Category Archives: History
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Edgar Allan Poe finished his popular and unique poem The Raven in January 1845. Set on a cold December night, it makes perfect sense that it was released in January. It made him famous, but not what he also craved to be, rich.
Poe chose a raven as the central symbol in the story because he wanted a “non-reasoning” creature capable of speech. He decided on a raven, which he considered “equally capable of speech” as a parrot, because it matched the intended tone of the poem. Poe said the raven is meant to symbolize “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance”. He was also inspired by Grip, the raven in Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty by Charles Dickens.
Poe really knows how to create a mood, to make his reader feel the shadows, the creepy noises in the room, the croak of the bird. This is a poem that pulls you into a moment. Like anything that scares you in a fun way, this is all about making you feel like you are experiencing the story while you read it. It’s spooky and a little spine-tingling, like a good horror movie. It’s fun to read – it’s meant to be read out loud. Try it and see how satisfying these lines are when they roll off the tongue. He’s trying to make his poem as musical, hypnotic, and captivating as possible. All of this complicated rhyme and rhythm aims at drawing you more completely into the world of the poem.
It’s interesting to think that people have been excited (and scared) by stories like this for hundreds of years. Folks in the 19th century read Poe for the same reasons we read Stephen King: that creepy thrill in reading about scary things happening to other people. When you read a story about someone slowly losing his mind, you might be horrified, but it’s also pretty hard to put it down.
And now a little about Poe the man:
He was born to traveling actors in Boston on January 19, 1809. By the age of three both of his parents had died, and he was taken in by the wealthy tobacco merchant John Allan and his family in Richmond, Virginia. Mr. Allan tried to raise him in his own image as a businessman and a Virginia gentleman, but Poe had dreams of being a writer like his childhood hero, Lord Byron. By the age of thirteen, Poe had compiled enough poetry to publish a book.
In 1826 Poe attended the University of Virginia, where he excelled in his classes while accumulating considerable debt. To teach him frugality, he was sent to college with less than a third of the money he needed, so he soon took up gambling to raise money to pay his expenses. By the end of his first term Poe was so desperately poor that he burned his furniture to keep warm. Angry and humiliated by his poverty, he returned to Richmond to visit the home of his fiancée, only to discover she was engaged to another man. Heartbroken, he left Richmond, vowing to become a great poet and to find adventure. He published his first book Tamerlane by age eighteen and then he enlisted in the United States Army. Two years later he heard that Mrs. Allan, the only mother he had ever known, was dying of tuberculosis, who was hoping to see him before she died. By the time Poe returned to Richmond she had died and had already been buried. He and Allan briefly reconciled, and Allan helped him gain an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Before going to West Point, Poe published another volume of poetry. While there he found out that Allan had remarried without telling him or even inviting him to the ceremony. He threatened to get himself expelled from the academy. His wish came true; after only eight months at West Point he was thrown out, but he soon published another book.
Broke and alone, Poe turned to Baltimore, hoping to find relatives in the city to stay with. His aunt, Maria Clemm, became a new mother to him and welcomed him into her home. Her daughter Virginia first acted as a courier to carry letters to his lady loves but soon became the object of his desire. He started publishing his short stories; one won a contest sponsored by the Saturday Visiter. This allowed him to publish more stories and eventually gain an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. He had found a home as a magazine writer. In 1836, when he was twenty-seven, he married Virginia (she was 13!). After six plus years of marriage, his beloved wife died of tuberculosis. (1847) No wonder he wrote of dark and depressing things. His life was depressing. And all his life he was a true, starving artist.
He kept trying to find a better paying job, moving to Philadelphia and to New York, but it wasn’t until he published The Raven that he began to be a household name. Unfortunately, he only lived another two years after his wife died, dying from mysterious causes (still unknown, even to this day) at the age of forty-nine in Baltimore. Oddly enough, after his death he finally became more famous because of author Rufus Griswold. Poe strongly criticized his works, so upon Poe’s death Griswold struck back, but it backfired. It only made Poe more popular.
- Obsessed with cats, Edgar often wrote with a cat on his shoulder.
