The Writer’s Almanac for August 1, 2018

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. Public Domain. (buy now)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’ d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


According to his contemporaries, today is the birthday of English alchemist and spirit medium Edward Kelley, born in Worcester, England in 1555. Kelley’s early life is shrouded in mystery — he probably worked as an apothecary’s assistant, he may have studied at Oxford under the name Edward Talbot, and he may have been sentenced to the pillory and locked in the stocks on public display as punishment for forgery or counterfeiting.

What is known is that, in his late 20s, Edward Kelley approached John Dee, one of the most learned men of the age, to offer his services as a scryer and seer. Dee was in his 50s, a close consultant to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and a mathematician and scientist at a time when science and magic were just beginning to separate, when astronomers were also astrologers and natural scientists were also alchemists. Dee had already been trying for some time to find a way of contacting angels when Kelley came to call. Dee hired him, and Kelley soon began receiving visions of angels in his crystal ball, angels who delivered messages made of strange characters written in tables like a literary Sudoku with all the cells filled in, messages that scrolled from the angels’ mouths like ribbons of paper.

Dee and Kelley transcribed volumes of the angelic language, Kelley developed a red powder that he claimed could transform base metal into gold, and the pair left England for a nomadic life throughout Europe, seeking the patronage of various rulers and noblemen. For the better part of a decade, Kelley and Dee traveled to the courts of Europe — to the king of Poland, to Prague and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who made Kelley a baron — and the men were at times given fortunes and estates in exchange for the gold that Kelley repeatedly promised, but unfortunately failed, to make.

Kelley and Dee were both married, and it was during their European rambles that Kelley’s angels began ordering the men to share everything they had, including their wives. Dee complied but then, heartbroken, took his family and returned to England, leaving Kelley behind.

Kelley’s continual failure to produce any gold finally prompted the Emperor Rudolf to imprison him in a tower in a mountain town northwest of Prague in the hopes it would force the alchemist to comply. Kelley’s end is known only through tradition: He either fell from his tower prison while trying to escape with too short a rope, or he sampled the alchemical “elixir of immortality” he’d created while in prison, and perished.


Today is the birthday of Maria Mitchell (books by this author), the first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. Although the American essayist Hannah Crocker explained that same year in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women that it was then a woman’s “province to soothe the turbulent passions of men … to shine in the domestic circle” and that “it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men,” Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents believed that girls should have the same access to education and the same chance to aspire to high goals as boys, and they raised all 10 of their children as equals.

Maria’s early interest in science and the stars came from her father, a dedicated amateur astronomer who shared with all his children what he saw as physical evidence of God in the natural world, although Maria was the only child interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. She would later say, in a quote recorded in NASA’s profile of her, that we should “not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe,” because “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”

By age 12, Maria was assisting her father with his astronomical observations and data, and just five years later opened and ran her own school for girls, training them in the sciences and math. In 1838, she became the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum and began spending her evenings in an observatory her father had built atop the town’s bank.

On October 1, 1848, a crisp, clear autumn evening, Maria focused her father’s telescope on a distant star. The light was faint and blurry, and Maria suddenly realized she was looking not at a star, but a comet; she recorded its coordinates, and when she saw the next night that the fuzzy light had moved, she was sure. Maria shared her discovery with her father, who wrote to the Harvard Observatory, who in turn passed her name on to the king of Denmark, who had pledged a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet so distant that it could only be seen through a telescope. Maria was awarded the medal the following year, and the comet became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Mitchell’s list of firsts is impressive: She’d made the first American comet sighting; in 1848, she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1853, she became the first woman to earn an advanced degree; and in 1865, she became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Vassar Female College as their astronomy professor and the head of their observatory, making her the first female astronomy professor in American history.

Mitchell also became a devoted anti-slavery activist and suffragette, with friends such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In her Life, Letters, and Journals, Maria declares that, “no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.” 


Herman Melville was born (books by this author) on this day in 1819 in New York City. The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman’s time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense.

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he’d likely expected: The cruelties he experience on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor’s yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville’s first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn’t possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville’s younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels — which he probably shared with his wife — a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville’s power of language “unparalleled,” while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville’s fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville’s career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he’d experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville’s masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.


On this day in 1876, Colorado became the 38th state admitted to the Union. It’s one of only three states in the U.S. without any natural borders — something like a river or mountain range or desert, which separates it from its neighbors. The other two states with no natural borders: Colorado’s neighbors Wyoming and Utah.


Today is the birthday of the man who composed the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born on the family plantation in what is now Carroll County, Maryland (1779). During the War of 1812, he was aboard a British ship off the coast of Baltimore negotiating a prisoner exchange and became aware of an impending British attack on the nearby Fort McHenry. He was held captive and for two days forced to watch the bombardment of the unsuspecting American troops. And after being released, he wrote a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” in which he recounted the sight of the flag still waving through the debris of battle. The poem was fitted to a popular English tune of the day and soon became widely known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916, and Congress followed with a resolution in 1931, signed by President Hoover. Key later authored a book on religion and literature and had a career as a lawyer.

He said: “Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?”


It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.” James Dennis “Jim” Carroll (books by this author), born in Manhattan, New York (1949.) He grew up on the Lower East Side, a talented student and basketball player. At 13, he won a scholarship to the prestigious private school Trinity on the Upper West Side. There he led a double life, leading the team to a victorious season while developing a serious heroin addiction. He also began to write and attend workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where he was inspired by the readings of Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg.

At 16, he published his first collection of poems, Organic Trains (1967), and excerpts from the journal he’d been keeping were picked up by The Paris Review. He had several offers to publish his diaries in their entirety, but he was more interested in becoming a poet. He accepted a job offer from Andy Warhol, writing film dialogue and managing his theater, and in 1973, he published a second book of poems, Living at the Movies, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 22.

He finally published the full journals as The Basketball Diaries (1978). Editors had asked him to rewrite sections from an adult perspective, but he refused, saying that the book was written by a teenager and was intended for other young people. The book began: “Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event. The Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I’m actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate.”

At the prodding of his friend Patti Smith, he launched The Jim Carroll Band in the ’80s. His albums include Catholic Boy (1980), Dry Dreams (1982), and I Write Your Name (1983).

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

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This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

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A man watching his own heartbeat

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

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