For all you J. R. R. Tolkien Fans

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).

From: Writer’s Almanac

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Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 1:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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A mini-biography of the man who wrote “Moby-Dick”

Herman Melville (books by this author), age 21, set sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet on this date in 1841 from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean. Melville had no experience as a whaler, and not much as a seaman, either, although he’d sailed to Liverpool, England, and back during his few weeks as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. But he loved the sea, and he was eager to learn. Whaling was still big business in 1841; whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.

Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling, helping to harpoon the whales, harvest them, and process their oil aboard the ship. He also listened to the tales his fellow whalers told, particularly of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick. Knickerbocker Magazine had described the whale in 1939: “this renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, … he was white as wool! … Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws.” Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase’s account. It gave him material for Moby-Dick, which begins, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

Taken from: Writer’s Almanac

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward

In today’s excerpt (from delanceyplace.com) – during Chairman Mao Zedong‘s Great Leap Forward, which was an effort to use centralized Communist planning to vault China’s economy past those of the Western European powers, China endured one of the greatest tragedies in human history – the death of over 45 million people:

“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. By unleashing China’s greatest asset, a labour force that was counted in the hundreds of millions, Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Instead of following the Soviet model of development, which leaned heavily towards industry alone, China would ‘walk on two legs’: the peasant masses were mobilized to transform both agriculture and industry at the same time, converting a backward economy into a modern communist society of plenty for all.

“In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivized, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.

“At least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962. The term ‘famine’, or even ‘Great Famine’, is often used to describe these four to five years of the Maoist era, but the term fails to capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivization

It is the birthday of American merchant Johns Hopkins, born

It is the birthday of American merchant Johns Hopkins, born on a tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1795). The Hopkinses were Quakers and in 1807 they’d freed their slaves, so Johns stopped going to school at a young age to help out on the plantation.

He left for Baltimore in 1812 to work in his uncle’s grocery business. He lived with his uncle’s family and fell in love with his cousin Elizabeth, but Quakers strongly opposed the marriage of first cousins. Both Johns and Elizabeth remained single their entire lives. After working for his uncle for seven years, Johns started a dry goods business with his three brothers. They sold goods to farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, and they often took moonshine as payment. Back in Baltimore, they bottled the moonshine and sold it to city folk as “Hopkins’ Best.” Johns invested his profits in the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, turning his modest Hopkins’ Best earnings into a sizeable fortune.

With no wife or children, he began to ponder the fate of his tremendous fortune after his death and in 1867 he incorporated The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital. When he died in 1873, his $7 million fortune was divided between the two institutions.

Published in: on May 19, 2013 at 8:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Amongst the Frenchby Paul ZimmerI do not have their

Amongst the French

by Paul Zimmer

I do not have their words,
do not have their years or customs.
Passing them on the road,
shy as fog passing down
slopes into the valley,
I always give first utterance
or make an uncertain gesture.

My neighbors are kind,
knowing I am like rain,
that if they wait long enough,
in time I will go away.

It is the same for me in
all directions—under stars
swarming out of foothills,
on the gravel I churn
with my shoes—east, west, 
north, or south—the same.
If I remained in
this friendly place forever,
I would always be a stranger.

“Amongst the French” by Paul Zimmer, from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited. © The University of Georgia Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Published in: on May 19, 2013 at 8:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Roaring 20’s

An exerpt from “Delancey Place

In todays excerpt the Roaring 1920s brought a boom in cigarette smoking. U.S. cigarette production doubled during the decade as people hungered for sophistication, and as Prohibition, which had unintentionally increased alcohol consumption, increased cigarette smoking along with it:

“New issues of securities of industrial companies would increase from 690 [in 1924] to nearly 2,000 in 1929. Brokers’ loans to investors and share ownership would quadruple by 1929. The number of Americans who paid tax on income of a million dollars a year also would quadruple.

