Thursday Jul. 7, 2016

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Temperature in the upper seventies, a bit of a breeze. Great
cumulus clouds pass slowly through the summer sky like
parade floats. And the slender grasses gather round you,
pressing forward, with exaggerated deference, whispering,
eager to catch a glimpse. It’s your party after all. And it couldn’t
be more perfect. Yet there’s a nagging thought: you don’t really
deserve all this attention, and that come October, there will be
a price to pay.

“July” by Louis Jenkins. Used with permission of the author.  (buy now)

On this date in 1865, Mary Surratt became the first woman to be executed by the United States government. Surratt, a widow and Confederate sympathizer from Maryland, ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, she had run a Maryland tavern that doubled as a safe house for Confederate spies. Her son John was friends with John Wilkes Booth, and often invited him to his mother’s boarding house. Authorities believed that Booth had plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln there, with Surratt’s knowledge and consent, if not active participation. Her son John had admitted to being Booth’s co-conspirator in a plot to abduct Lincoln and trade him for Confederate prisoners being held in Richmond, Virginia. When Booth assassinated the president, John Surratt fled to Canada and later to Europe. His mother was arrested along with four other conspirators.

Surratt went to the gallows with three other convicted traitors, all men. Even though she had been condemned in the court of public opinion as well by a military commission, people still became squeamish when they saw the news photos of a woman in a long black dress hanging from the gallows. Everyone, including the executioner himself, expected President Andrew Johnson to commute her sentence to life in prison. Five members of the commission that convicted her even asked him to commute. And Surratt’s 22-year-old daughter, Anna, pled tearfully to be allowed to talk to the president. She hoped he would pardon her mother because of her gender and her advanced age — which was 42 at the time. He refused all of these requests, saying, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

Today is the birthday of American genetics pioneer Nettie Stevens, born in Cavendish, Vermont (1861). Her early life was a repeating cycle of working as a teacher or a librarian, saving up her money, and then going back to school to further her education. She finally finished her master’s degree and began work on her Ph.D. in biology when she was 39 years old; she worked as a researcher at the same time. While studying mealworms, she discovered that male sex cells could have either an X or a Y chromosome, while female sex cells could only carry X chromosomes. Based on this observation, she concluded that the sex of an organism was determined based on what chromosome it had inherited from its male parent.

The theory of chromosomes as a basis for inheritance was still pretty new, and Stevens didn’t get any support for her theory from other scientists, who believed that the sex of the offspring was either determined by the mother or by environmental factors. Another researcher, Edmund Beecher Wilson, came up with a similar theory to Stevens’, but hers proved to be more accurate, because he had only looked at the male sex cells.

Stevens was only able to devote 11 years of her life to the study of biology; she died of breast cancer at the age of 50. She was one of the first American women to be recognized for her contribution to the field of biology.

It’s the birthday of American author, historian, and narrator David McCullough (books by this author), born in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes, both for nonfiction books about presidents. The first was for Truman (1993); the second was for John Adams (2001). John Adams was the fastest-selling nonfiction book in history and was made into an HBO miniseries (2008) starring Paul Giamatti in the title role.

McCullough had three brothers and grew up in house filled with books. He was a boy during the Second World War and he and his brothers often rolled a wagon around the neighborhood, collecting scrap metal and bacon fat for the war effort. At Yale University in the early 1950s, he took a writing class with novelist Robert Penn Warren, who required his students to slip a fresh piece of original prose under his door each day at 8:30. If they didn’t, they received a zero. McCullough said, “It was a great way to learn discipline.” He also grew close to playwright Thornton Wilder, who advised him to look for stories that hadn’t been written yet, and write them.

After graduation, McCullough worked at Sports Illustrated as a writer. One editor at the magazine had a red stamp with a four-letter word on it: dull. McCullough grew to fear receiving the stamp on his work, so he became meticulous with his writing. It was later, while working at American Heritage magazine, that he really thought he might become a writer. “Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life.” He came across news stories about the Johnstown Flood, one of the worst flood disasters in United States History, and began researching the books and stories that had been written about the flood. He was unsatisfied with what he found and began writing his own book, coming home after work, eating dinner, putting his children to bed, and writing two pages every night. He was 35 when The Johnstown Flood was published in 1968.

McCullough’s second book, The Great Bridge (1972), was about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough says: “To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. 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.”

For many years, he wrote in a small, windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. He said, “Nothing good was ever written in a large room.” The shed had no running water and no telephone. Family members had to whistle when they approached so as not to startle McCullough. On his desk were a green banker’s lamp and a Royal typewriter, which he had freshly oiled for each new book.

David McCullough’s other books include Mornings on Horseback (1981), which covers 17 years in the life of President Theodore Roosevelt; 1776 (2005); The Greater Journey (2011); and The Wright Brothers (2015). McCullough was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award, and is a frequent narrator of documentary films.

On researching historical figures and events, McCullough says: “Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new. Seeing is as much the job of an historian as it is of a poet or a painter, it seems to me.”

When asked how he chooses which historical figure to write about, he admitted to quitting a project on the painter Pablo Picasso. He said: “He was an awful man. I don’t think you have to love your subject — initially you shouldn’t — but it’s like picking a roommate. After all, you’re going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don’t like?”

Today is the birthday of Gustav Mahler (1860), born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. His father was an Austrian Jewish tavern-keeper, and Mahler experienced racial tensions from his birth: he was a minority both as a Jew and as a German-speaking Austrian among Czechs, and later, when he moved to Germany, he was a minority as a Bohemian. His father was a self-made man, very fiery, and he abused Mahler’s mother, who was rather delicate and from a higher social class. Mahler was a tense and nervous child, traits he retained into adulthood. He had heart trouble, which he had inherited from his mother, but he also had a fair measure of his father’s vitality and determination, and was active and athletic.

Mahler began his musical career at the age of four, first playing by ear the military marches and folk music he heard around his hometown, and soon composing pieces of his own on piano and accordion. He made his public piano debut at 10, and was accepted to the Vienna Conservatory at 15. When he left school, he became a conductor, and then artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera. He became famous throughout Europe as a conductor, but he was fanatical in his work habits, and expected his artists to be, as well. This didn’t win him any friends, and there were always factions calling for his dismissal. He spent his summers in the Austrian Alps, composing.

1907 was a difficult year for Mahler: he was forced to resign from the Vienna Opera; his three-year-old daughter, Maria, died; and he was diagnosed with fatal heart disease. Superstitious, he believed that he had had a premonition of these events when composing his Tragic Symphony, No. 6 (1906), which ends with three climactic hammer blows representing “the three blows of fate which fall on a hero, the last one felling him as a tree is felled.” When he composed his ninth symphony, he refused to call it “Symphony No. 9” because he believed that, like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, his ninth symphony would be his last. He called it A Symphony for Tenor, Baritone, and Orchestra instead, and he appeared to have fooled fate, because he went on to compose another symphony. This one he called Symphony No. 9 (1910); he joked that he was safe, since it was really his 10th symphony, but No. 9 proved to be his last symphony after all, and he died in 1911. Most of his work was misunderstood during his lifetime, and his music was largely ignored — and sometimes banned — for more than 30 years after his death. A new generation of listeners discovered him after World War II, and today he is one of the most recorded and performed composers in classical music.

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