- Edgar’s one and only novel Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was about a boat capsizing and the crew members drawing straws for who would be eaten; they drew straws and ate Richard Parker. The book bombed. Even though Poe said it was a true story, in his time most of the critics didn’t believe him. They were right to think so because at the time Poe’s book wasn’t true, but just 5 years later a similar wreck happened with the same lead character name Richard Parker, but no cannibalism. Then in 1884 there was another shipwreck where there was cannibalism, and the one who was eaten was indeed Richard Parker. (And don’t forget the Tiger in The Life of Pi was named Richard Parker. Concidence?)
- The Mystery Writers of America have named their award Edgar, after the great E. A. Poe.
- He introduced the first recorded literary detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The detective character would lead to become the prototypical detective we know today
- He was early adopter of the genre of Science Fiction. In 1844, he published “The Balloon” in Sun Newspaper. He described a lighter than air balloon that transversed the Atlantic Ocean in three days. The accounts were so believable that the newspaper had to retract the story two days later. However untrue the story was, the Sun newspaper made a lot of money off of newspapers, and they did not give Poe a cent. From then on, Poe hated the Sun newspaper.
- “The Raven” was a personal challenge Edgar imposed upon himself. He wanted to write 100 line poem, enough for one sitting. He ended up with 108 lines, which apparently was good enough for Poe.
- Edgar changed the writing and publishing world. Before Poe, writing was a noble profession where not many were able to make a living off of solely writing. Edgar insisted that writing would be his career, and he made major strides to find an audience for his entertaining articles, which would become the initial spark of the magazine industry. He even was given $1,500 the last week of his life to start a magazine. However, in his life he was plagued by international copycats where he had no protection that we have now with international copyrights. In many ways, he paved the way for writers to be compensated enough to have a career.
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
We all know that many thousands of people gather in Times Square in New York City each year on December 31 and millions watch and celebrate at home. But why? Why December 31? And when did the ball drop in New York City become the American celebration it is?
We have to go way back in history to find out why January 1 is the beginning of the year, at least to most of us. The Jewish calendar and the Chinese calendar don’t begin on January 1. Neither does the Islamic calendar. In ancient times, the new year started for most civilizations after the Spring Equinox. It wasn’t until the time of Julius Caesar that our modern calendar was established. The calendar had gotten badly out of sync with the sun. That’s what happens when the year is only 10 months long. Julius Caesar added two months to the calendar (July and August, for Julius and Augusts, respectively.) He also established January 1 as the beginning of the year. Most European countries used the Julian calendar until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which we still use today. That caused a great deal of unrest and problems, but that is another story.
Pope Gregory XIII, who invented the Gregorian calendar, also kept January 1 as the beginning of the year. Throughout history, January 1 was celebrated riotously, sometimes to excess. So much excess that these celebrations were banned after the Protestant Revolution. It took a while for fun and joy to return. Most people probably had a quiet celebration at home. Make you wonder how Scrooge would have celebrated the New Year.
New York was a happening town in the 19th century, bustling with life and many, many people. Around the beginning of the century, people began getting together to celebrate and welcome in the New Year. It didn’t take long to organize special events. People began to gather at times Square to celebrate New Year’s in 1904. It didn’t take long for the most famous celebration in the United States to start. The first ball drop was in 1907. But it was nothing like we see now. It was made of iron and wood, covered in 25 watt light bulbs—it weighed 700 hundred pounds! Made by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr; Mr. Starr formed the company that for most of the 1900s provided the ball for each new year celebration. And lest we think the lighted glasses and blinking light hats revelers wear are new, people wore battery-powered glasses in 1908!
In 1920, the ball’s weight was reduced to only 400 pounds. That ball was in use up until 1955, when an aluminum ball was introduced, weighing much less. In 1980, red lights were added and a green lit stem, making the ball look like an apple—for the New York: The Big Apple campaign. In 1988, the white lights returned; in 1998, the last aluminum ball was lowered. But for the year 2000 celebration, everything changed. That’s when Waterford Crystal and Phillips Lighting created a new, snazzier and jazzier ball! In 2007, the 100th anniversary of the ball dropping, LED lights were added to the aluminum and crystal ball. There are now 2,688 triangles on the ball, with over 30,000 LED lights make the ball more spectacular and programmable. The lights are more like programmed Christmas lights you see now. As an added bonus, and a year-round tourist attraction, the ball stays in full public view at Times Square. It weighs over 10,000 pounds (that’s five tons!) and is twelve feet in diameter. It is lowered slowly (you wouldn’t want a 5 ton object to move fast) down a 77 foot tall poll at one minute to midnight on December 31. The whole crowd counts down the last ten seconds, then the horns and screams echo throughout the city, chaos ensues and a new year begins.