“The new optimism about the future led to a boom in consumer spending. Radio sales doubled in 1923, then tripled in 1924. On average, nearly every family had a car, and drivers were branching out from black Model Ts to an assortment of new makes in colors ranging from ‘Florentine cream’ to ‘Versailles violet.’ Average people bought items they hadn’t imagined spending money on just a few years earlier: from Listerine mouthwash and crossword puzzle books to vacuum cleaners and meat slicers to new golf clubs and even property in Florida.

“Prosperity changed the culture. Suddenly there were traffic lights, filling stations, and new concrete highways with chicken dinner restaurants and tourist rest stops. Giant broadcast radio stations with nationwide hookups brought Graham McNamee’s play-by-play or the Happiness Boys or reports on the Scopes Monkey Trial into more than one out of three homes. More Americans followed politics now, including the presidential nominating convention, which was covered live from Madison Square Garden. …

“Along with America’s new wealth came a hunger for sophistication. College applications spiked, as did international travel. The most popular nonfiction books included Outline of Science, The Story of Philosophy, Why We Behave Like Human Beings, and Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette (the top seller). The now-literary-minded masses read an astonishing rush of new novels during this period: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Newly minted intellectuals tried to parse James Joyce’s Ulysses or T S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. New fans of the arts listened to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and saw plays by Eugene O’Neill, who won three Pulitzer Prizes during the 1920s.

“One sure way for both men and women to appear sophisticated was to smoke cigarettes. Advertisers depicted pretty girls, cigarettes in hand, imploring men to blow smoke their way. Tobacco manufacturers announced that ‘now women may enjoy a companionable smoke with their husbands and brothers.’ Women had earned the vote and entered the work force, now millions of women of all ages exercised their right to take up smoking. Blue tobacco smoke wafted through theater lobbies, where Greta Garbo’s most important silent movies – Flesh and the Devil, The Temptress, The Torrent, and Love – appeared in 1926 and 1927, just as talking movies debuted. Sports fans smoked as they watched Babe Ruth, also a smoker, hit sixty home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees; his teammates, known as ‘Murderers’ Row,’ easily smoked their way through the World Series that year. Prohibition also fueled smoking, just as it increased illegal alcohol consumption. The more people drank, the more they craved a smoke. …

“During the decade prior to 1929, U.S. cigarette production doubled.”

Frank Partnoy, The Match King, Public Affairs, Copyright 2009 by Frank Partnoy, pp. 91-93.

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Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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“A Peoples History of the United States’….Howard Zinn

Zinn’s ‘People’s History’ Masterwork Hits the History Channel

Howard Zinn’s Webpage….all about the production of “The People Speak” Click for the link

By Dave Zirin, AlterNet
Posted on December 11, 2009, Printed on December 17, 2009
http://www.alternet.org/story/144486/

On December 13th, a date I’ve basically had tattooed on my arm like the guy from Memento, The People Speak finally makes its debut on the History Channel. This is more than just must-see-TV. It is nothing less than the life’s work of “people’s historian” Howard Zinn brought to life by some of the most talented actors, musicians, and poets in the country. Howard Zinn and his partner Anthony Arnove chose the most stirring political passages in Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States, creating a written anthology called Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Those “voices” have now been fully resurrected by a collection of performers ranging from Matt Damon to hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco to poet Staceyann Chin.

The People Speak also showcases John Legend reading the words of Muhammad Ali, Kerry Washington as Sojourner Truth, David Strathairn’s take on the soaring oratory of Eugene Debs, and Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass asking, “What is the 4th of July to the American Slave?” There are also the words of women factory workers read by Marisa Tomei, rebellious farmers personified by Viggo Mortensen, and escaped slaves voiced by Benjamin Bratt.

Certainly the lunatic right will howl to the heavens after seeing “liberal Hollywood” perform the words of labor radicals, anti-racists, feminists, and socialists. In fact, aided by the craven Matt Drudge, they are already in full froth, campaigning online to get the History Channel to drop The People Speak before its air-date. If it weren’t so contemptible, their actions would be almost quaint, like a virtual book burning.

