The Writer’s Almanac for August 4, 2018

“To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)

The keen stars were twinkling,
And the fair moon was rising among them
Dear Jane!
The guitar was tinkling,
But the notes were not sweet till you sung them
Again.

As the moon’s soft splendour
O’ er the faint cold starlight of Heaven
Is thrown,
So your voice most tender
To the strings without soul had then given
Its own.

The stars will awaken,
Though the moon sleep a full hour later,
Tonight;
No leaf will be shaken
Whilst the dews of your melody scatter
Delight.

Though the sound overpowers,
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
A tone
Of some world far from ours,
Where music and moonlight and feeling
Are one.


Today marks the printing of the first edition of the Saturday Evening Post in 1821. The magazine originated in Philadelphia in 1728 as The Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the American Colonies’ most prominent newspapers, and was owned and run by Benjamin Franklin, who established a form of journalism and freedom of speech that would become the foundation for modern American news coverage. In 1752, the Gazette published Franklin’s third-person account of his pioneering kite and electricity experiment, and on the front page of the July 10th, 1776 edition, printed the entire Declaration of Independence alongside ads offering a £7 reward for two runaway servants, a £3 reward for the thief of a white horse and a black mare, and a 10-shilling reward for the return of a runaway milch cow.

In 1821, the Gazette changed hands and was renamed The Saturday Evening Post, but kept its format of an illustration-free newspaper that tackled political controversy. Sometime later, the magazine was rededicated to morality and commercial affairs, and it already boasted an impressive circulation when it was purchased in 1898 for $1,000 by Cyrus K. Curtis, the publisher of The Ladies Home Journal. Curtis redesigned the newspaper to its present-day journal form, focusing on business, public affairs, and romance. The new journal took great care with its illustrations, which now appeared on every page and would become a hallmark of the magazine.

The Post began commissioning articles from top journalists like Willa Cather and Jack London, as well as their creative work, and serialized the first publication of London’s most famous novel, The Call of the Wild. In 1916, the Post‘seditor agreed to meet a 22-year-old painter from New York City and, upon seeing his work, immediately bought two paintings to use as covers for the magazine. One of these, an image of a nattily dressed boy with a baby bottle shoved in his pocket, pushing a baby carriage and being mocked by the other lads who are clearly off to play baseball, became young Norman Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover and the start of a 50-year collaboration that spanned more than 300 paintings and made Rockwell into one of America’s best-loved artists.

A list of authors and poets that have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post runs like a who’s who of the literary world: the Gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe; the short stories of William Faulkner and adventure stories of Louis L’Amour; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found his best story market in the magazine; humorist and curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut; Robert Heinlein, whose science fiction first broke into a wider audience in the Post; the British crime writer Agatha Christie; P.G. Wodehouse, the English humorist who was given his first break when the Post purchased and serialized one of his novels; the reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg; Ogden Nash’s lighthearted poems; the wit and poetry of Dorothy Parker; and countless more.

Readership began to decline in the 1950s and ’60s, and The Post’s editors blamed the popularity of television, which was now competing with the Post for its readers’ attention as well as its advertisers. The public’s taste in fiction was changing too, and the Post‘s conservative politics and old-fashioned values made it difficult for the magazine to obtain the work of popular writers. The Post began relying more heavily on articles on current events and followed cost-cutting measures such as replacing its famous illustrated covers and advertisements with far less expensive photographs, but was still forced to cease publication in 1969. Two years later, in a strange kind of hearkening-back to its origins, The Saturday Evening Post was back in circulation under the ownership of the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical society, with a new mission to use its credibility as a way of connecting readers and medical professionals to important topics in health and medicine.


On this day in the year 1181Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded the appearance of a supernova, what they called a “guest star” — one that appears where none was before, is visible for a time, and then disappears again — in a group of stars shared across several constellations, including the Black Tortoise of the North and the White Tiger of the West. The appearance of the guest was recorded in eight separate sources, including a pessimistic courtier to the Emperor of Japan who wrote that it was “a sign of abnormality” and expected it foretold of tumult and lawlessness. The new star was one of the three most brilliant objects in the sky and remained visible for six months before disappearing again.

In the West, where astrological tradition is largely taken from the ancient Greeks, who populated the sky with their gods, heroes, and famous if ill-fated mortals, the stars that hosted the Chinese guest are seen as a single pattern — the constellation Cassiopeia — a giant capital W revolving around the dome of the night sky, visible year-round in the Northern Hemisphere and associated with an ancient, mortal queen.

Cassiopeia was the wife of the king of Aethiopia [Ethiopia]. She was a vain woman, arrogant and boastful, fond of bragging that she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more beautiful than even the sea nymphs who were the companions of the sea god Poseidon. This so enraged Poseidon that he sent an enormous sea monster to punish the queen by destroying her kingdom. Unfortunately for Andromeda, Cassiopeia sought the advice of an oracle and was told that she could only save Aethiopia by chaining her daughter to a rock at the sea’s edge and leaving her as a sacrifice for the monster. At the last moment, a passing hero, on his way home from such exploits as slaying Gorgons, flew in on a pair of winged sandals, saved the girl, and then made her his bride.

Cassiopeia, on the other hand, was chained to her throne by the gods and flung into the heavens to hang there for all eternity, circling the Pole with her head hung toward the ground as a lesson in humility.

More recently, in 1999, NASA launched its Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit, giving astronomers their first good picture of the remnants of the supernova of 1181. The remnant, which goes by the colorful name 3C58, is an oval of matter glowing with X-rays and radio waves 10,000 light years distant. At its heart lies a rapidly spinning neutron star that is blowing out jets of particles moving at near the speed of light. As the star spins, each jet sweeps across the sky like the beam of a lighthouse, appearing to flash on and off 15 times each second against the backdrop of the sky.


Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” That’s the poet and essayist, Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Field Place, Essex, England (1792). He grew up in a wealthy family and went off to Oxford, where he was kicked out for writing risqué poetry and declaring his atheism in a pamphlet he published. The family cut him off financially at the age of 19.

Shelley left England and eloped to Scotland with his 16-year-old bride. There he was mentored by the English philosopher William Godwin. Chronically broke, Godwin saw in Shelley’s wealthy family his salvation and encouraged the poet to make good with his father. While Godwin’s outspoken socialism appealed to Shelley, so did his intellectual daughter, Mary, and soon the two had left both their families to roam around Europe together.

Shelley and Mary traveled to Switzerland, where they rented an adjoining house to Lord Byron. The two writers were good for one another, and in 1816, Shelley published his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. That same year, Percy’s previous wife committed suicide, and Percy and Mary married in a failed attempt to gain custody of Percy’s orphaned children. The court refused, citing the poet’s belief in “free love” as the reason, and the children went into foster care.

The next few years were the most productive of Shelley’s life. He wrote “Adonis,” an elegy for his friend John Keats; “Prometheus Unbound,” a drama in verse; and The Cenci, a tragedy. He is also credited with making major contributions to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818).

He died before the age of thirty, attempting to sail the coast of Spain in his ship, the Don Juan.

Shelly said,” Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write.”


It’s the birthday of Louis Armstrong born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as “The Battlefield.” When he was six years old, Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other neighborhood boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family lent him.

In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that’s where he learned to play the cornet. Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925-1928) were among the first 50 items preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Armstrong said, “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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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

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

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

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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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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