Across the United States a range of cities and towns hold their own versions of the ball drop. A variety of objects are lowered or raised during the last minute of the year. The objects are usually linked to an aspect of local history or industry. Examples of objects ‘dropped’ or raised in this way include a variety of live and modeled domestic and wild animals, fruit, vegetables and more…
- In Key West, Florida, a very large conch is dropped
- Miami drops “Big Orange”
- Atlanta drops a peach – not surprising
- In Indianapolis, they started dropping an Indy race car recently
- Westover, NC drops a three-foot tall wooden flea
- In Cincinnati, a flying pig is flown (not dropped)
- Bethlehem, PA drops a 100 pound lighted Peep (the company headquarters are there…)
- Memphis drops a guitar, Nashville used to, but now it’s a musical note
- Plymouth, WI drops a huge cheese wedge, and why not?
- Boise, ID drops a huge potato
- Raleigh, NC drops a giant acorn made of brass—it weighs 900 pounds
- And for a bit of fun, Stroudsburg, PA drops ping pong balls!
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Michael de Nostradame (Nostradamus) was born on December 15, 1503 in the south of France. His family bout and sold grain, and was originally Jewish (several generations before his birth, the family converted to Catholicism and changed the name to Nostradamus). At the age of 15, in 1518, he became a student at the University of Avignon. Yet only a year after he came, the plague came to the city and the school closed to keep the disease far away. This was not the only time that Nostradamus would come close to the plague.
Since he was interested in medicine, he traveled the French country-side collecting folk remedies and helping sick people. This became a problem for him later, though. After over seven years of traveling and healing, he went back to school to get a doctorate in medicine. He was quickly expelled after the faculty found out he had practiced “folk medicine.” When he was twenty-eight, he was invited to the Aquitaine area by a scholar and physician. While there he married, and had two children, all of whom died, most likely from the plague. He continued traveling after the death of his family through France, and (probably) Italy. In 1545, he helped a physician fight off a plague outbreak in Marseille, and then again in Provence, close to his home area. In 1547 he married a rich widow, and had another family of six children. He he died from complications of gout in 1566.
Nostradamus’s books also reflected his medical interests. He translated a book by the famous Roman physician Galen, and wrote a medical cookbook with recipes for medicinal treatments, including the plague, which he is considered to have been somewhat successful at treating. It also included how to make various kinds of cosmetics.
However, during this time period, everyone was writing almanacs, at least many literate Renaissance men were (this continued up through Benjamin Franklin’s time. And yes, Franklin wrote an almanac too.) So in 1550, Nostradamus joined the trend and wrote an almanac for the year. Once he realized how successful the almanac could be, he decided to write one a year (even though he often published more than one a year). He published them annually from 1550 until his death. In all, we know he wrote at least eleven almanacs—at least that’s all we know about, that still exist. These annual books contained over 6,000 prophecies. Is it any wonder he started getting requests for horoscopes from prominent people near and far? His greatest and best seller, The Prophecies, was the compiled collection of his major predictions.
He wrote his greatest and best seller, The Prophecies, as a book of quatrains—poems with four lines. Each quatrain was a prophecy for a future time, but they were not in chronological order. He often wrote in prophetic code; sometimes using mixed words from other languages, puns, word games and more. He must have worried about threats from the church, but he was never charged or arrested by the Inquisition for his writings. According to the work’s preface, a letter from Nostradamus to his son Cesar (a child from his second marriage), the verses were intended to be mystifying; plus he wanted return customers!
