Thursday Feb. 2, 2017

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What I Know

What I know for sure is less and less:
that a hot bath won’t cure loneliness.

That bacon is the best bad thing to chew
and what you love may kill you.

The odd connection between perfection
and foolishness, like the pelican
diving for his fish.

How silly sex is.
How, having it, we glimpse
our holiness.

What I know is less and less.
What I want is more and more:

you against me—
your ferocious tenderness—

love like a star,
once small and far,
now huge, now near.

“What I Know” by Lee Robinson from Hearsay. © Fordham University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

The North American city of New Amsterdam was incorporated on this date in 1653. Henry Hudson, an English sea captain, was working for the Dutch East India Company in the early 1600s. He spent about 10 days traveling up a large river, which he dubbed the Mauritius River — though it would eventually be named the Hudson River in his honor. He was looking for the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific; he didn’t find it, but he found a lot of beavers, whose pelts were in great demand. The Dutch mapped and claimed the territory, which was christened “New Netherland,” and opened a trading post on the southern tip of Manna-hata Island.

The Dutch began the construction of Fort Amsterdam in 1625, to protect the Dutch West India Company’s operations and secure the mouth of the Hudson River against invasions by other European colonial powers. Once the fort was built, settlers soon followed. The fur trade was booming, and it wasn’t long before New Amsterdam — with a population of 800 — was the largest settlement in New Netherland. Company director Peter Minuit purchased the land from the local Lenape Indians — who were more than happy to take his money, since the island on which New Amsterdam was built was actually the territory of a different band of Native Americans.

As a busy trading port, it attracted and welcomed immigrants; the city was diverse and polyglot, but it also had a rowdy reputation and boasted a large number of “grog shops” that catered to sailors. As commerce took off, area merchants wrote a letter to the States General of the Netherlands, asking for a charter. They wrote that a more formal city government would “attract navigation and profitable trade” and “allure everyone hither.” Once New Amsterdam was incorporated, the population grew by leaps and bounds.

In 1664, four English frigates sailed in and demanded that Governor Peter Stuyvesant turn over the territory to the English crown. Stuyvesant was fairly unpopular, and none of the city’s 10,000 residents would come to his aid. He ceded New Amsterdam to the English, who promptly reformed the charter to comply with English law, and renamed the city “New York,” in honor of James, the Duke of York.

On this day in 1887, a groundhog named Phil first emerged from his burrow at Gobbler’s Knob — a small hill in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — and the tradition of Groundhog’s Day was born. According to legend, if a groundhog sees his shadow today there will be six more weeks of winter. In Phil’s case, whether or not he will see his shadow is actually decided several days in advance by his top-hat-and-tuxedo-donning handlers, the members of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle. Despite their trade secret methods for prediction, Phil’s accuracy rate as of last year was only 39 percent.

Today is the birthday of Irish writer James Joyce (1882) (books by this author), best known for his novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), which takes place all in one day on the streets of Dublin. Joyce cut a bedraggled figure; he often wore soiled tennis shoes, a peaked tennis cap, and carried an ash cane. When he met the venerated poet W.B. Yeats, he famously said, “We met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me.” And Yeats famously responded, “Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.”

Joyce was born into a large, but not prosperous, family. His father drank too much, but was said to have the finest tenor voice in all of Ireland. Joyce was independent and scholarly early on, learning Norwegian at the age of 19 so he could read the plays of Henrik Ibsen in their original language. He inhaled Dante, Aristotle, and all the Elizabethan poets while at University College in Dublin. He pretended to study medicine in Paris, but he really wrote a book of short stories called Dubliners (1914).

When Ulysses was published, it became the subject of a famous obscenity trial. A professor named Irving Babbitt, of Harvard University, dismissed it as written “in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration.”

Ulysses takes place all in one day in Dublin, on June 16, 1904, which is the exact same day that James Joyce met the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, a sleek and beautiful hotel chambermaid from Galway. They didn’t get married until three decades after they met, but she took good care of him. Nora Barnacle said Joyce had “a necessity to write those books no one can understand.”

About Ulysses, James Joyce said, “The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.”

Every year on June 16 in Dublin and other cities around the world, people gather to relive the events in Ulysses. This day is known as “Bloomsday.” In 1982, the centenary year of Joyce’s birth, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ transmitted a continuous 30-hour dramatic performance of the entire text of Ulysses on radio.

The Battle of Stalingrad ended on this date in 1943. In June 1942, Hitler began an operation to invade the USSR. The plan was to encircle Soviet forces and take the city of Stalingrad, which would cut off an important transport link with southern Russia. They would then use Stalingrad as a base from which the Germans would go on to take Moscow and the Caucasus oil fields. The initial invasion went well for the Germans, but in July, Hitler changed the plan. He decided to divide up his forces and send part of the army directly to the Caucasus. This left a gap that allowed the Soviets to escape. They also had plenty of notice, since the German attack on Stalingrad didn’t begin until August; they moved supplies out of the city for safekeeping.

At Stalingrad, Stalin ordered his forces to defend the city and take “Not One Step Back.” He also declined to evacuate any of the city’s residents, believing that the troops would fight harder in the defense of civilians. The Germans attacked from the ground and the air, and by mid-September, they had forced the Soviets back to a nine-mile strip along the Volga River. Ground combat was fierce and devastating. In November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, and surrounded the 6th German Army Division — much as the Nazis had hoped to do to the Soviets. The Axis forces were taken by surprise.

The 6th Army, led by Friedrich von Paulus, faced the brutal winter with limited food and ammunition. The Luftwaffe airdropped supplies, but not enough. On January 22, 1943, Paulus asked for permission to surrender. Hitler denied his request, saying, “The 6th Army will hold its positions to the last man and the last round.” On January 30, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech, saying, “A thousand years hence, every German will speak with awe of Stalingrad and remember that it was there that Germany put the seal on her victory.” It was wishful thinking. Paulus surrendered on January 31, and the remaining forces completed the German surrender on February 2.

As many as 2 million people were wounded, killed, or captured before the Battle of Stalingrad reached its end, making it one of the largest and bloodiest battles in history.

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