slavery. The saga begins with the young Kunta Kinte, who is captured by slave traders in The Gambia and brought to America. By the end of Roots, Kunta Kinte's great-grandson is finally freed at the time of the Civil War.

ABC was hesitant to air the miniseries because of its controversial racial content. Almost all of the white characters were depicted as evil, and there were intense scenes of rape and violence. ABC wasn't sure how white American viewers would react to Roots, so they showed it on consecutive nights rather than spreading it out, and the previews made it look like the well-known white actors were a bigger part of the series than they actually were.

Roots aired for eight nights in a row, and about 130 million people watched at least part of the series. Restaurants and shops cleared out while it was showing, and bars showed it on their TVs in order to keep customers there. Roots became the most-watched program in history at that time.

It’s the birthday of French novelist and essayist Stendhal (books by this author), born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France (1783). He hated his father, called his hometown “the capital of pettiness,” and fled to Paris as soon as he could. He was disappointed in Paris, though. The streets were muddy and he caught a sickness that made his hair fall out. He wore a toupee for the rest of his life. To get out of Paris, he enlisted in Napoleon’s army and participated in the invasion of Italy and later the failed invasion of Russia. After leaving military service, he contributed to journals and periodicals using dozens of pseudonyms, including William Crocodile, Old Hummums, and Stendhal. He was obsessed with the idea of secret identities, and even signed personal letters with false names. In 1818, he fell in love with the wife of a Polish officer. After she had rebuffed his advances, he trailed her for days across Italy, disguising himself by wearing a pair of green spectacles. When she finally caught him and accused him of following her, he said it was fate that had brought them together. She didn’t believe him, and she left Italy soon after. In despair, he moved back to Paris and produced the book-length essay On Love (1822). He published his first novel, Armance (1827), five years later, when he was 44. He went on to write his masterpieces — The Red and the Black (1830), about the social classes, professions, politics, and manners of early-19th-century France; and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839).

He said, “It is better to have a prosaic husband and to take a romantic lover.”

Today is the birthday of poet and playwright Derek Walcott (books by this author), born in Castries, Saint Lucia (1930). His family was Methodist, which set them apart from their Catholic-dominated island home. Walcott’s first published poem — printed in the newspaper when he was 14 — was inspired by his religion, as was much of his later work. “I think I still have a very simple, straightforward foursquare Methodism in me,” he told The Paris Review. “I admire the quiet, pragmatic reason that is there in a faith like Methodism, which is a very practical thing of conduct. I’m not talking about a fanatical fundamentalism. I suppose the best word for it is decency. [...] There’s also a very strong sense of carpentry in Protestantism, in making things simply and in a utilitarian way. At this period of my life and work, I think of myself in a way as a carpenter, as one making frames, simply and well.” He also writes often about the landscapes of Saint Lucia and its often conflicted identity as a former British colony.

In 1949, Walcott self-published his first book, titled 25 Poems. His mother, a widow who ran a local Methodist school, somehow came up with the $200 he needed to have the book printed. He paid her back by selling copies to his friends. His breakthrough came in 1962, with his collection In a Green Night. In 1990, he published an epic poem, Omeros. It’s a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, set in the Caribbean. His collection White Egrets (2010) won Britain’s prestigious T.S. Eliot prize. In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the second Caribbean writer to receive the prize. The Nobel committee described his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.”

Though he’s best known for his poetry, Walcott has written more than 30 plays, including Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958), Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), and Pantomime (1978). He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959.

Walcott had a twin brother, Roderick, who was also a playwright; he founded the St. Lucia Arts Guild and was passionate about promoting Caribbean theatre.

Georgetown University was officially founded on this date in 1789. At that time, it was called Georgetown College, and it was founded by John Carroll, the country’s first Catholic bishop. Carroll and his associates purchased 60 acres of land overlooking the village of Georgetown, near the new nation’s capital. Classes began in 1792, with 40 enrolled students from as far away as the West Indies. An act of Congress promoted Georgetown College to university status in 1815; it is the oldest Catholic university in the country.

Construction began on the first building, known as Old South, in 1788; that’s the real date the college was founded, but a typo in the course catalog listed the year as 1789. No one caught the error until the school started preparing for its centennial in 1889, and by then the “real” centennial had passed. Officials decided to retroactively set the founding date as January 23, 1789, the date that Carroll and his associates had finalized the purchase of the plot of land on which Old South was built. They bought the land for “seventy five pounds current money.”

Georgetown almost didn’t survive the Civil War. In the months leading up to the war, brawls broke out between students from Northern and Southern states. Enrollment dropped from over 300 students to just 17, as the young men enlisted to fight on both sides of the conflict. Some of the campus buildings were repurposed as hospitals. In 1876, students on the college’s rowing team began wearing blue and gray uniforms, bringing together the colors of the Union and the Confederacy. A student committee declared them “appropriate colors for the [Boat] Club and expressive of the feeling of unity between the Northern and Southern boys of the College.” Eventually, they became the school’s traditional colors.

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