They were published over a period of three years by his secretary, who oversaw the entire collection’s publication in 1568. Nostradamus’ major work of prophecies is often referred to as “The Centuries.” It was published in installments and consisted of about a thousand quatrains , collected in groups of a hundred , which gave the title its other name. The Centuries refers to the organizing structure of the work, not to periods of time. Nostradamus said he was able to predict the future through a combination of astrological study and divine inspiration. He was well-known for his astrological charts and was popular with both nobles and royalty. He said that sometimes an angelic spirit helped him figure out the charts and influences. He sought out inspiration through various forms of meditation, usually focusing in on fire or water. He claimed he could see and understand events in the near and distant future. Most quatrains refer to deaths, wars or natural disasters, events that are sure to occur again and again. This is a lot like modern horoscopes. Horoscopes typically detail things a wide range of people experience regularly, such as “conflicts at work,” “happiness in relationships” or “exciting new changes.” Chances are, these predictions will line up with your life, at least some of the time.
- The house where he grew up still exists, and has a plaque next to it indicating that this house is where the seer Nostradamus was born.
- The document about his being expelled from the University of Montpellier still exists, archived in the school’s library.
- He was buried in the local Franciscan chapel in Salon (legend says he was standing up!), which is now part of a restaurant. He was re-interred during the French Revolution in the Saint-Laurent Church, where his tomb remains to this day.
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Krampus is a new movie coming out in December that’s rated PG-13; the story is based on the Germanic legend of Krampus. It could be scary for the little ones. Read below and you’ll see why. And if you’re wondering what is a Krampus? It’s not a what; it’s a who.
Krampus, a kind of bogeyman, is most often found in Germanic and Austrian legends and is a terrifying companion of St. Nicholas, usually seen as a black or dark figure with horns, (and often a very long tongue) shadowing the good Santa Claus. He walks behind Saint Nicholas on St. Nicholas Day Eve (December 6) and leaves ashes or sticks for the naughty children, while St. Nicholas leaves sweets or fruit for the good little girls and boys. Krampus is the one who punishes the bad children, those who misbehave or are mean to others. He carries a large sack with him, and legend has it that he carried bad girls and boys (those on the naughty list) away to store in a tall tree for eating later. You wouldn’t want to be on this naughty list! In some towns, not too long ago, he followed Saint Nicholas from town to town and quizzed children on their deeds, whether they were good of bad that year, whether they did well in school and their chores.
Some think that the word Krampus comes from the Germanic word for talon, similar to crampon, the device climbers use when climbing icy mountains. Some folklorists say that Krampus is the god of the witches, brought low to serve Saint Nicholas. Others say he is a pagan god, greatly diminished. Perhaps this is why Krampus celebrations were banned by the Catholic Church for centuries. He is similar to the horned god the witches in colonial New England were accused often of consorting with!
He is mostly known in Europe, Austria and Germany, and is popular in Christmas parades in those countries. In Holland, he’s known as Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet. In Germany, he’s known as Knecht Ruprecht and in some parts of Germany, Hans Trapp. When the Pennsylvania Dutch came to America, they brought the name Fur Nicholas (Pelz Nicholas) with them. This name became Belsnickel down through the years. Also, in Philadelphia, there is still a Mummer’s parade on New Year’s Day, often with people in Krampus costumes. In Austria, sweets made out of dates and nuts are made to look like Krampus are sold in markets. At one time, people could send Christmas cards with Krampus on them. Who’s to say they won’t make a reappearance? In Ypsilanti, they put on a Krampus Ball. People can come in costume and dance. One of the organizers has called it “Halloween for Adults,” even though it’s a Christmas party.
Many families brought the legend of Krampus with them when they came to the United States. Perhaps Brom was from one of those families? The legend of Krampus became more widely known in the United States from the book Krampus the Yule Lord by the author and artist Brom. The cover of his book is quite arresting. If something looking like that was asking me if I was a good child, I’d say yes no matter what. In Brom’s story, Krampus has been imprisoned by Saint Nicholas, and is working on getting free to take his revenge. He has a few servants, called belsnickels, who carry out his orders. Whether or not he succeeds, you’ll have to find out yourself.
He was known to carry with him a whip, a stick, a bell or a sack.
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
419 years ago Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery on a ship near Puerto Rico; it was his last voyage. It was fitting that this privateer, naval captain and hero to the English died at sea, on his ship. He was almost always at sea.
