Tuesday May 16, 2017

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Excerpt from “The Prelude”

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign is Solitude!
Deep in the bosom of the Wilderness;
Votary (in vast Cathedral, where no foot
Is treading and no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayer; or Watchman on the top
Of Lighthouse beaten by Atlantic Waves.

Excerpt from “The Prelude” by William Wordsworth. Public domain.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer, historian, and radio man Studs Terkel (books by this author), born in New York City (1912). When he was eight, his family moved to Chicago, where they ran a rooming house, and Terkel was fascinated by all the different people who came through. He went to college and law school, but he thought it was too corporate, and he wasn't a very good student. He graduated but failed to pass the bar. He applied for a job as a fingerprint classifying clerk at the FBI, but he didn't get the job — one of his professors, an FBI informant, had given him a lukewarm review: "His appearance was somewhat sloppy, and I considered him to be not the best type of boy."

Since a career in law was not working out, Terkel found work writing radio scripts with the Federal Writers' Project, acting with the Chicago Repertory Theater, and performing in radio soap operas. He hosted a radio show called The Wax Museum, which was mostly a jazz show but included gospel, country, opera, and interviews with artists. That led to a television show, Studs' Place, set in a diner, with Terkel as the owner and a rotating series of guests chatting with him in the restaurant, in totally improvised dialogue. The show was dropped by NBC; at the height of McCarthyism, executives were uncomfortable with all the left-wing petitions Terkel had signed. They told Terkel that they would reconsider if he claimed he had been duped into signing the petitions, but he refused. For a while, he had almost no income besides occasional book reviews or lectures, and his wife supported their family.

One day, he was listening to the radio and he heard a Woody Guthrie song on a station called WFMT. He said: "I wondered, who plays Guthrie records except me? So I called WFMT. They were delighted to hear from me." The station had been on the air less than a year, and they invited Terkel to host a show. The Studs Terkel Program debuted in 1952 and aired for 45 years, until 1997. The show included eclectic music and Terkel's musings, but was mostly interviews with subjects of his choice: blues musicians, labor activists, poets, and actors (he stayed away from politicians). He did intense research on his subjects, and never referenced a book or a performance unless he had read it or seen it.

He was in his mid-50s when he interviewed a British comedian named Eleanor Bron on his show. She was so impressed by Terkel's interviewing skills that she mentioned him to her friend André Schiffrin, the publisher of Pantheon Books. Schiffrin approached Terkel and asked if he would consider producing a book of interviews with ordinary Chicagoans. Terkel said, "I told him he must be out of his mind." Eventually he gave in. The resulting book, Division Street: America (1967), was a huge success and launched Terkel's second career as an author.

His books of oral history include Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (1974), Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001).

He said about interviewing: "It isn't an inquisition; it's an exploration, usually an exploration into the past. So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, 'And what happened then?'"


It is the birthday of one of the first well-known female mathematicians of the Western world. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (books by this author) was born in Milan (1718). Her father, Pietro, was a wealthy businessman and her mother, Anna Fortunata Brivio, was an aristocrat whom her father married to raise his status in Milan society.

Maria was a brilliant child. By age five, she spoke French as well as her native Italian. A few years later, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and her family called her the "Walking Polyglot." At age nine, she addressed a group of academics in Latin on the subject of women's rights and access to education, and soon she was leading complex philosophical discussions between her father and his scholarly friends. She also began to pursue mathematics.

Maria was shy and devout, and she longed to give up her public speaking and enter a convent. Her religious aspirations were dashed, however, when her mother died and she was left in charge of the household and the care of her many siblings.

She maintained her interest in math and philosophy. In 1738, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a collection of essays based on the talks she gave to her father's circle of friends. That same year, she began working on a math textbook that she could use to teach math to her siblings. But the book grew into more than just a teaching tool. In it she wrote an equation for a specific bell-shaped curve that is still used today and is known — because of mistranslation of the Italian by a British mathematician — as the "Witch of Agnesi." Analytical Institutions, which was published in 1748, was highly regarded in academic circles for synthesizing complex mathematical ideas with clarity and precision.
Analytical Institutions and the articulation of the Witch of Agnesi earned her a spot in the Bologna Academy of Sciences. But by that time, she had abandoned mathematics and devoted herself to charity work. When asked a decade later what she thought of recent developments in calculus, she said she was "no longer concerned with such interests." She was eventually appointed director of a home for ill and infirm women, and she spent the rest of her life caring for the dying until her own death in 1799.

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