Diamond Verses

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Masaoka Shiki, the fourth of Japan’s great haiku masters, is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Described as “baseball mad,” Shiki first encountered the game in preparatory school in 1884, only 12 years after American teacher Horace Wilson first introduced it to his students at Tokyo University in 1872. Shiki wrote nine baseball haiku, the first in 1890, making him the first Japanese writer to use the game as a literary subject:

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball

the trick
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze

Throughout his career Shiki wrote essays, fiction, and poetry about the game, and he made translations of baseball terms that are still in use today. Eventually he taught the game to Kawahigashi Hekigotō and Takahama Kyoshi, who themselves became famous haiku poets under his tutelage, and today a baseball field near Bunka Kaikan in Ueno bears his name. He wrote:

under a faraway sky
the people of America
began baseball
I can watch it
forever

At Work

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During our life at Tavistock House [1851-60], I had a long and serious illness, with an almost equally long convalescence. During the latter, my father suggested that I should be carried every day into his study to remain with him, and, although I was fearful of disturbing him, he assured me that he desired to have me with him. On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time. It was a most curious experience for me, and one of which, I did not until later years, fully appreciate the purport. Then I knew that with his natural intensity he had thrown himself completely into the character that he was creating, and that for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.

— Mary Dickens, Charles Dickens by His Eldest Daughter, 1885

Non-Fiction

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Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”

Tongue Tied

Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:

Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.

If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.

Your

Carl Jensen

It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.

Book Talk

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A bizarre episode from Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, 1872:

I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. ‘I guess you’re a miner,’ said he. I again assured him that I was not. ‘Then how do you earn your bread?’ I told him I did so by writing books. ‘I’m sure you’re a miner,’ said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door.

“I was properly punished,” Trollope conceded, “as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.”

Parting Orders

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Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”

Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.

A Blind Pirate

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Several years after publishing Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson was abashed to discover that he had drawn much of the story from Washington Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller, which he had read many years earlier and forgotten.

“I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther,” he wrote later. “The book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family.”

This is an instance of cryptomnesia, the mistaking of a forgotten memory for an original idea. Stevenson charged himself with plagiarism, but he had honestly believed he was writing a new story: “It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.” In reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Carl Jung was surprised to discover “almost word for word” an incident reported in a ship’s log in 1686. Jung recognized the passage from a book published around 1835, about 50 years before Nietzsche was writing. He contacted the philosopher’s sister, who confirmed that the two of them had read the book when Nietzsche was 11 years old.

“I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story,” Jung wrote. “I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.”

The Mummies of Guanajuato

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1833 a cholera outbreak struck Guanajuato, Mexico, and the dead were buried in a local cemetery. Sixty-three years later, in 1896, city officials levied a fee on burial plots, and poor families had to agree to have their dead relatives disinterred. They were horrified to discover not skeletons but grotesquely preserved bodies, contorted into nightmarish postures and facial expressions. The region’s climate and soil conditions had combined to preserve the corpses.

The city has put 119 of the bodies, some still bearing hair, eyebrows, and folds of skin, on display. Author Tom Weil writes, “In the figures one sees both the living and the departed, death with a human face and humanity with the skull beneath the skin.”

Ray Bradbury, who visited the museum in the 1940s, wrote, “They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way. All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming.

“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ill-Favored

harold ross

New Yorker founder Harold Ross was a brilliant magazine editor, but his personal appearance was distinctly unprepossessing. “His hair sticks straight up, his teeth stick straight out, his eyes slant, and his expression is always that of a man who had just swallowed a bug,” wrote Ogden Nash. Alexander Woollcott said he looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.

Staff member Janet Flanner remembered, “His face was homely, with a pendant lower lip; his teeth were far apart, and when I first knew him, after the First World War, he wore his butternut-colored thick hair in a high, stiff pompadour, like some gamecock’s crest.”

Indeed, Ross’ first wife said he was the homeliest man she’d ever met. “There was certainly a mismating of his head, his hands and his feet to his gaunt, angular body; his hands, though he learned to use them gracefully, were too large; so were his feet, and his ears and his mouth were also oversized; his tongue was a real problem and he was really more comfortable when he let it hang over his loose lower lip, as he did when he was relaxed or was thinking hard.”

At least it gave fodder to his friends. At a poker game, Franklin Pierce Adams announced that he’d just seen Harold Ross toboganning.

“For God’s sake — Ross toboganning!” said George S. Kaufman. “Did he look funny?”

“Well,” Adams said, “you know how he looks not toboganning.”