Francis Drake was born in 1540, probably, since no recorded date exists. When he was nine, his family moved to Kent. It was a lucky break for Francis. His father was appointed as chaplain for the King’s Navy, which brought Francis to the sea. He was apprenticed to a family neighbor who had coastal ship, and thus his training started. He was such a natural at sea that the ship’s owner, being so impressed with his abilities, willed Francis his ship. And so he got his first ship.
In 1563, when he was twenty-three, Drake made his first voyage to the Americas with his cousin, whose family owned a fleet of ships. One must suppose that from the age of nine to at least his mid-teens, he was learning the ropes, so to speak, probably working his way up from the lowly cabin boy. History doesn’t say, but he did well enough to sail with his cousin several times.
In 1572, commanding his first fleet, he sailed to the Isthmus of Panama (where the Panama Canal is now.) During the raid, Drake was badly wounded, and the crew, wanting to save his life, left the treasure they had liberated. He recovered and then set about liberating some more gold and treasure from Spain. He had a close call later; his partner was captured and beheaded. With the Spanish hot on his trail, he and two volunteers built a raft and sailed on it to meet up with the rest of the fleet. (Wow!)
After Panama, he was asked by Queen Elizabeth to raid the Spanish along the American Pacific coast, but bad weather stopped him. He tried again, and lost several ships. He ended up wintering in the Argentina area, or what was later to be Argentina. With his last ship (the Golden Hinde), he made it to the western coast of South America. He captured a ship here, a ship there, adding to his fleet and obtaining more accurate maps of the area. He liberated a ship of wine and a treasure ship carrying 25,000 pesos. He also captured a ship with 80 pounds of gold and 25 tons of silver! He sailed all the way up to California, calling it New Albion; he may have been the first white man to see the San Francisco Bay!. In 1580, after sailing across the Pacific and around India and Africa, he sailed into Plymouth. The queen’s share of the treasure was more than the income of the nation for the whole year! He was knighted the next year, by a French diplomat, as Elizabeth watched.
King Phillip II of Spain had declared war, so the British government ordered Drake to attack the Spanish colonies. In 1585, commanding twenty one ships, he did just that. With twenty-one ships under his command, he sailed to Spain and then the colonies of Santa Domingo and Cartagena. He even sacked St. Augustine (in Florida) and stopped by Roanoke and took all the colonists back to England. Could this be what happened to the lost colony? He returned to England in 1586 to be hailed a hero. In another raid later that year, he raided Cadiz, destroying 37 ships. Based on these continued attacks and raids Phillip II ordered a planned invasion of England. Spain was truly feeling the pinch from the English privateers.
This invasion, now called the Spanish Armada, was to overwhelm, defeat England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth and bring back Catholicism. In July 1588, this fleet of 130 ships was planning to sail to the Flemish coast and meet up with Flemish troops. The fleet never met with the Flemish soldiers, since the Protestant Dutch were blockading the port. Drake, who was now Vice Admiral of the English Navy captured one of the Spanish flag ships; the next morning the English brought out fire ships, which dispersed most of the fleet. Finally the weather took over and one third of the fleet was lost to storms and the rocky coasts on England (Cornwall) and Ireland. The Spanish Armada was no more.
In 1589, Drake was ordered by the queen to sail to Portugal to help support the Portuguese in their uprising against King Phillip II (he ruled both Spain and Portugal at this time), and also to find and destroy any remaining Armada ships. They were also to try to capture the Azores. This proved disastrous, since they lost twenty ships and over 100 men. He continued with the navy, but his glory days were behind him. During the attack on San Juan, 1596 (still a Spanish colony at this time) his cabin was badly damaged by a cannon ball shot. He survived, but succumbed to dysentery a few weeks later. He was buried at sea in a leaded coffin; he was 55. Although many people have tried to find his coffin, no one has yet been successful.
Drake’s famous ship – The Golden Hind
Drake’s famous ship the Golden Hind was originally known as Pelican, but was renamed by Drake mid-voyage in 1578, in honor of his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton, whose crest was a golden ‘hind’ (a female deer). Hatton was one of the principal sponsors of Drake’s world voyage.
