After we saw what there was to see
we went off to buy souvenirs, and my father
waited by the car and smoked. He didn’t need
a lot of things to remind him where he’d been.
Why do you want so much stuff?
he might have asked us. “Oh, Ed,” I can hear
my mother saying, as if that took care of it.
After she died I don’t think he felt any reason
to go back through all those postcards, not to mention
the glossy booklets about the Singing Tower
and the Alligator Farm, the painted ashtrays
and lucite paperweights, everything we carried home
and found a place for, then put away
in boxes, then shoved far back in our closets.
He’d always let my mother keep track of the past,
and when she was gone—why should that change?
Why did I want him to need what he’d never needed?
I can see him leaning against our yellow Chrysler
in some parking lot in Florida or Maine.
It’s a beautiful cloudless day. He glances at his watch,
lights another cigarette, looks up at the sky.
“After We Saw What There Was to See” by Lawrence Raab from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of the world's most famous womanizer, Giacomo Casanova (books by this author), born in Venice in 1725. His mother, Zanetta Farussi, was an actress, and his father, Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova, was an actor and dancer. Venice at that time was a kind of Las Vegas of Italy, with its gambling dens and courtesans and whose religious and political leaders valued tourism and turned a blind eye to vice.
Casanova is best known for his romantic liaisons, and his name is synonymous with seduction, but his autobiography — the 12-volume, 3,500-page Histoire de ma vie or Story of my life — is the best record we have of 18th-century society and its customs. He began to toy with the idea of writing his memoir in 1780, and took up the project in earnest in 1789, in part to relieve the boredom he felt in his position as librarian to a Bohemian count. He completed the first draft in 1792, and worked on revisions until his death six years later. He tells his story without repentance, but nevertheless with humor and candor in describing his failures as well as his successes. He wrote in the preface, "My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me," and later, "I loved, I was loved, my health was good, I had a great deal of money, and I spent it, I was happy and I confessed it to myself."
On this day in 1917, at 8:35 p.m., President Woodrow Wilson called Congress into special session and asked them to declare war on Germany. Appearing before a joint session of the Senate and House, he said, "The world must be made safe for democracy."
America had been able to maintain an uneasy neutrality for about three years while the war raged on in Europe. But the "Zimmermann Note" was made public in March. This message from German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann proposed that the Mexican government ally itself with Germany, in exchange for Germany's help in regaining Mexico's "lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona." The message also suggested that Mexico press Japan to ally itself with Germany. That note — and Germany's sinking of five American ships — changed public opinion about intervention in the war. When the war ended, a year and a half later (November 11, 1918), 9½ million soldiers had died, in addition to 13 million civilians, who perished from massacres, starvation, and disease.
Today is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (books by this author), born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He was the only son of a shoemaker who used to tell him stories from Arabian Nights. His mother was an illiterate washerwoman who was widowed when her son was 11. When Andersen was 14, he told his mother that he wanted to go to Copenhagen. When she asked what he intended to do there, he said, "I'll become famous! First you suffer cruelly, and then you become famous."
He intended to find his fame on the stage. He even found a patron, Jonas Collin, who was the director of the Royal Danish Theatre. But Andersen was tall and gawky, and people used to laugh at his attempts to sing and dance; he also experienced poverty worse even than he had known in Odense. He felt like an outsider. These feelings were reinforced when he finally went back to school at Collin's urging. Andersen was a country boy not used to life in the capital city, he was much older than the other students, and he was a mediocre student at best; his schoolmaster used to pick on him mercilessly. He finally graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1828, and he published his first story in 1829. It was called "A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager," and it was a success. His writing career was launched.
Andersen followed up that first story with volumes of poetry, plays, autobiographical novels, and travelogues. He published his first collection of fairy tales in 1835, but still continued writing for adults. Although his novels did well, his fairy tales were overlooked at first, and it wasn't until an English translation was published in 1845 that they became popular. Andersen gave us "The Princess and the Pea," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Ugly Duckling," and "The Little Match Girl," among many others — more than 150 fairy tales in all.
With his literary success came the fame and acceptance that Andersen had always wanted. He traveled extensively around Europe, rubbing elbows with fellow writers like Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Henrik Ibsen. In England, he met Charles Dickens, whose work he admired. The two men shared a concern for the less fortunate members of society, and had both grown up without money, and they became friends.
In 2012, a Danish historian came across a previously unknown Andersen fairy tale in the bottom of a storage box in the national archive. The story is called "The Tallow Candle," and it's about a lonely candle that feels misunderstood and unappreciated until it is finally recognized by a tinderbox. Andersen wrote it when he was a teenager, during a particularly unhappy period at school, and he presented it to a vicar's widow who had loaned him books when he was a child.
In 1872, Andersen was badly injured when he fell out of bed. He never fully recovered from his injuries; he also developed liver cancer, which claimed his life in 1875.
Today is the birthday of the French novelist and journalist Émile Zola (books by this author), born in Paris (1840). He invented a new style of fiction writing that he called Naturalism, which he defined as "nature seen through a temperament." He had been inspired by Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1839), and he decided to try applying scientific principles of observation to the practice of writing fiction. The result was a 20-novel cycle, a kind of fictional documentary about the influence of heredity and environment on an extended family. It was called Les Rougon-Macquart. Some of the novels of the cycle include The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885).
Zola said, "The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work."
And, "If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud."