Saturday, November 14, 2015

God bless Herman Melville

Moby-Dick was published on this day in 1851. The author, Herman Melville, had a nervous breakdown four years later, in part because of his novel's dismal sales. After unsuccessful lecture tours, Melville found work as a customs inspector on the New York City docks. His oldest son committed suicide in 1867.

Melville's death on September 28, 1891, in New York, was noted with only one obituary notice. Moby-Dick sold only 3,000 copies during his lifetime.

An unfinished work, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was unpublished until 1924. The protagonist of the story, set during the war between England and France, is the innocent and angelic Billy Budd, the favorite of everyone on the crew of the HMS Bellipotent except John Claggart, the sadistic master-at-arms. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of being involved in a mutiny. Billy, unable to answer the charge because of his stammer, accidentally kills Claggart.

The ship's captain, Vere, has seen through Claggart's plot but fears rebellion if Billy isn't punished. He calls a court, which condemns Billy, who goes cheerfully to his fate and is hanged from the yardarm, right after crying out "God bless Captain Vere." When Vere is mortally wounded during an engagement with the French, he murmurs as his last words Billy's name.

"Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried," Melville wrote in Moby-Dick; "it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored..."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

They say journalism is dead, but was it ever alive?

Prolific British author and Christian champion G. K. Chesterton died on this day in 1936.  He was the author of the splendid Father Brown detective tales.  He wrote:

Journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones is dead" to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

Today’s deathless verse:

A patron at Kentucky Fried
  Is calmly eating chicken;
A newsman sits down by his side –
  The plot begins to thicken.
With pen in hand, the scribbler dreams
  Of deeds most dire and foul;
The headline on his story screams:

  “Man eating chicken on prowl!”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Leave 'em laughing

Abraham Lincoln died on this day in 1865. He had been felled the night before by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln was watching a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater in Washington, when one of the actresses called for a shawl to protect her from the draft. One of the actors ad-libbed this reply:

"You are mistaken, Miss Mary, the draft has already been stopped by order of the President!" Lincoln was laughing with the rest of the audience when he was shot.

It is appropriate that laughter was Lincoln's last earthly utterance. It had served him well throughout his short and unhappy life.

As the Civil War was raging, someone once asked Lincoln why he was laughing.

"With the fearful strain that is on me night and day," he replied, "if I did not laugh I should die."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Time to go, Death

Writer Simone de Beauvoir died on this day in 1986. She is buried next to Jean-Paul Sartre, her longtime collaborator/love interest, in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

"It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life," she wrote. "Old age is life's parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension. . . .

"Death does away with time."

Also on this day, in 1964, writer and conservationist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) died. She said:

"Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one."