We drove across high prairie,
the Mississippi behind us,
nothing ahead for miles
a loamy sky, thick enough
to put a trowel into,
but off to the south
away from one another
as if to stand back
take a long look,
and in that
space what light was left
of the sun
already gone below
flowed up and held there
and we did too hold
our breaths at the sudden
“Untitled” by Athena Kildegaard from Cloves & Honey. © Nodin Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the Feast Day of Saint Michael in the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches, which was a very important day in times past, falling near the equinox and so marking the fast darkening of the days in the northern world — the boundary of what was and what is to be. Today was the end of the harvest and the time for farm folk to calculate how many animals they could afford to feed through the winter and which would be sold or slaughtered. It was the end of the fishing season, the beginning of hunting, the time to pick apples and make cider.
Folks in central Pennsylvania make it a point to have their annual goose dinner tonight; a local tradition that grew out of the old English proverb: “If you eat goose on Michaelmas Day, you will never want money all the year round.”
Today is the birthday of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome in 1901. His interest in physics blossomed when he was a boy of 14. His older brother, Giulio, died of surgical complications and Enrico, devastated by grief, buried himself in an old physics textbook from 1840. He became Italy’s first professor of theoretical physics, and in 1929, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini named him to the Royal Academy of Italy, where Fermi was called “Your Excellency” and received a uniform and a hefty salary. Fermi wasn’t political by nature, but as Italy became more closely allied with Nazi Germany, he grew worried for the safety of his Jewish wife, Laura. In 1938, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics and the Fermis used that as an excuse to emigrate from Italy.
Fermi ended up in the United States, where he began work on nuclear reactors. He determined that it was possible to initiate a controlled chain reaction that would produce energy, and it was also possible to create a rapid, uncontrolled chain reaction that would leave devastation in its wake: the atomic bomb. In 1944, Fermi went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weaponry.
After World War II, Fermi accepted a permanent position at the University of Chicago. He was appointed to the General Advisory Committee for the Atomic Energy Commission, which was considering building an atomic “superbomb.” Fermi co-authored a dissenting addendum to the advisors’ report; the addendum read, in part: “It is clear that such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground [...]The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.”
Fermi died of stomach cancer in 1954, at the age of 53.
It’s the birthday of Gene Autry, born Orvon Grover Autry, near Tioga, Texas (1907). He starred in more than 40 movies, making his silver screen debut as part of a quartet in the movie In Old Santa Fe (1934) and became nationally known as the original “singing cowboy,” often riding his own horse, Champion. He left Hollywood during World War II and served as a transport pilot, flying risky missions over the Himilayas near Burma. After the war, he started his own production company when the film studio wouldn’t dissolve his contract for military service.
Today is believed to be the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (books by this author), born near Madrid (1547), whose life was a series of misfortunes. As a young man, he fought in a war against the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king. But on the way home from the war, he was captured by pirates, held for ransom for five years, and chained to a wall for months at a time. He finally made it back to Spain, where nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. So he took one of the only government jobs he could find: confiscating agricultural goods for the king. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, accused of corruption everywhere he went. Then in 1595, he was charged with embezzlement, even though he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn’t commit.
And it was in prison that Cervantes first got the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605), a parody of the popular romance novels of the era — full of monsters, wizards, and beautiful princesses. Cervantes’s novel was about a middle-aged man named Don Quixote who has read so many romance novels that he comes to believe they are true. So he embarks upon a career as a knight and takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza.
It’s the birthday of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (books by this author), born in London (1810), the author of Cranford (1853), North and South (1855), and Mary Barton (1848). She wrote under the name “Mrs. Gaskell,” which was the Victorian convention for women writers who were married. Gaskell’s novels plumbed the depths of the social classes; she was a Unitarian Christian and often worked with the poor. Her own childhood, while not financially bereft, was troubled and often lonely: her mother died when she was young and her father sent her to live with an aunt. Gaskell later told a friend that if it hadn’t been for her aunt’s love and companionship, “I think my child’s heart would have broken.” Her older brother joined the Merchant Navy and often sent her modern books and descriptions of his life at sea, which she found thrilling. He disappeared, though, during an expedition to India in 1827, and was never heard from again.
She began writing in earnest after the death of her son, Willie, resulting in her first novel, Mary Barton (1848). She wrote to a friend, “I took refuge in the invention to exclude the memory of painful scenes which would force themselves upon my remembrance.” She published the novel anonymously, but it received so much critical praise, and sold so well, that she determined to write as “Mrs. Gaskell” for the remainder of her life. The novel also shocked many readers for its unflinching examination of the life of the lower classes; its publication became the catalyst for social reforms. Charles Dickens was such an admirer of the novel that he requested Mrs. Gaskell write for his magazine Household Words. He addressed her affectionately as “Dear Scheherazade,” after the storyteller in Arabian Nights. Their relationship suffered, though, because Dickens was a stickler for deadlines and Mrs. Gaskell often missed them, sending him work weeks late and many pages over length.
Gaskell became close friends with novelist Charlotte Brontë, who was so shy she hid behind a curtain during a party Gaskell held in her honor. When Brontë died in 1853, she spent two years collecting information and gathering letters for a biography. The resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), is now considered a touchstone for Brontë scholars.
On writing, Gaskell was convinced one needed to reach a certain age before becoming a great writer. She told one young novelist: “When you are forty, and if you have a gift for being an authoress, you will write ten times as good a novel as you could do now, just because you will have gone through so much more of the interests of a wife and mother.”
It’s the birthday of the author of the Inspector Morse mysteries, Colin Dexter (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1930). He attended Cambridge University, where he earned his master’s degree in Classical Studies. On a rainy vacation in 1972, Dexter read two mystery novels. He decided he could do better, and three years later he published Last Bus to Woodstock (1975), his first Inspector Morse novel. Inspector Morse is educated and charming, but he’s often morose, and he has a weakness for beer and women. Morse is the main character in each of Dexter’s 15 novels.