The Writer's Almanac from Saturday, September 23, 2017
The Writer's Almanac from Saturday, September 23, 2017
“This Moment” by Eavan Boland from In a Time of Violence. © Norton, 1994.
It's the birthday of John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina (1926). When asked to describe his style, he said, "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once." He played with Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis before forming his own quartet in 1961. He quit drugs cold turkey after Davis fired him for falling asleep on stage, and he said the month he locked himself in an empty room was a spiritual awakening for him; he asked God for "the means and the privilege" to play music for people and make them happy.
And it's the birthday of Ray Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia (1930). They called him the "Father of Soul." He first got national attention in the mid-1950s with his performance of "I Got A Woman," which fused rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz.
Today is the day Greece celebrates the birthday of the Athenian tragic poet, Euripides (480 BC), best known for his plays Medea, The Bacchae, and Iphigenia at Aulis. The story goes that he was born on the same day as the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, but this detail was probably invented after his death to align him with the Athenian identity. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides is one of the few Greek playwrights who had a lot of his work survive through the ages.
He paid special attention to the downtrodden in society, particularly women and slaves, at a time when other playwrights focused on more powerful, triumphant characters. Euripides was one of the first writers to portray mythical heroes like regular people; even when they were arguing with gods, their struggles were human struggles and they had the same emotional conflicts as everyone else. His dialogue was less structured and closer to regular speech. This decision to make dialogue less like poetry was the first in a long line of innovations that made theater more realistic.
His work can be hard to pin down, and critics make a lot of contradicting claims about him. The literary critic Bernard Knox wrote: “He has been described as ‘the poet of the Greek enlightenment’ and also as ‘Euripides the irrationalist.’ He has been seen as a profound explorer of human psychology and also a rhetorical poet who subordinated consistency of character to verbal effect; as a misogynist and a feminist; as a realist who brought tragic action down to the level of everyday life, and as a romantic poet who chose unusual myths and exotic settings. He has been recognized as the precursor of New Comedy and also what Aristotle called him: ‘the most tragic of poets.’ […] And not one of these descriptions is entirely false.”Euripides was exiled from Greece toward the end of his life because of his association with Socrates, who was executed for refusing to recognize the Greek gods. He defined his art form this way: “Tragedy isn’t getting something or failing to get it, it’s losing something you already have.”
Today is the birthday of activist, politician, and newspaper editor Victoria Claflin Woodhull, born in Homer, Ohio (1838). In 1872, she became the first woman run for the presidency of the United States. In an address to Congress, she once said, “I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee, founded Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a radical publication that was the first to publish an English translation of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, and which espoused the virtues of free love, birth control for women, and equal rights. The sisters were already notorious in New York for benefiting from the largess of millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was a bereft widower, and distrustful of modern medicine, and turned to the sisters for spiritual guidance. Grateful, Vanderbilt supplied the sisters with stock tips, which proved valuable during the 1869 gold panic, and the sisters netted around $700,000. With Vanderbilt’s backing, Victoria and Tennessee opened their own firm named Woodhull, Claflin & Co., becoming the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. They never gained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, though, because women weren’t allowed.
In 1870, Woodhull announced her candidacy for president of the United States. Her platform was women’s suffrage, nationalization of railroads, eight-hour workdays, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty, and welfare for the poor. Woodhull formed the Equal Rights Party, which nominated her at its May 1872 convention. From the very start, her run was contentious. The ERP selected abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate, but he never acknowledged the nomination, and campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant, instead. Woodhull’s views on sexuality and women’s rights were lambasted in the media, with even Harriet Beecher Stowe weighing in to call Woodhull “an impudent witch.” A popular cartoon of the time depicted Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan.” She and her sister were even jailed on Election Day in retaliation for running an article accusing Beecher’s brother, a prominent preacher, of lascivious conduct.
Victoria Woodhull’s name did appear on the ballot in some states, though no one knows how many votes she received, because no one bothered to count the votes cast for her.
When she ran for president, women were not allowed to vote, though there was no law against their running for office. It would be 50 years until women were allowed to vote, and it would take until 1967 until a woman was allowed a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
Victoria Woodhull once wrote, “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week.”
It's the birthday of journalist Walter Lippmann, born in New York City (1889). Lippmann was a great critic of journalism as a practice and concept, arguing that the average citizen had neither the ability nor inclination to be fully educated about anything beyond personal interest. He made these arguments, of course, in his newspaper column, and in a great many books.
Lippmann coined the term "cold war," and gave the word "stereotype," originally a means of duplicating an image over and over again, its modern meaning, arguing that contemporary society had become so complicated and nuanced that mass media dumbed things down — creating for us stereotypes to more easily understand and navigate the world.
Today is the 68th birthday of Bruce Springsteen, the American rock musician known for his poetic lyrics, themes of working-class America, and a big, classic rock sound. His musical influences include Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Van Morrison, and Elvis. He was born in New Jersey to a working-class family and his mom took out a $60 loan to buy him a guitar when he was 15.
He began recording albums in 1973 with Greetings from Asbury Park. John Landau wrote a glowing review that put him on the map: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. […] He is a rock ’n’ roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader […] rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock ‘n’ roll composer. […] He parades in front of his all-star rhythm band like a cross between Chuck Berry, early Bob Dylan, and Marlon Brando.”
Starting October 12th this year, Springsteen will be performing a Broadway show featuring songs and readings from his autobiography, Born to Run. To prevent scalpers buying up too many tickets, Springsteen is selling seats through Verified Fan, a technology made by Ticketmaster to prevent internet bots from buying tickets for resale.
Springsteen has sold over 120 million records worldwide. He’s won 20 Grammy’s, two Golden Globes, and has released 18 albums. His concerts often run three hours long and, even at 68, he performs so athletically on stage that he regularly ends the show soaked in sweat. He said: “You can’t be afraid of getting old. Old is good, if you’re gathering in life. Our band is good at understanding that equation.”
He also said: “I looked at myself, and I just said, ‘Well, you know, I can sing, but I’m not the greatest singer in the world. I can play guitar very well, but I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world.’ So, I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to project an individuality, it’s going to have to be in my writing.’”