Thursday Sep. 29, 2016

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Original Sin

That was one idea my mother
always disliked. She preferred her god
to be reasonable, like Emerson or Thoreau
without their stranger moments.
Even the Old Testament God’s
sudden angers and twisted ways
of getting what he wanted she’d accept
as metaphor. But original sin
was different. Plus no one agreed
if it was personal, meaning
all Adam’s fault, or else some kind
of temporary absence of the holy,
which was Adam’s fault as well.
In any case, it made no sense
that we’d need to be saved before
we’d even had the chance
to be wrong. Yes, eventually everyone
falls into error, but when my sister and I
were babies she could see we were perfect,
as we opened our eyes and gazed up at her
with what she took for granted as love,
long before either of us knew the word
and what damage it could cause.

“Original Sin” by Lawrence Raab, from Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts. © Tupelo Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (books by this author), born near Madrid (1547). The actual date of his birth is unknown, but his baptism was recorded on October 9. It was customary in Spain at that time for babies to be named after the saint on whose feast day they were born, and today is the Feast of Saint Michael, so people assume that this is his birthday.

Cervantes’ early life reads like an adventure tale. His father was deaf and worked as a barber-surgeon, which was not the prestigious and highly skilled profession that it is today, and mostly involved bloodletting, bone setting, and pulling teeth. He moved around Spain in search of income, and the family never had much money. Cervantes probably didn’t have much formal education, although we don’t know for sure. A relative taught him to read when he was a boy, and this was his chief joy in life. When he was 22, he published a poem in honor of Spain’s late queen, Elizabeth of Valois. He became a soldier the next year, and was known for his bravery. On his way back to Spain in 1575, he was captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in Tangiers. He earned a reputation for courage and leadership among his fellow captives, and seemed to have been respected even by his captors, who were relatively lenient with him even though he tried to escape four times.

Cervantes was finally ransomed five years later. Once he was free, he wrote an unsuccessful novel, tried to break into playwriting, and finally took a civil service job with the Spanish Armada. He wound up in prison after he was accused of financial mismanagement in his job. During his imprisonment, he started work on the first modern novel, and the first best-seller: Don Quixote. He published the first part in 1605, and the second part a decade later, just a year before his death in 1616.

It’s the birthday of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (books by this author), born in London (1810). She wrote several novels that probed the depths of London’s lower classes, like Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853). She used the pen name “Mrs. Gaskell,” which was the custom at the time for Victorian women writers who were married.

Gaskell was the youngest of eight children; only she and her brother John survived infancy. Her father was a Scottish Unitarian minister. She was 13 months old when her mother died and her father sent her to live with her mother’s sister, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford. Gaskell called Lumb “more than a mother” and told a friend that if it hadn’t been for her aunt’s love and companionship, “I think my child’s heart would have broken.” She lovingly immortalized the town of Knutson in her novel Cranford (1853), a series of satirical sketches about small-town customs and values.

Gaskell lived in a big red brick house in Knutsford and was educated at Miss Byerly’s at Barford House, studying the arts, reading the classics, and learning decorum and propriety. Her brother, John, joined the Merchant Marine and sent her letters filled with tales of his life at sea, which enthralled her. He disappeared during an expedition to India in 1827 and was never seen again.

She married a Unitarian minister named William Gaskell (1832) and assisted him with his ministry in Manchester, tending to the poor, teaching Sunday school, and keeping cows, pigs, and poultry. After the death of her infant son from scarlet fever left her bereft, her husband suggested she try writing “to soothe her sorrow.” Gaskell had long been disturbed by the poverty and suffering around her and began writing stories about the men and women she encountered on a daily basis. Many of them were serialized in journals like Blackwood’s Magazine, Howitt’s Journal, and Sunday School Penny Magazine. Novelist Charles Dickens read her stories and pleaded with her to publish in two of the journals that he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round. He adored her, but their relationship was always a little tense because he was strict about deadlines and she could never meet them. He called her “Dear Scheherazade.”

Gaskell published her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, in 1848. She published the book anonymously, but it was such a sensation that people soon figured out who she was. Gaskell’s examination of class, poverty, and the role of women angered some readers and clergy, some of whom burned her book and set bans upon it. They would do the same in 1853 for her novel Ruth, but Gaskell was undeterred. Her novels include Lizzie Leigh (1850), North and South (1855), and Wives and Daughters (1865). Her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) takes place during the French Revolution, and Gaskell called it “the saddest story I ever wrote.”

Elizabeth Gaskell was close friends with novelist Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre. After Brontë died, Gaskell wrote the biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which many scholars now consider a definitive work.

Upon her death, the British magazine The Athenaeum called her “if not the most popular, with small question the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.”

Elizabeth Gaskell wished no notice of her death to appear in periodicals or newspapers. Writing to relatives, she said: “I disapprove so entirely of the plan of writing ‘notices’ or ‘memoirs’ of living people, that I must send you on the answer I have already sent to many others; namely an entire refusal to sanction what is to me so objectionable and indelicate a practice, by furnishing a single fact with regard to myself. I do not see why the public have any more to do with me than buy or reject the ware I supply to them.”

In the preface to Mary Barton, Gaskell wrote about her inspiration for writing about the poor and neglected. She said, “How deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.”

It’s the birthday of the physicist physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901). It was Einstein’s theory that laid the basis for nuclear energy, but it was Enrico Fermi who was the first to use that theory to build the first functioning nuclear reactor, and he went on to help build the atom bomb.

He almost discovered nuclear fission in 1934, when he was still living in Italy, in a series of experiments with neutrons. And if he had not made the mistake of using tinfoil to wrap his sample of uranium, nuclear energy would probably have been discovered that year, might even have been used by Hitler to win the war.

But Fermi won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938, went to Stockholm to accept it, and then defected to the U.S. with his wife, who was Jewish. He got a job at Columbia, then at the University of Chicago where he built the first nuclear reactor on a squash court under the stands of the football field in late 1942.

He conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942, the same morning the State Department announced that 2 million Jews had been killed in Europe, and 5 million more were in danger. And three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.

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