Sunday Mar. 6, 2016

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The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

“The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who said, “I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of journalist.” That’s Gabriel García Márquez (books by this author), born in Aracataca, Colombia, on this day in 1927. He’s the author of one of the most important books in Latin American literature, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

He once said: “I learned a lot from James Joyce and Erskine Caldwell and of course from Hemingway ... [but the] tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism. The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk.’’

He worked for a newspaper in Bogotá for many years, writing at least three stories a week, as well as movie reviews and several editorial notes each week. Then, when everyone had gone home for the day, he would stay in the newsroom and write his fiction. He said: “I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work.”

He learned to write short stories first from Kafka, and later from the American Lost Generation. He said that the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis “almost knocked [him] off the bed,” he was so surprised. In one interview, he quoted the first line (“As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect”) and told the interviewer, “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”

It was from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that he learned to write interior monologue, he said, and he preferred the way Woolf did it.

And it was from William Faulkner, he said, that he learned to write about his childhood surroundings. Just after college, he went home to his early childhood village of Aracataca, a place he hadn’t been since he was eight years old. On that trip home, he felt that he “wasn’t really looking at the village, but experiencing it as if [he]were reading it.” He said: “It was as if everything I saw had already been written, and all I had to do was sit down and copy what was there and what I was just reading. For all practical purposes everything had evolved into literature: the houses, the people, and the memories.” And he said: “The atmosphere, the decadence, the heat in the village were roughly the same as what I had felt in Faulkner. [...] I had simply found material that had to be dealt with in the same way that Faulkner had treated similar material.” His birth town, Aracataca, is the model for the fictional village Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It was from his own grandmother that he learned the tone he used in One Hundred Years. His grandmother told stories, he said, “that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness [...] What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised.”

For a long time, he had tried telling the fantastic stories of One Hundred Years without believing in them. He said, “I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.” And he said, “When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for 18 months and worked every day.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude begins: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Márquez’s novels and novellas include The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), and Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982.

It’s the birthday of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (books by this author), born in Durham, England (1806). She was the oldest of 12 siblings, an active girl who loved riding horses and participating in the leisurely social life of affluent country families. She was also extremely bright — she wrote poetry at age four, studied Greek at age 10, and wrote a Greek-style epic at age 12, which her father had privately printed. Soon after that, she began to suffer from a debilitating illness that was never diagnosed, with terrible headaches and spinal pain. The doctors prescribed morphine, which she took for the rest of her life.

At the age of 20, she published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), and in it she wrote about metaphysics, history, science, and the tradition of poetry. She became more and more reclusive, especially after the death of her mother and one of her brothers. In 1844, she published the book Poems, which made her one of the most famous writers in England. By that time, she had spent several years rarely leaving her bedroom at her father’s house.

One of her many admirers was a younger, unknown poet named Robert Browning. After a mutual acquaintance assured him that Barrett liked his work too, Browning wrote her a fan letter and said: “I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing — really seeing you?” Barrett wrote to an old friend: “I had a letter from Browning the poet last night which threw me into ecstasies.”

The two poets began a passionate courtship. They exchanged 574 letters in less than two years, and Browning visited Barrett often, despite her father’s intense disapproval. During this time, she wrote a series of love sonnets. Eventually, the two poets eloped to Italy and settled in Florence. She was 40 years old. These were good years for Barrett Browning — her health improved, she gave birth to a son, and she had a lively circle of friends, many of them writers or artists. She published her love poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850).

Although she is best known today for her love sonnets, most of the work Barrett Browning wrote in Italy was devoted to issues of social justice. Her family had owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, which relied on slave labor, and she was a committed abolitionist; since slavery had been abolished in Britain, she focused her criticism on American slavery. She also wrote about the horrors of child labor, the oppressive Austrian occupation of parts of Italy, and the struggle for Italian unification. Her poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” was narrated by a female slave describing how her master kills her lover and then rapes her; when she bears his white child, she strangles the infant and runs away. She is eventually captured, brutally whipped, and at the end of the poem she is dying.

Barrett Browning’s works include The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Aurora Leigh (1857), and Poems before Congress (1860).

The espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began on this date in 1951. The chief witness for the prosecution was David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother. Greenglass had been working as a machinist at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the 1940s, and he was arrested in June 1950, for passing secrets about the development of nuclear weapons to Soviet spies. Greenglass told authorities that he had been acting under direction from his brother-in-law. The information that Greenglass provided contributed to the Soviet Union’s successful development of an atomic bomb. Julius Rosenberg was arrested in July 1950; Ethel was arrested a few weeks later.

The Rosenbergs had both been members of the Communist Party for a number of years; they met in 1936, when they were both involved in the Young Communist League. They left the Communist Party in 1943 so as not to draw the attention of the government. Julius joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, but he was discharged in 1945 when it was revealed that he had lied about his past political affiliation. The Rosenbergs’ espionage trial polarized the nation; many left-leaning Americans believed that they had been wrongly accused, and spoke out angrily against the trial for many years after its conclusion. However, when the Cold War ended and the former Soviet Union made its records available to the West, it was proved that the Rosenbergs were indeed guilty.

The jury convicted the Rosenbergs on March 29, 1951, and they were sentenced to death on April 5; in handing down their sentence, Judge Irving R. Kaufman said they were guilt of “a crime worse than murder” and blamed them for the communist aggression that triggered the Korean War. After two more years of failed appeals, they were executed by electric chair on the same day. They were the only American civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War.

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