After Drake’s circumnavigation, the Golden Hind was maintained for public exhibition for nearly 100 years at Deptford. This is the earliest known example of a ship being maintained for public display because of her historic significance. She eventually rotted away and was finally broken up. Two replicas have since been built over the years; the first of them was permanently on display in Brixham after 1963, when it was built for a TV series about Francis Drake, but was wrecked by a storm in 1987. The next replica was built in Devon soon after, in 1973, using traditional methods. She sailed from Plymouth on her maiden voyage in late 1974, arriving on May 8, 1975 in San Francisco. Between 1981 and 1984, she was berthed in England and was established as an educational museum, but in 1984–1985 she sailed around the British Isles and then crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean. In 1986, she passed through the Panama Canal to sail on to Vancouver. In 1987, she began a tour of the US Pacific coast. In 1988, she passed back through the Panama Canal to visit Texas. In 1992 she returned home to tour the British Isles again. The oceangoing Golden Hinde has been featured in several films; since 1996 she has been berthed in London where she hosts visits from schools.
Other interesting items:
There is a board game called Francis Drake, which came out in 2013. Here is the description: Return to a bustling Plymouth Harbor in 1572 as an aspiring Elizabethan captain makes preparations for three exciting voyages to the Spanish Main in search of fame and fortune! The object of the game is to see who can set sail and reach the Spanish Main first. The riches of the Aztec and Inca Empires await the swashbuckling captains.
There is a Sir Francis Drake hotel in downtown San Francisco. Perhaps it is named after Drake since he sailed to this city? It was built in 1928 and although it has been refurbished it still tries to have an older, more historic feel to it. The doormen are Beefeaters, and the place gets four star ratings. It’s even pet friendly!
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” The Prize was prompted by his crowning achievement, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that concludes with a cycle of poetry by the main character weaving together the seasons of nature, love, redemption, and the life of Christ. While Pasternak was “infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, [and] overwhelmed,” at the award, six days later he declined the prize in a telegram: “Due to the resonance caused by my award in the society I belong to, I have to decline the Prize; don’t consider my voluntary refusal an insult.”
Pasternak reflected on this moment in a poem entitled “The Nobel Prize,” which asks, “What sort of dirty trick I’ve done, am I a murderer, a villain? I, who made the whole world crying of my homeland’s beauty.”
Pasternak was neither murderer nor villain; however, his book challenged the presiding Russian-Soviet ideological vision of the world. He was given a strong indication of how Doctor Zhivago would be taken when he received a 10,000 word rejection letter by the Russian magazine New World saying that “the spirit of [the] novel [was] that of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution.” Explaining further, the magazine felt the novel’s main character, Dr. Yuri Zhivago, to be “an essentially immoral man who refuses to do his duty by the people and who is interested only in his own rights, including the alleged privilege of a superman to betray with impunity.”
It is at least obvious that the editorial board read his book. Following are some not so subtle statements that Pasternak made through his main character about those of whom it could be said, “We are the children of Russia’s terrible years”:
- “It turns out that those who inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil: that’s their native element.”
- “And do you know why there is this incessant whirl of never-ending preparations? It’s because they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted. Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself – the gift of life – is such a breathtakingly serious thing!”
- “They always talk of ‘remaking life,’ but “people who can talk in this way,” claims Zhivago, “have never known life at all, have never felt its spirit, its soul. For them human existence is a lump of raw material which has not been ennobled by their touch.”
- To Yuri, life “is always out of reach of our stupid theories.”
- “They are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility, that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.” Yet, “They had the boastful, dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns.” (Series of quotations from the poetry foundation and Geoffrey Hosking)
Pasternak was just as clear in his own poem, “After the Storm.” He closed with this stanza: It is not revolutions and upheavals / which clear the way to a new life / But the revelations, storms and bounties / Of someone’s spirit on fire.
Like other intellectuals at the time of his country’s Revolution, Pasternak held high hopes that change would work for a new and better Russia. But life 40 years “after the storm” gave him such extended and overwhelming evidence against the socialist utopia, that he went from disappointment to disillusionment to a “new birth” of sorts that included his taking seriously once again his Christianity. Pasternak was part of the intellectuals who could be called “pre-Soviet; post-Marxist.” This helps make sense of two statements Pasternak made during the Doctor Zhivago controversy when he requested his closest loved one to write “that I was born not in the Soviet Union, but in Russia,” while he wrote Premier Krushchev to avoid deportation, with this explanation: “Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”
While Doctor Zhivago was censured in the former Soviet Union, the novel escaped to the West in 1957 through a publisher in Milan, Italy, who refused to return the book “for revisions.” By the next year the novel had been translated into 18 languages, including English.
