Monday Jan. 9, 2017

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Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand

      Forgive the hours spent listening to radios, and the words of
gratitude I did not say to teachers. I love your tiny rice-like legs, that
are bars of music played in an empty church, and the feminine tail,
where no worms of Empire have ever slept, and the intense yellow
chest that makes tears come. Your tail feathers open like a picket
fence, and your bill is brown, with the sorrow of a rabbi whose
daughter has married an athlete. The black spot on your head is
your own mourning cap.

“Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand” reprinted from Stealing Sugar from the Castle by Robert Bly. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Bly. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Cassandra Austen, born in Hampshire, England (1773). She was a good watercolor painter, and she was extremely close to her sister, novelist Jane Austen. Neither one of the two sisters ever married and they shared a bedroom all of their lives. When they were apart from each other — when one traveled to visit distant relatives and the other stayed home — they wrote letters, hundreds of them. And it's from these letters between the Austen sisters that scholars have been able to piece together many of the details about Jane Austen's life.

We also know what Jane Austen looks like because of drawings by her sister Cassandra. One of Cassandra's illustrations of Jane is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

It's the birthday of adventurer and author Richard Halliburton, (books by this author) born in Brownsville, Tennessee (1900), the son of a civil engineer. He went to a prestigious New Jersey prep school, edited the student newspaper at Princeton, and then set off on the dizzying array of adventures around the world that would make him famous. To fundraise for these adventures, he wrote books about them. Many of his books became best-sellers.

On one of his first major trips, he traveled down the Nile River, headed over to India and Thailand, and climbed Mount Fiji; he wrote about these escapades in The Royal Road to Romance (1925). On one trip he borrowed an elephant from the Paris zoo and rode it across the Alps. On another trip he decided to follow the ancient path of Ulysses around the Mediterranean Sea; he wrote about these wanderings in The Glorious Adventure (1927). His next big adventure was around Central and South America, where he swam across the Panama Canal. Tolls for crossing the Panama Canal are assessed based on weight, and ships routinely pay over a hundred thousand dollars for a single crossing. But since Halliburton swam across, his toll was just 37 cents — a record for the lowest toll ever. He wrote about his Latin American adventures in New Worlds to Conquer (1929).

On Christmas Day 1930, he set out on another one of his epic adventures. It was a trip around the world in an open-cockpit biplane. It would last 18 months and include stops in 34 countries, and it began in Los Angeles. There was a stop in New York, and then the British Isles, France, Gibraltar, Morocco. He and his co-pilot flew across the Sahara, made a stop in Timbuktu, spent time in Algeria, and landed in Persia (now Iran). They made a stop in Iraq, where they gave a joyride to the school-aged Iraqi prince, flying him up over his school's playground.

They headed over to India, where their crimson red plane did aerial stunts over the Taj Mahal. Then they flew to Mount Everest, taking the first aerial photographs of the summit. They flew to the Philippines. Once there, they crated the plane, and rode a ship with it back across the Pacific, landing in San Francisco. From there they flew back to L.A. so that they could complete their journey at its starting place.

Halliburton wrote a book about the aerial expedition called The Flying Carpet (1932), which was also the name of the plane. The book sold phenomenally well even though it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.

Once, when he was young, he had announced to his father — an engineer — that he himself planned at all costs to avoid living an "even-tenored" life. He said: "When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. ... And when my time comes to die, I'll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills — any emotion that any human ever had — and I'll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed."

He was spared a common death in bed. In 1939, he attempted to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It was 75 feet long, had a dragon painted on it, and was run by a diesel engine. The idea was to land at Treasure Island, in the Bay between San Francisco and Oakland. It was bad from the beginning. He was caught in a typhoon near Midway Island a few weeks after setting out. He sent out a couple messages: "Wish you were here instead of me" and "Southerly gale. Heavy Rain Squalls. High sea ... lee rail under water." He was never heard from again and was presumed dead shortly later, age 39.

While he was gallivanting about, he wrote a lot of letters home to his parents. Afterward, his dad collected and published them as Richard Halliburton: His Story of His Life's Adventure, as Told in Letters to His Mother and Father (1940). His travel writings are also collected in Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels (1941).

It's the birthday of the New York Times lead fiction critic Michiko Kakutani (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955. The daughter of a Yale mathematician and herself a Yale graduate, Kakutani worked as a reporter before becoming a book critic at the Times in 1983. Since then she has made a reputation for herself as a fearsome reviewer, one who is unafraid to take on the famous and distinguished, as she did in a scathing review of an Ann Beattie novel, which Kakutani described as a "pretentious...narcissistic, self-indulgent, hot-air-filled tome that wastes the reader's time with silly creative-writing-class exercises.

Many writers whose work has been the subject of Kakutani's stricture, have had a few words to say about her, including Salman Rushdie who called her "a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank." Susan Sontag said, "Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point," and Jonathan Franzen called Kakutani "the stupidest person in New York City."

The Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees, having given Kakutani the award for criticism in 1998.

The Fisk School, today known as Fisk University, first opened its doors on this day in 1866, in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the first American colleges founded for black students, the original school was housed in the abandoned Army barracks of Union soldiers, a facility provided by a Missouri general and abolitionist, Clinton Fisk. With a mission to provide an education for anyone who wished to learn, regardless of race, the school's first students ranged in age from seven to 70.

The funds for its construction were raised by the school's Fisk Jubilee Singers, a touring performance group composed primarily of former slaves. Following the old underground railroad route on their first tour, the Singers sang spirituals like "The Gospel Train" and "Oh Rise and Shine!" in private homes and churches; they'd emptied the struggling school's treasury to pay for their expenses, hoping that the investment would pay off. Only two years later, the group's renown was such that they performed for President Grant in the White House and Queen Victoria in England.

Mark Twain wrote about the Fisk Jubilee Singers: "I heard them sing once, & I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again...this is strong language for me to use, when you remember that I never was fond of pedestrianism."

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