Wednesday Dec. 7, 2016

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The people in the elevator all
Face front, they all keep still, they all
Look up with the rapt and stupid look of saints
In paintings at the numbers that light up
By turn and turn to tell them where they are.
They are doing the dance, they are playing the game.

To get here they have gone by avenue
And street, by ordinate and abscissa, and now
By this new coordinate, up. They are three-
dimensional characters, taken from real life;
They have their fates, whether to rise or fall,
And when their numbers come up they get out.

“Fiction” by Howard Nemerov from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press, 1977. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the sculptor Bernini, born Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini in Naples in 1598. He was one of the most popular sculptors of his day. He was inspired by ancient sculpture, and his subjects varied from classical gods to biblical figures to busts of prominent Italians. He’s most famous for his sculptures like David, Apollo and Daphne, and The Ecstasy of St. Theresa; for the many fountains he sculpted around Rome; and for his work as an architect and artist on St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

It’s is the birthday of Noam Chomsky (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1928). He first rose to fame as a linguist, with his theory that humans have an instinctual tendency to develop languages, the same way that birds have an instinct to fly. He wrote about his theory in Syntactic Structures (1957).

It’s the birthday of the novelist Susan Isaacs (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1943. She worked as a senior editor for Seventeen magazine, but she left so she could stay home with her newborn son. So she freelanced — she wrote magazine articles and political speeches, and then she decided to try writing a novel, and that was Compromising Positions (1978). It did well — a New York Times best-seller — and she’s written 12 more novels and they have all been New York Times best-sellers, too. Her latest book is a novella called A Hint of Strangeness (2015), which came out last year.

It’s the birthday of American writer Willa Cather (1873) (books by this author). Cather’s novels, like O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), examined frontier life on the Nebraska plains.

Willa Silbert Cather was born on a farm near Winchester, Virginia. Her family had farmed the land for four generations and came from England, Ireland, and Alsace. When she was eight, her father bought a ranch near Red Cloud, Nebraska, to escape the outbreaks of tuberculosis in Virginia. Cather wasn’t happy about moving to the Plains. She wrote, “I was a little homesick and lonely … so the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy country grass had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”

To soothe her loneliness, a Jewish couple named the Weiners let Cather borrow freely from their personal library. At first, Cather thought she might like to be a doctor because she enjoyed science and animal dissection, but a professor submitted Cather’s essay on philosopher Thomas Carlyle to the newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when Cather saw her name in print, she was hooked.

At the University of Nebraska, Cather was known for her strong personality and mannish clothes. Sometimes she called herself William. Her friends called her Willie or Dr. Will and she cut her hair short, like a man’s. She was a private person, and was in love with a socialite named Isabelle McClung for much of her life, even though McClung eventually married a man.

She taught high school in Pittsburgh after college and then moved on to New York City, where she worked her way from fiction editor to managing editor of McClure’s Magazine. She was exhausted by office work and didn’t start writing seriously until she was in her late 30s, when her friend, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, encouraged her to write about Nebraska.

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912. A year later, she published O Pioneers!, which pleased her more than Alexander’s Bridge. She called it her “second first novel.”

The publication of My Ántonia made Cather’s name. She based the character of Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant who falls in love with an orphaned boy named Jim, on her childhood friend Annie Sadilek Pavelka. Cather said, “She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people, and in her willingness to take pains.” Writer H.L. Mencken said My Ántonia was “The best piece of fiction ever done by a woman in America.” Willa Cather said, “I feel like I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.”

Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours (1922). She was so popular she was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Later in her life, she said she’d written all her novels for Isabelle McClung.

Cather only wrote for two or three hours a day. She said, “If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die,” she said. “I make it an adventure every day.”

Willa Cather’s headstone reads, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” After her death, poet Wallace Stevens said, “We have nothing better than she is.”

It was on this day 75 years ago, in 1941, that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States had frozen Japanese assets and declared an embargo on shipments of petroleum and war materials to Japan. On the morning of December 7, soldiers at Pearl Harbor were learning how to use a new device called radar, and they detected a large number of planes heading toward them. They telephoned an officer, who said they must be American B-17s, and not to worry about it.

Because it was Sunday, there was a bonus ration of milk to go along with breakfast that morning. There was a soldier named James Jones in the mess hall, who later wrote From Here to Eternity (1951). He said, “It was not till the first low-flying fighter came whammering overhead with his [machine guns] going that we ran outside, still clutching our half-pints of milk to keep them from being stolen.”

The Japanese planes dropped bombs and torpedoes, and ships started capsizing and sinking. Altogether, 2,390 Americans were killed. President Roosevelt got on the radio, talked for less than 10 minutes, and said that December 7th was a day that would “live in infamy.” Congress declared war the following morning, and the United States officially entered WWII.

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