Meanwhile, The Union of Soviet Writers (of which Pasternak was one of the some 800 members) took swift action. It is important to understand that the Writer’s Union was indoctrinated and in full concert with Soviet Socialist Realism. “Socialist Realism is the officially sanctioned style of art that dominated Soviet painting for 50 years from the early 1930s. The style and content was laid down by the state with the purpose of furthering the goals of socialism and communism. The result was a huge body of work by thousands of artists, the majority of which is stultifyingly boring and which has been mocked in the West ever since as “Girl meets tractor”. (This description of Socialist Realism and policy quote below from http://www.russianartdealer.com/socialist-realism/)
Applying Socialist Realism to literature, The Union of Soviet Writers stated in 1934 that “Socialist Realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.”
It is hardly surprising that Doctor Zhivago inspired hostility from those committed to the spirit of socialism. One Union representative called Pasternak, “a literary whore, hired and kept in America’s anti-Soviet brothel,” while a government official called him “a pig who has fouled the spot where he eats and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes.” Not only was Pasternak excommunicated from the Union of Soviet Writers, but some demanded that he be banished from Russia altogether.
Pasternak did not have to leave Russia; however, his being cut off from the Union of Soviet Writers meant that his many translations of the classics into Russian could no longer be published. This made it impossible for him to make a living as a writer. The love of Pasternak’s life, Olga Ivinskaya, said “The easiest way of dealing with intellectuals like us was simply to starve us into submission.” Ironically this did not silence Pasternak, and neither Ivinskaya. Another way of getting to Pasternak, however, was pressuring Ivinskaya. She was taken away to prison in 1950 while pregnant with Pasternak’s child. While there she experienced a miscarriage.
As Pasternak completed the translation of many tragedies of Shakespeare, it seemed his real life was just as tragic. Pasternak’s reaction to times of suffering is formulated, naturally, in poetic verse:
The order of the acts has been schemed and plotted / And nothing can avert the final curtain’s fall / I stand alone / All else is swamped by Pharisaism / To live life to the end is not a childish task.
Yet, Pasternak’s determination to stay the course, is neither simple defiance nor resignation. He expressed, “If there is suffering anywhere, why should not my art suffer and myself with it? I am speaking of the most artistic in the artist . . . of the sacrifice without which art becomes unnecessary.”
The insight of literary critic Mitzi Brunsdale is surely significant here. Explaining the novel’s point of view, she writes:
“Zhivago” itself derives from the Russian verb “to live,” lending irony to the opening scene of the novel, the funeral of Zhivago’s mother: “’Who’s being buried?’ – ‘Zhivago’ [the living one].” The name also has a wealth of religious connotations stemming from the risen Christ’s question in the Orthodox Easter liturgy, “Why seek you the living [zhivago] among the dead?” In his search for truth, the thinking man Yuri Zhivago at first naively embraces revolution as the natural result of the czarist repression of the people, only gradually realizing that enforced collectivization under the Soviets means the spiritual slavery of the very souls it falsely purported to free. The truth at which Yuri Zhivago at last arrives, after his long journey through the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the savagery of World War I and the Civil War, and the struggle for survival that faced his people during the 1920s, is the old truth of humanity’s youth – that an individual can be fulfilled only by free choice in pursuing his own creativity, his own love, unhampered by political or social stricture.” (from the Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Volume 6, pp. 3464-3465)
Pasternak, “presented Zhivago’s inability to influence his own fate not as a fault, but as a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. The author closely identified Zhivago’s predicament with that of the suffering Christ.” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/zhivago/ei_pasternak.html)
Professor Brunsdale ends her critical consideration of Pasternak by refusing to ignore the strong religious aspect of Pasternak’s work. The cycle of poetry concluding Doctor Zhivago speaks not only of nature and love, but also the meaning of life and the life of Christ. She explains: “Pasternak exercised . . . intense awareness of all cosmic and human reality as ‘life in Christ,’ and the consequent plunge into love as the only dynamic and creative force which really honors this ‘Life’ by creating itself anew in Life’s – Christ’s – image. In the glorious healing lesson of Doctor Zhivago, that modern man’s renewal lies in identification of his sufferings with those of his Savior, undistracted by selfish materialistic desire, the poet of Doctor Zhivago thus is “the living one” against whom godless history cannot prevail.”
