Saturday Jan. 21, 2017

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Like the neighborhood kind
you went to as a kid, full
of yellow light and red
velvet curtains and everybody
there, friends, bullies throwing
popcorn, somebody with red hair.
The roof is leak-stained like the bloody
footprints of the beast from 20,000 fathoms,
there’s a yo-yo demonstration by
a greasy man in a sequined suit,
the girl you love is there somewhere
but you can’t find her, or if you do
she’s with some jerk with muscles.
And the show won’t start. There’s whistling
and stomping, paper airplanes and 3-D
glasses until you don’t even care
anymore because your head is tired,
a stone atop a tendril, and you just
want to sleep, when, sure enough,
the curtain finally rises,
darkness falls,
and here it comes.

“Theater” by William Greenway from Fishing at the End of the World. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Ethan Allen, born in Litchfield, Connecticut (1738), who, after fighting in the French and Indian War, settled in what is now Vermont. He formed the Green Mountain Boys to protect the interests of Vermonters against New York, of which Vermont was a part. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Allen led his Green Mountain Boys into New York, where they captured the British fort at Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775. Allen refused to serve again in the American Army until Congress recognized Vermont’s independence from New York. When Congress would not, he began negotiating with Great Britain for the establishment of Vermont as a sovereign nation. He said, “I am resolutely determined to defend the independence of Vermont, and, rather than fail, will retire with the hardy Green Mountain Boys into the desolate caverns of the mountains, and wage war with human nature at large.”

The first American novel was published in Boston on this date in 1789. The title of the novel was The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth, and its author was William Hill Brown, although he published it anonymously. It’s an epistolary novel, told entirely through the letters that the characters write to one another; Brown modeled its form after novels like Pamela, by Samuel Richardson.

The Power of Sympathy tells the story of a young New Englander named Thomas Harrington. Harrington has fallen madly in love with a girl named Harriot — who is, unbeknownst to him, his illegitimate half sister. Harrington’s father must decide whether to reveal his own dark secret to save the couple from sure damnation. He dashes off a quick note to his minister: “He is now even upon the point of marrying — shall I proceed! — of marrying his Sister! I fly to prevent incest!” Mr. Harrington Senior intervenes on the eve of the wedding, and the engagement is called off. Poor Harriot dies of consumption, and Thomas — after many letters to his best friend, Worthy — eventually shoots himself.

Brown was inspired by a local scandal: a Boston woman named Fanny Apthorp had had an affair with her sister’s husband, a man named Perez Morton. She became pregnant and ultimately committed suicide. The Apthorps lived next door to Brown, so he had access to all the inside information. He changed the names, and relocated the story to Rhode Island, but the Mortons and Apthorps had political connections; with Brown’s agreement, they stopped publication of the book and requested that all unsold copies be burned. For many years, people believed that the novel’s real author was Sarah Morton, the betrayed wife, but eventually Brown’s niece came forward and confirmed that her uncle had written the novel.

Lest you should choose the racy tale as your next must-read, the Paris Review diplomatically warns: “The passing centuries have hidden its charms.”

It’s the birthday of one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union: Roger Nash Baldwin, born in Wellesley, Massachusetts (1884). He was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War I, which earned him a year in jail. He worked for the rights of conscientious objectors, and eventually the organization he founded became the ACLU. For the next 30 years, he served as its executive director.

It’s the birthday of American critic, scholar, and essayist Louis Menand (1952) (books by this author), best known for his nonfiction book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001), which examines the development of the philosophy of pragmatism by William James, John Dewey, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for history (2002).

Menand often writes quirky, challenging pieces for The New Yorker and The New Republic. On writing he said: “I just try, like any writer, to be entertaining and interesting. I want people to get some pleasure and to learn something. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s about T.S. Eliot or about Tom Clancy.”

Louis Menand’s books include American Studies (2002) and The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (2010). He teaches at Harvard University.

It’s the birthday of fashion designer Christian Dior, born in Granville, France (1905). In 1946, he started his own fashion house, focusing on women’s clothing that was more feminine and curvy than the straight, boxy style that had predominated during World War II.

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