Tuesday Sep. 1, 2015

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Ants

Theirs is a perfection of pure form.
Nobody but has his proper place and knows it.
Everything they do is functional.
Each foray in a zigzag line
Each prodigious lifting
Of thirty-two times their own weight
Each excavation into the earth’s core
Each erection
Of a crumbly parapetted tower —

None of these feats is a private pleasure,
None of them done
For the sake of the skill alone —

They’ve got a going concern down there,
A full egg-hatchery
A wet-nursery of aphids
A trained troop of maintenance engineers
Sanitation experts
A corps of hunters
And butchers
An army

A queen
Each
Is nothing without the others, each being a part
Of something greater than all of them put together
A purpose which none of them knows
Since each is only
The one thing that he does. There is
A true consistency
Toward which their actions tend.
The ants have bred and inbred to perfection.
The strains of their genes that survive survive.
Every possible contingency
Has been foreseen and written into the plan.

Nothing they do will be wrong.

“Ants” by Daniel Hoffman from Beyond Silence. © Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the anniversary of the attack that began WWII in 1939. At 11 minutes after five in the morning, Hitler issued a proclamation for his army to invade Poland. He claimed it was a counterattack, that the Poles had started the whole thing, but in reality, German troops had been moving to the eastern border for weeks; Polish troops had simply moved up to their own border to defend it. Hitler had recently signed a pact with Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, surprising everyone, because the two men had been sworn enemies. Their intention was to carve up Poland, giving the western third to Germany while the Soviets took the rest.

Britain and France, allied with Poland, entered the war two days later. But by then it was too late to save Poland. The German army unleashed the new form of warfare they called Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” and within six days, had taken Krakow. Within 10, they were outside Warsaw. By early October, Poland had fallen.

It’s the birthday of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875) (books by this author), born in Chicago, creator of the popular fictional character Tarzan, King of the Apes. Burroughs was working in Chicago as a pencil-sharpener salesman when he decided to try his hand at writing for pulp magazines. He said, “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, I could write stories just as rotten.” His efforts began appearing in All-Story Magazine (1912) and were a hit, influencing future science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury.

He was also secretly at work on an adventure story about a young boy in the jungles of West Africa. John Clayton, heir to the House of Greystoke, is adopted by a kindly great apes after his parents die. The apes name the baby “Tarzan,” which means “white skin” in ape language. The boy is reared by the apes and learns the ways of the jungle. He also finds his parents’ abandoned cabin and their books, and he teaches himself to read and speak English.

Tarzan of the Apes was an instant success upon publication (1914). Burroughs made so much money he formed his own publishing house and bought land in California that eventually became the city of Tarzana.

The character captured the public’s imagination, spawning more than 40 novels, a comic book series, and numerous Hollywood films, which made Burroughs unhappy, because the films portrayed Tarzan as a savage. In the books, he is an erudite and wealthy heir to a noble English fortune.

It was on this date in 1850 that P.T. Barnum brought Jenny Lind to New York. Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” was a gifted soprano who was wildly popular in Europe, and Barnum became aware of her in 1849, as she was wrapping up her third London season. He convinced her to tour the United States, even though he had never heard her sing and had no ear for music. Her reputation as a box-office draw was enough for him. Barnum offered her a thousand dollars a night, plus expenses. He usually paid artists after their performance, but Lind required the full amount for all of her 150 scheduled shows up front. Barnum mortgaged everything he had and still came up $5,000 short, so he borrowed the rest from a Philadelphia clergyman who believed that Lind would set a good moral example for American audiences. Lind was a well-known philanthropist, and was hoping to endow some schools in Sweden; she saw an American tour as a great opportunity to help others, and she distributed money to local charities everywhere she went. The public adored her.

Barnum publicized her visit in the months leading up to the start of her tour. His first press release really emphasized her moral qualities, saying, “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America.” Lind had been virtually unknown in the States, but Barnum created so much buzz that 30,000 fans met her ship when it docked in New York City on September 1. The tour was a huge financial success, although Lind was uncomfortable with Barnum’s publicity tactics. She ended her contract with him in 1851, but toured for another year under her own name. Emily Dickinson was in the audience for one of her performances, and wrote rapturously: “... how bouquets fell in showers, and the roof was rent with applause — how it thundered outside, and inside with the thunder of God and of men — judge ye which was the loudest; ... she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends.”

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

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