Monday Aug. 31, 2015



The text of today’s poem is not available online.

“Clam” by Mary Oliver from What Do We Know. © Da Capo Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous “American Scholar” address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard. He told the students to think for themselves rather than absorb thought, to create rather than repeat, and not to look to Europe for cultural models.

Today is the birthday of William Shawn, born William Chon in Chicago (1907). He started working for The New Yorker as a reporter for the “Talk of the Town” section. Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, thought very highly of Shawn, even though their styles were very different. As longtime New Yorker writer E.B. White put it: “[Ross] was a creature of the ’20s, when everyone was kicking up his heels. Shawn was a creature of the ’30s, when men were peddling apples.” Ross bequeathed The New Yorker to Shawn when his — Ross’s — health began to decline early in the 1950s.

Some people were skeptical that Shawn could pull it off; after all, he was a Midwestern boy, raised in Chicago and educated in Michigan. He didn’t like a fast-paced lifestyle, crowds, elevators, or power lunches. He was quiet, courteous, and shy — and didn’t seem like a good fit for a magazine that had made its name as a purveyor of sparkling wit and snarky New York gossip. But Shawn didn’t even try to copy Ross’s trademark style; instead, he took The New Yorker in a new direction. He cut out much of the humor and broadened the magazine’s focus to subjects of national interest. Book critic John Leonard said in 1975: “Shawn changed The New Yorker from a smarty-pants parish tip sheet into a journal that altered our experience instead of just posturing in front of it.”

When The New Yorker was sold and Shawn was forced to retire in 1987, after 54 years with the magazine, he wrote a last letter to his colleagues, saying, “We have built something quite wonderful together.”

The first radio news program was aired on Detroit’s 8MK on this date in 1920.

In 1920, radio was still a medium for hobbyists, and no one really used it for the widespread distribution of up-to-the-minute information. The Scripps newspaper family, which owned The Detroit News, provided the first push in that direction. They were worried that radio would put the newspapers out of business, but they were also worried that they would look bad if their radio news experiment failed to take off. They hired a teenager named Michael DeLisle Lyons to start up a radio station as a kind of trial. They told him to set it up in his own name, so that if it bombed, the Scripps name would not be associated with it. Lyons got government approval on August 20, and he played nonstop music for 10 days while he worked out the bugs. August 31 was the date of the primary elections, and The Detroit News reported that returns would be announced that evening over the radio.

The next morning, the newspaper reported: “The sending of the election returns by The Detroit News’ radiophone Tuesday night was fraught with romance and must go down in the history of man’s conquest of the elements as a gigantic step in his progress. In the four hours that the apparatus [...] was hissing and whirring its message into space, few realized that a dream and a prediction had come true. The news of the world was being given forth through this invisible trumpet to the waiting crowds in the unseen market place.”

The radio station that began as 8MK is still in business, operating under the call letters WWJ, and it is still an all-news station. The Detroit News would later launch Michigan’s first television station.

It’s the birthday of Armenian-American writer William Saroyan (books by this author), born in Fresno, California (1908). His parents were recent refugees from the Turkish massacres in Armenia. His father was died when William was three. Saroyan’s mother, placed her children in the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, California. Saroyan spent five years there before his mother was able to claim him.

His mother worked with other Armenian immigrants picking fruit for large farms and working in canneries. Saroyan started selling newspapers on the streets of Fresno when he was eight to make ends meet. He liked school, but left at 15. He haunted public libraries, reading anything he could get his hands on, but especially Sherwood Anderson and Guy de Maupassant. His first short story, “The Broken Wheel” (1933), was published under the name “Sirak Goryan” in Hairenik, an Armenian journal. Not long after, Story magazine published a vibrant and romantic short story called “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” (1934). The story was a hit, and Saroyan began to write feverishly, completing a collection of stories with the same name. The book became a best-seller. His play “The Time of Your Life” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1940), but Saroyan rejected the money, saying, “Businessmen shouldn’t judge art.”

Saroyan’s stories almost always centered on young boys and the immigrant life in Fresno. His characters were brash and irreverent, capable of celebrating life in spite of poverty.

Towards the end of his life and dying of prostate cancer, he called the Associated Press to give a statement to be released posthumously. The statement was: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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