Wednesday June 14, 2017

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A Thunderstorm In Town

She wore a new ‘terra-cotta’ dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom’s dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
      We sat on, snug and warm.

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
      Had lasted a minute more.

“A Thunderstorm In Town” by Thomas Hardy from Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy. © Wordsworth Editions, Ltd., 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Flag Day here in the United States. Two hundred forty years ago, on this day in 1777, the government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag. The 50 stars on today’s flag represent the nation’s 50 states and the 13 stripes represent the 13 original states. The color red signifies hardiness and valor; white, purity and innocence; and blue, vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

The first time the American flag was flown on a foreign fort was in Libya in 1805; in 1909, Robert Peary placed a flag at the North Pole; in 1963, Barry Bishop placed the flag on top of Mount Everest; and in 1969, Neil Armstrong stuck a flag in the surface of the moon.

In 1914, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane gave a Flag Day speech in which he repeated the words he said the flag had spoken to him that morning: “I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself.”

It was on this day in 1822, the mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage presented a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society proposing a hand cranked machine using the decimal number system to make computations. This eventually led to his analytical engine, which contained the basic principles of the modern electronic computer.

The design was sound, but metalworking techniques back then were not precise enough, and this early calculator was never built.

It was on this day in 1775 that the Continental Army was formed by the Second Continental Congress. It was two months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were fought by local volunteers. The Congress voted unanimously to make George Washington Commander in Chief, and he accepted – that was the beginning of The United States Army. Although most of The Continental Army was disbanded in 1783 after the Treaty of Paris ended the revolution, two regiments stayed on. The U.S. Army was formally organized in 1796.

It’s the birthday of photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York (1904). She was born on her parents’ anniversary. Her mother, Minnie, homeschooled the kids and tried to teach them courage as well as academics. Maggie, as they called her, took these lessons to heart, and always made it a point to challenge herself. Her dad was an amateur photographer, and as a kid she would accompany him on photo excursions and help him in the darkroom. He was an engineer and an inventor of printing presses — and a perfectionist, a trait she picked up from him. When she was eight, he took her to watch one of the presses being made, and she was fascinated by the big factory and the molten iron. But she never took any pictures herself until she was in college. She went to a number of different schools, studying zoology and paleontology, and made a little money on the side by selling photos she’d taken of famous buildings on the Cornell campus. When she graduated, she moved to Cleveland and started her own photography studio.

She began her career shooting industrial and architectural photos, and her style was fresh and original. Bourke-White was fearless, climbing out onto the gargoyles atop the Chrysler Building or hanging out of a helicopter for just the right shot. At that time, women weren’t allowed inside the mills and factories that she was keen to photograph, so she had to fight for the opportunity, and once inside, she was dauntless in her work. Even when she was just starting out, taking pictures at the Otis Steel Company, she got so close to the molten metal that she blistered the finish on her camera and turned her face red like it was sunburned. She caught the eye of publisher Henry Luce in 1929, when he read a headline in the New York Sun: “Dizzy heights have no terror for this girl photographer, who braves numerous perils to film the beauty of iron and steel.” So he hired her to be the first staff photographer for his new magazine, Fortune.

In 1930, Bourke-White became the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. She photographed Soviet workers and the industrialization that was part of the “first five-year plan.” She compiled the pictures into a book, Eyes of Russia (1931). She returned from her trip with less interest in industrial subjects and more interest in the workers. “It seems to me that while it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks or a row of dynamos, it is becoming more and more important to reflect that life that goes on behind these photographs,” she wrote in 1935. That’s the year she met the Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell, and they eventually married. They collaborated on a number of books, including You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), about the American South during the Depression.

It was her photograph of Fort Peck Dam that appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936, and she is also credited with developing the “photo essay” features that made the magazine famous. She produced features on Germany, the Dust Bowl, and World War II — she even survived the sinking of her transport ship in the Atlantic after it was torpedoed. She was the first woman accredited to photograph the American armed forces, and the first woman allowed to fly along on a U.S. combat mission. She photographed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel, and the violent partition of India and Pakistan. The Life staff referred to her as “Maggie the Indestructible.”

In 1953, she began to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She went into semi-retirement in 1957, retired fully in 1969, and died in 1971.

It’s the birthday of travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban (books by this author), born in Norfolk, England (1942). He started out as a professor, and he wrote several books of academic criticism before deciding to make a living as a freelance critic and travel writer. His first major book came out in 1974 — Soft City, about the differences between living in New York and London.

He grew up in an aristocratic English household, but as a young boy he began reading all the American books he could get his hands on. His favorite book was Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). There was a small stream about four feet across at the end of Raban’s street, and he used to wade in it and pretend it was the Mississippi River.

In 1979, he flew into St. Paul, Minnesota, bought a tiny boat, and set off down the Mississippi to New Orleans. He wrote about the experience in Old Glory: An American Voyage (1981). He wrote about everything he saw and everyone he met; he said, “The plot would be written by the current of the river … where the river meandered so would the book.”

And he said, “Good travel books are novels at heart.”

It’s the birthday of the man who made it easy to find quotations, John Bartlett (books by this author), born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1820. He compiled memorable quotations while he worked at a university bookstore in Cambridge, and in 1855 published Familiar Quotations, now in its 18th edition and including over 22,000 quotations. In the preface of the first edition, he wrote that he wanted to show “the obligation our language owes to various authors for numerous phrases and familiar quotations which have become ‘household words.’”

Bartlett used an epigraph for the fourth edition of Familiar Quotations by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.  It read: “I have here only made a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them together.”

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