In 1987 Pasternak was posthumously reinstated to the Soviet Writer’s Union. In 1988, thirty years after its censure, Doctor Zhivago was published in Russia. The New World, which had rejected Doctor Zhivago, went on to publish Solzhenitsyn. Pasternak’s house was made into a museum. In 1989, Pasternak’s son accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of his father.
Geoffrey Hosking (from The Cambridge History of Russian Literature), observes, Pasternak’s “novel and its accompanying poems . . . were to be very influential, for they helped to revive a concern with the human personality, with morality and with religion, which had been largely submerged within the majestic state sponsored collective certainties of the Soviet era.”
It is only appropriate to let Pasternak conclude with his poetry, the last three stanzas of HOLY WEEK from the “Poems of Yuri Zhivago.” Pasternak became the suffering artist he had mentioned, with a profound artistic message for his Motherland. His message neither suppressed nor submerged the suffering, but rather offered the highest social realism, transformation, and hope for the Russian people he loved so much.
March scatters handfuls of the snow; Like alms among the lame,
As though a man had carried out
The holy Ark outside the church,
And gave its all unto the poor.
They sing until the sunrise hour.
Then, having wept their fill,
Their chants of the Psalms and Acts
Flow with an air serene
Into an empty lamplit street.
All creatures hear the voice of spring
In the still of night, believing
That when good weather comes
Death itself shall be destroyed
By the travail of the Resurrection.
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
It’s Leif Erikson Day! Hinga Dinga Durgen Everyone! Turns out this what Spongebob Squarepants wishes everyone on Leif Erikson Day. It’s his second favorite holiday, after April Fool’s… He even has a costume!
Leif Erikson (pronounced Layf, like some of us of a certain age remember the actor Leif Garrett) was a Norwegian traveler, voyager, explorer and sailor who is considered the leader of the first boat of explorers to visit North America. It’s generally considered that he landed at Newfoundland and later Labrador. Leif had a very adventurous father, Erik the Red, who established a colony on Greenland, after being kicked out of Iceland—but that’s another story.
There was no place for Leif there, since Erik the Red was a larger than life person himself, so he set his eyes on the West. There had been rumors of a far-away land full of wonders, (specifically from Bjarni Herjólfsson, another Viking explorer who some believe is the true first discover of North America.) He decided to go exploring, heading west across a great body of water. Artifacts excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland have been dated to around 1000 A.D., which is considered the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America. According to sagas, the Norse called the area Vinland, because they found grapes growing there.
It wasn’t until 1924 that President Calvin Coolidge, after learning of the research done by Norwegian-American researchers, recognized Erikson as the “Discoverer of America,” even though the first book written about the Norse having discovered America was published in the late 1800s. Wisconsin was the first state to make Leif Erikson day an official holiday—not surprising since it was mostly settled by Scandinavians. Over the years, other states made the day an official holiday. In 1963, a U. S. Congressman from Duluth introduced a bill to observe Leif Erikson day across the nation. In 1964, L B J started the tradition of proclaiming October the 9th as Leif Erikson Day. Every year, it’s at least one thing Congress can agree on!
Why is it October 9? Since there were no records available from the Viking visitation in 1000, any date could have been chosen for Leif Erikson Day. How was October 9th chosen? The Norwegian ship Restauration, bearing the first official waive of Norwegian immigrants, arrived in New York on October 9, 1825.
So have a happy holiday, and remember that it’s because of Leif Erikson and the Restauration that Congress is actually agreeing once a year. Hinga Dinga Durgen Everyone!
(As always, the opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and in no way reflect upon the beliefs and principles of Williamson County Public Library, its employees, or the Norwegians.)