But beneath the bombast, their hostile aversion “a people’s history” speaks volumes about why we need to support this project. This is a country dedicated to historical amnesia. Our radical past holds dangers for both those in power and those threatened by progressive change. We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books. Our children don’t learn about the people who made the Civil Rights movement. Instead we get Dr. Martin Luther King on a McDonald’s commemorative cup. Because of our country’s organized ignorance, endless hours are wasted in every generation reinventing the wheel and relearning lessons already taught.

One reason Barack Obama made so many of us feel “hopey” during the 2008 election season is that he seemed to understand and even take inspiration from our “people’s history.” Candidate Obama would invoke the odysseys of abolitionists, suffragettes, freedom riders, and Stonewall rioters. He linked his campaign to this history with a slogan from today’s immigrant rights and union struggles: Si Se Puede, Yes We Can.

And yet this Presidency in practice has been like watching George W. Bush with a working cerebellum. Send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan? Say nothing in the face of racist rallies held outside the capitol? Tell LGBT people to shut up and wait for their civil rights? All in a year’s work. The Obama administration is now counting upon the American people, to once again, quietly go with the flow all while pretending we never saw this movie before. This is why The People Speak matters. It’s aimed at reclaiming our hallowed history from all who would profane it: to resurrect our past as a guide to fight for the future.

There are those who will wrongly see The People Speak as a kind of “spoonful of sugar” approach to education. Get a celebrity to recite the words of Susan B. Anthony and all of a sudden, we’ll all want to be history buffs. But this isn’t Hollywood “slumming” in the land of radical chic. It is instead a bracing spectacle where our sacred history is reimagined by performance artists of tremendous craft. Consider the dramatic task at hand: they are attempting nothing less than turning politics into art. If Zinn and co-producers Arnove, Damon, Josh Brolin and Chris Moore pull this off, it holds the potential to introduce a new generation to Sojourner Truth, Eugene Debs, and perhaps most importantly of all, to the works of Howard Zinn.

As Zinn himself once said, “Knowing history is less about understanding the past than changing the future.” This is the grand adventure of Howard Zinn’s life. I encourage everyone to come along for the ride. Get your friends and family together on Sunday night and experience The People Speak. Then take them by the hand and pledge to be heard.

Dave Zirin is the author of “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.” Read more of his work at Edgeofsports.com.

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144486/

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Battle of the Bulge, Kurt Vonnegut, and Slaughterhouse-Five

Selected from Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” at  http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org  …

It was on this day in 1944 that the Battle of the Bulge began. It took place in the Ardennes forest, a snowy mountainous region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg and lasted for more than a month. It was the last major German offensive, and it was the bloodiest battle of World War II for Americans troops. While estimates about the number of American casualties differ, the U.S. Defense Department lists 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 missing.

Among those taken as prisoner of war by the Germans was a young infantry scout named Kurt Vonnegut. (books by this author) He’d only been in the front lines for five days when he got trapped behind enemy lines and taken prisoner. Within a month, he was sent over to Dresden and put to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. He and his fellow American prisoners were detained in and slept at an underground warehouse in Dresden that had been a meat-packing facility and storage locker before the war. The building was marked “Schlachthof-fünf”: “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Then, in February 1945, about two months after the Battle of the Bulge began, British and American forces started firebombing Dresden. The firestorm created by the massive Allied bombings killed nearly all of Dresden’s residents, but Vonnegut and other POWs survived because they were three stories underground, in that meat-storage locker.

Vonnegut published his novel Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, a quarter century after he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and a witness to the Dresden firebombing. In it, he wrote:

“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

The Battle of the Bulge ended on January 25, 1945, after Hitler agreed to withdraw German troops from the Ardennes forest. Less than two weeks later, Allied leaders met at Yalta to discuss occupying post-war Germany.

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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