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The Great Seattle Fire in Onegin Sonnet Stanzas

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of the father of modern Russian literature: Aleksandr Pushkin (books by this author), born in Moscow (1799). He died at the age of 38, but in his brief life, he worked in nearly every literary form. His masterpiece was the verse novel Eugene Onegin (1833), about a man who kills his friend in a duel, and loses the one woman he loves.

Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova who was described at the time as the most beautiful woman in Russia. She had many admirers, including Czar Nicholas. One of her suitors was so persistent that Pushkin finally challenged him to a pistol duel in 1837. Pushkin died two days later.

The government initially tried to cover up the death, because Pushkin was so popular among common Russians that they thought his death might spark an uprising. When word of his death finally did get out, people all over the country went into mourning. One man, weeping openly in the street, was asked by a newspaper man if he had known Pushkin personally. He replied, “No, but I am a Russian.”

The Great Seattle Fire destroyed downtown Seattle on this date in 1889. The fire started in the basement of a cabinet shop on the corner of Front and Madison. An employee had set a pot of glue on top of a lit stove, and the glue caught fire. Over the next 18 hours, the blaze wiped out the town’s business district and waterfront. Miraculously, there were no human fatalities.

In a year’s time, Seattle had nearly been rebuilt. All the construction jobs sparked a population boom, and Seattle grew from a town of 25,000 into a full-fledged city of more than 40,000.

Happy Birthday Dr. Percy

Walker Percy
Toasts to mercy
And he drinks
To Kate and Binx.

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Southern writer Walker Percy (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). Percy’s early life was marked by tragedy: his grandfather and father both committed suicide with shotguns, and his mother drowned when her car ran off the road into a stream. When his uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, adopted Percy and his little brothers, things took a turn for the better; it was there that he met his lifelong best friend, the neighbor boy Shelby Foote. As teenagers they took a trip to Oxford to meet their hero, William Faulkner — Percy was so overwhelmed that he stayed in the car as Foote and Faulkner talked on the porch.

Percy went off to college in Chapel Hill, and later to New York for medical school. He contracted tuberculosis and spent the next two years at a sanitarium. It was, he later said, “the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a chance to quit medicine. I had a respectable excuse.”

Instead, Percy decided to be a full-time writer. He finished two novels—one was based on his experience at the sanitarium—neither of which he could not get published. [sic] But he kept at it, and his novel The Moviegoer (1961) came out when he was 45. A year later it won the National Book Award. Percy published five more novels and many essays.

In 1976 Percy was a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans when a woman called him, asking him to read her son’s manuscript. He felt guilty turning her down—the woman’s son had committed suicide in part because of his despair over not being able to find a publisher for his novel—so Percy agreed, and was so impressed that he conspired to get it published. The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, went on to win a Pulitzer.

Korrektiv-TWA Konvergence

Speaking of Dana Gioia and Yehuda Amichai, check out today’s Writer’s Almanac.

A Ferlinghetti of the Mind

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (books by this author), born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father, an Italian immigrant, died before the boy was born and his mother was committed to an asylum while he was still an infant. A French aunt took over custody of young Lawrence and moved him to France. After a few years, they returned to New York, where his aunt got a job as a governess with a wealthy family. Then his aunt took off, abandoning her nephew, but the family liked the boy so much that they took him in.

Ferlinghetti had access to good schools, went to college at the University of North Carolina, and then joined the Navy during World War II, where he was the commander of 110-foot ship. He said: “Any smaller than us you weren’t a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way.”

After the war, he went to the Sorbonne, and then settled in San Francisco. He loved the North Beach neighborhood, full of Italian immigrants, and he decided to open a bookstore there. In 1953, he opened City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house, which made its name printing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Ferlinghetti did not publish his own book, A Coney Island of the Mind, but New Directions did in 1958, and it sold over a million copies.

Ferlinghetti wrote: “I have a feeling I’m falling / on rare occasions / but most of the time I have my feet on the ground / I can’t help it if the ground itself is falling.”

Instant Best-Seller

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published on this date in 1850 (books by this author). He didn’t expect the book to sell well, although he did feel that “some parts of the book are powerfully written.” As it happened, the book was an instant best-seller, selling 2,500 copies in 10 days. The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in America, and it was likewise distributed quickly, so more people were reading it at once and talking about it. The word of mouth drove sales of the book, a relatively new phenomenon at that time. The second edition, a run of 1,500 copies, sold out in just three days.

Judas?

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Playwright Christopher Marlowe (books by this author) was baptized in Canterbury, England, on this date in 1564. The son of a shoemaker, he was so intellectually gifted that he was accepted into Cambridge on a scholarship meant for men entering the clergy. He chose to write plays rather than pursue holy orders, and he was frequently absent, possibly because he was spying for Queen Elizabeth I, an occupation he may have held until the end of his life. He may have been posing as a Catholic to gather intelligence on any plots against the Protestant queen; he was almost denied his diploma because it was rumored he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and he was only granted his degree after the queen’s Privy Council intervened on his behalf.

