Stickeen

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One day in 1880 John Muir set out to explore a glacier in southeastern Alaska, accompanied by Stickeen, the dog belonging to his traveling companion. The day went well, but on their way back to camp they found their way blocked by an immense 50-foot crevasse crossed diagonally by a narrow fin of ice. After long deliberation Muir cut his way down to the fin, straddled it and worked his way perilously across, but Stickeen, who had shown dauntless courage throughout the day, could not be convinced to follow. He sought desperately for some other route, gazing fearfully into the gulf and “moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death.” Muir called to him, pretended to march off, and finally ordered him sternly to cross the bridge. Miserably the dog inched down to the farther end and, “lifting his feet with the regularity and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum,” crept across the abyss and scrambled up to Muir’s side.

And now came a scene! ‘Well done, well done, little boy! Brave boy!’ I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but he would not be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly, came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost knocking me down, all the while screeching and screaming and shouting as if saying, ‘Saved! saved! saved!’ Then away again, dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill him. Moses’ stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with him!

Thereafter, Muir wrote, “Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest his head on my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god. And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, ‘Wasn’t that an awful time we had together on the glacier?'”

Self-Reproach

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Driven from bed by pain in his toe one October night, Ben Franklin imagined a parley with his tormentor:

FRANKLIN. Eh! Oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?

GOUT. Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.

FRANKLIN. Who is it that accuses me?

GOUT. It is I, even I, the Gout.

FRANKLIN. What! my enemy in person?

GOUT. No, not your enemy.

FRANKLIN. I repeat it, my enemy; for you would not only torment my body to death, but ruin my good name; you reproach me as a glutton and a tippler; now all the world, that knows me, will allow that I am neither the one nor the other.

GOUT. The world may think as it pleases; it is always very complaisant to itself, and sometimes to its friends; but I very well know that the quantity of meat and drink proper for a man, who takes a reasonable degree of exercise, would be too much for another, who never takes any.

FRANKLIN. I take — eh! oh! — as much exercise — eh! — as I can, Madam Gout. You know my sedentary state, and on that account, it would seem, Madam Gout, as if you might spare me a little, seeing it is not altogether my own fault.

GOUT. Not a jot; your rhetoric and your politeness are thrown away; your apology avails nothing. If your situation in life is a sedentary one, your amusements, your recreation, at least, should be active. …

FRANKLIN. Oh! oh! — for Heaven’s sake leave me! and I promise faithfully never more to play at chess, but to take exercise daily, and live temperately.

GOUT. I know you too well. You promise fair; but, after a few months of good health, you will return to your old habits; your fine promises will be forgotten like the forms of the last year’s clouds. Let us then finish the account, and I will go. But I leave you with an assurance of visiting you again at a proper time and place; for my object is your good, and you are sensible now that I am your real friend.

As the dialogue shows, Franklin had understood the risks he was incurring — at 28 he had written in Poor Richard’s Almanack:

Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, and slouth;
Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.

But he accepted the consequences. Three years before his death he wrote, “People who live long, who will drink of the cup of life to the very bottom, must expect to meet with the usual dregs, and when I reflect on the number of terrible maladies human nature is subject to, I think myself favoured in having to my share only the stone and the gout.”

A Farewell

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Book One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise concludes with this italicized passage as Tom and Amory are taking leave of Princeton:

The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.

No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.

In fact this is a sonnet. Fitzgerald had written it originally in rhymed lines of iambic pentameter and decided only afterward to run it into prose. There’s a second such poem (“The February streets, wind-washed by night”) hidden in the section “Looking Backward.” See Prose Poetry.

Speaking of Princeton, I found this photo while researching art for this post — “Princeton students after a freshman vs. sophomores snowball fight in 1893”:

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Homework

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James Joyce took extraordinary pains in composing Ulysses. By his estimate the book cost him 20,000 hours of labor over eight years, and he told a friend that the resulting research “filled a small valise.” On Nov. 2, 1921, just weeks before the novel went to press, he wrote to his aunt, Josephine Murray:

Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt. I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.

Sure enough, this passage appears in “Ithaca,” the book’s 17th episode, when Leopold Bloom realizes he has forgotten his key:

A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement, and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.

But time was always pressing. On Oct. 12 he begged Josephine for her recollections of some Dublin acquaintances: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and a pencil,” he wrote, “and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.”

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.