The Writer’s Almanac for July 27, 2018

“Happy the Man” by Horace, from Odes, Book III, xxix. Translation by John Dryden. Public domain. (buy now)

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.


On this day in 1783, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) wrote to a friend: “In my opinion, there never was a good war or a bad peace.”

Franklin had just helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which brought the Revolutionary War to an end. The treaty could not please everyone on both sides, of course, and there were British Loyalists and American revolutionaries alike who were complaining about the terms of the treaty, which included 10 articles that addressed things like land boundaries, fishing rights, debts, what to do with Loyalist property and prisoners of war, and access to the Mississippi River.

Exactly 115 years later — on this day in 1898 — Secretary of State John Hay remarked to Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt: “It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried out with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.”

He was talking about the Spanish-American War, which was originally Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain. The U.S. was paying close attention to the fighting, and many Americans were cheering for the Cuban revolutionaries, led by poet José Martí, who were fighting for independence from their European colonizer. It was, after all, what America had been doing a century before.

The U.S. stood ready to intervene, to help fight against the Spanish, and even sent a big ship full of sailors, the USS Maine, down to dock in Havana’s port in January 1898. Three weeks later, in mid-February, the ship mysteriously exploded, killing 261 American sailors on board. To this day, nobody agrees what caused the explosion. Spain says it was an internal combustion. The U.S. said that Spain blew up the ship with a mine.

At any rate, in April 1898 the U.S. entered the war, and Cuba’s war of independence became the Spanish-American War. The U.S. sent in 15,000 troops to eastern Cuba in early July and scored smashing land victories against Spain — then had to leave in August because yellow fever was destroying the U.S. Army. The U.S. also triumphed in naval battles all around the Caribbean and Pacific, where there were other Spanish colonies. In 10 weeks, the U.S. had won the war.

Soon after, the United States sat down to sign another treaty called the Treaty of Paris (both were called this because they were signed in Paris, considered neutral ground). The 1898 Treaty of Paris was between Spain and the U.S., and Cuba was allowed only to observe, not to take part in negotiations. With the treaty, Spain turned over its colonies to the United States, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Spain gave up the colony of Cuba, and Cuba was supposed to become an independent republic, but in effect it became an American colony.


It’s the birthday of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (books by this author), born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She moved to New York to study at Columbia. In 1946, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a party. He was in the middle of an ugly divorce from his first wife, the writer Jean Stafford, but Hardwick and Lowell reconnected at a writers retreat and married in 1949. During their honeymoon, Lowell had a manic depressive attack, and throughout their marriage, he had frequent affairs and breakdowns. She said: “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.”

In 1959, an editor at Harper’s named Robert Silvers put together an issue about the state of literature in America, and he asked Hardwick to write a piece. Her essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” sparked a huge controversy — even the owner of Harpers wrote a letter condemning it. She wrote: “In America, now … a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have ‘filled a need,’ and is to be ‘thanked’ for something and be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'”

In early 1963, Hardwick and Lowell were having dinner with Jason and Barbara Epstein, their friends and neighbors on West 67th Street. The New York Times was on strike, and Jason Epstein joked that life was nice and easy now that they had nothing to do, with no New York Times Book Review to read. They talked about starting their own book review, and realized that it actually was the perfect time to do it, since publishers were getting desperate without the Times. The next morning, Lowell went to the bank and took out a $4,000 loan secured by his trust fund. They called Robert Silvers, the editor at Harper’s, and asked if he would be interested in working as an editor for their not-yet-existent publication; he accepted immediately. They put together the first issue of The New York Review of Books at the dining room table in Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. It was published in February of 1963, featuring work by Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Mary McCarthy. They printed 100,000 copies, which sold out right away. Hardwick was not an official editor — that role went to Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers — but she was an editorial advisor. She helped shape the overall content and image of the review; Jason Epstein described Hardwick as “a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to satisfy.”

Hardwick’s books of fiction and essays collections include Sleepless Nights (1979), Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), and Sight Readings: American Fiction(1998).

She said, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Bharati Mukherjee (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1940). She said: “As a bookish child in Calcutta, I used to thrill to the adventures of bad girls whose pursuit of happiness swept them outside the bounds of social decency. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina lived large in my imagination.”

She went to college in Calcutta, and after graduation, she asked her father if she could go abroad and study to be a writer — afterward, she would come home for an arranged marriage with a nuclear physicist of her same caste and class. Her father agreed, thinking it would be a harmless way for her to pass a couple of years. Her family was hosting a group of UCLA professors and students for dinner, so her father asked them where he should send his daughter in America to learn to be a writer. They suggested the University of Iowa, so off she went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

She started dating someone in her program, a Canadian named Clark Blaise, and after just two weeks, they went downtown during their lunch break and got married in a lawyer’s office above a local coffee shop. She said: “Until my lunch-break wedding, I had seen myself as an Indian foreign student who intended to return to India to live. The five-minute ceremony in the lawyer’s office suddenly changed me into a transient with conflicting loyalties to two very different cultures.”

Mukherjee’s novels include The Tiger’s Daughter (1971), Jasmine (1989), Desirable Daughters (2004), and, most recently, Miss New India (2011).


The Atlantic Cable was completed on this day in 1866, making telegraphic communication possible between Europe and North America. The cable ran from Valentia Harbor, Ireland, to the little fishing village of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland: a distance of nearly 1,700 nautical miles. The first message was “A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and Russia.” Queen Victoria then cabled, “The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of Union between the United States and England.”

It was the third attempt to lay transatlantic cable between the two continents. Before, they had tried bringing cable on ships from Britain and America, meeting in the middle of the ocean and splicing the ends together. The cable kept snapping, and when they eventually did make a connection, the engineer used voltage that was too high, and the cable burned out. The third time was the charm, however, and this cable was laid with no trouble at all. The Great Eastern left Ireland with enough cable aboard to run the full distance; they spooled out about 120 miles a day. The mission completed, the Great Eastern turned around and steamed east to the point where the previous cable had snapped. They managed to retrieve the broken end and splice it successfully; they completed the second cable connection between the continents on September 8.

It still took about 24 hours to get a message from London to New York, due to a gap between Newfoundland and the mainland, but people didn’t complain. Prior to the laying of the cable, it had taken messages a week or more to cross the Atlantic. The telegraph opened for commercial use almost immediately but it was pricey: a dollar a letter, payable in gold.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

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It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

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