Marlowe was one of the bad boys of the Renaissance. We don’t know too much about him — even less than we know about Shakespeare, which isn’t much — but his plays reveal an author who was cynical about nearly everything: religion, society, and politics. He was most likely gay and an atheist in a time when it was very dangerous to be either, let alone both. But he was also a brilliant poet and dramatist, breaking away from the traditional dramatic form of rhymed couplets to work in blank verse, and inspiring Shakespeare to do the same. One of the plays he wrote while at Cambridge was Tamburlaine the Great, and it was produced in London in 1587. It did well enough that he wrote a sequel; these were the only of Marlowe’s plays produced before his untimely death at 29, when he was stabbed in a dispute over a tavern bill. Marlowe also wrote Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris.

It Only Takes a Spark

From today’s TWA:

It’s the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). When she was growing up, she wrote love letters to herself, signed them with men’s names, and hid them in the sofa cushions in the hope of shocking her mother.

She was a prolific novelist. She’s best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Her last novel, The Finishing School (2004), was published when she was 86 years old. She died in 2006.

Happy Hundred-and-Twentieth Birthday

From The Writer’s Almanac

Today is the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien (1892) (books by this author), born to English parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was working in a bank. Tolkien was always fascinated with languages, he went to school at Oxford, first studying Classics, and later, English Language and Literature. He came across an Old English poem by Cynewulf, which contained a couplet that fascinated him: “Hail Earendel brightest of angels / Over Middle Earth sent to men.” The couplet found new life in the universe of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955), which takes place in Middle Earth and includes a half-Elven character named Earendil the Mariner, who eventually becomes a star.

In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford University as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and, later, English Language and Literature. One day, while grading exams, he discovered that a student had left one whole page in his examination booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This single line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and from there, a book: The Hobbit (1937).

Image by Robert Brown

See also: Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies (h/t Cubeland Mystic)

Apocalypssissippi

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Two hundred years ago today, in 1811, [coincidentally on Jane Austin’s birthday and the same year she published Sense and Sensibility] two mega-earthquakes struck the Louisiana Territory. They were the first two in a series of four quakes that rocked the New Madrid fault line, which runs through the region near the borders of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee; the New Madrid earthquakes remain the most severe quakes ever to strike the Eastern United States, with an estimated magnitude of around 8.0 on the Richter scale.

The epicenter was in what is now northeastern Arkansas, and structural damage was minimal because the area was sparsely populated, but the effects were felt over an area of a million square miles. Eyewitnesses reported that the Mississippi River appeared to reverse its course, the soil liquefied, and plumes of sulfurous gas shot up from the ground. The midnight quakes reportedly woke people in Pittsburgh, rang church bells in Boston, and toppled chimneys in Maine.

The zone is still active, and some seismologists believe that the region is overdue for a repeat performance. If a similar quake along the New Madrid fault were to happen now, given the current population density and the presence of 15 nuclear power plants within the quake zone, the results would be apocalyptic.

Jacksie

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Irish author C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis (books by this author), born in Belfast in 1898. When he was four, his dog Jacksie was hit by a car and killed; the boy declared he was changing his name to “Jacksie,” and for a while he wouldn’t answer to anything else. For the rest of his life, he was known as “Jack” to his family and close friends.

Raised in the Church of Ireland, he became an atheist in his teens and eventually returned to the church after a series of long theological arguments with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. “I gave up Christianity at about 14,” he said. “Came back to it when getting on for 30. Not an emotional conversion; almost purely philosophical. I didn’t want to. I’m not in the least a religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I’m my own master; but since the facts seemed to be just the opposite, I had to give in.” He wrote Mere Christianity (1952), a classic of Christian apologetics; and The Screwtape Letters (1942), an epistolary novel that consists of letters from a demon to his apprentice nephew, giving him pointers on leading a man astray. He’s also the author of the seven-book allegorical fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which he wrote for children. He thought it would be a good way to introduce Christian themes to children without beating them over the head, something that had turned him off as a young man. “An obligation to feel can freeze feelings,” he once said.

One of his books, Miracles (1947), had a profound effect on a writer from New York. Joy Davidman Gresham had been raised Jewish, but, like Lewis, had become an atheist. She was separated from her husband, who was an alcoholic, and she was raising their two sons by herself when she came upon Lewis’s book. After she read it, she began praying, and started attending services at a Presbyterian church. She also began a correspondence with Lewis that eventually led to their marriage in 1957. Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer, and she married Lewis from her hospital bed; the doctors sent her home to die, but she went into remission instead, and they had almost four wonderful years together. After her death in 1960, Lewis was devastated. He wrote a book, A Grief Observed (1961), which contained his thoughts, questions, and observations. It was so raw and personal that he published it under a pseudonym. Friends actually recommended the book to him, to help with his grief, unaware that he’d written it. His authorship wasn’t made known until after his death in 1963. In the book, he writes that he doesn’t believe people are reunited with their loved ones in the next life. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”