Artist, Physicist, and Two Great Writers

Bartolome Esteban MurilloIt turns out that Paul Revere was really born on this day and not on 21 December, as I noted before. It’s that stupid Old Style and New Style date thing that screws me up all the time. Whatever. It’s not like he’s an important guy. If it weren’t for Longfellow’s poem, he wouldn’t even be in Wikipedia!

Speaking of founding “fathers,” on this day in 1752, Betsy Ross was born. I find her interesting for a number of reasons. First, she was married three times. Two of her husbands died in the Revolutionary War. Her third husband was in bad health and eventually died for whatever reasons. She knew George Washington because at the age of 21, she eloped with an Episcopalian (Ross was raised as a Quaker), who went to the same church as Washington. Anyway, the main thing she did with the flag was to change the stars from six points to the easier to create 5 point stars we know and love today. She and her husbands were very successful in the upholstering business. But what’s most interesting about her is how she has been used as a symbol in American life. See girls: you can be part of history too! Look, I think sewing and needle work and all that is very important. But the truth is that we had a terribly sexist society that stopped women from making the kinds of public contributions to society that they were capable of. (They made many, most untold, private contributions.) And the fact that we made a big deal of Betsy Ross when I was in school 200 years later is just pathetic.

E M ForsterThe great writer E M Forster was born in 1879. He is best known for writing A Room with a View and A Passage to India. But most people know him for having written the book that every Merchant-Ivory film was based on. Oh, I’m kidding! But sometimes it does seem that way. What I find most interesting about him is his short story “The Machine Stops.” One doesn’t much think of Forster was a science fiction writer, but there you go. The whole story is online, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s about 10,000 words long—so something even I could read in bed before going to sleep. And what is perhaps more interesting about it is that it really isn’t that different from A Room With a View in terms of its theme. Fundamentally, he was always writing about people trying to connect with each other. He may have been pessimistic about that much of the time, but he always held out the hope. Anyway, you can also watch a BBC production of “The Machine Stops,” although it will actually take less time to read:

The great theoretical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose was born in 1894. He is best known for his early work in quantum mechanics, especially Bose–Einstein statistics, which has to do with the ways in which a set of non-interacting bosons can arrange themselves in different energy states. Now what are bosons? They are one of the two classes of elementary particles that act according to Bose-Einstein statistics. The other kind of elementary particles are the fermions. It is probably easiest to think of fermions as the “stuff” of matter and bosons as the “glue” of matter. And before you ask, yes: at that level, our whole intuition of what matter is breaks down. Regardless, Bose was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and almost no one would even know his name except that another great physicist Paul Dirac coined the term “boson.” Bose, like the elementary particles named after him, was a kind of glue. He did the work that linked the earliest quantum mechanics of people like Planck with the “new” quantum mechanics of people like Heisenberg.

J Edgar Hoover and Clyde TolsonJ Edgar Hoover was born in 1895. More or less a villain of history, I have no real interest in his day job. I’m interested in his sexual proclivities. It is commonly assumed that he was a closet transvestite. I seriously doubt that. In fact, I think that is about as likely to be the case as it is that 9/11 was a government conspiracy. The claim is based only on the say so of one very unreliable person. And people continue to believe it because it is delicious. But that doesn’t make it true. What is almost certainly the case is that Hoover was gay. I don’t necessarily think he ever even acted on it. The man might well have died a virgin. But there is no doubt that he had a very special relationship with Clyde Tolson. Regardless of the details of that relationship, it was sweet. After Hoover’s death, Tolson’s health immediately deteriorated, and he was dead within three years. Hoover left his entire estate to Tolson and the two are buried together. Whatever their relationship, we need more like it. Above on the left is a picture of the two of them together, probably from the late 50s or early 60s.

J D SalingerThe great writer J D Salinger was born in 1919. Look, I’ve had some very harsh words to say about the man. And if it turns out that he was working very hard all these years and he produced great stuff, I will take much of it back. I still find the whole thing obnoxious, however. The trolling for young English grad students is creepy. And I don’t buy the whole spiritual element of avoiding celebrity. For one thing, he certainly wasn’t against using his celebrity to get himself laid. What’s more, part of being a public writer is having a conversation with your readers. By cutting off all contact with his readers, he was snubbing the communal aspects of writing. And it is for this reason that I suspect when his work comes out we are going to find that it’s going to be some kind of bad Faulkner. But I’ll be happy to be surprised.

Other birthdays: actor Dana Andrews (1909); “Stymie” actor, Matthew Beard (1925); playwright Larry L King (1929); fine actor Frank Langella (75); comedian Don Novello (70); rapper Grandmaster Flash (55); and actor Verne Troyer (44).

The day, however, belongs to the great Baroque painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo who was born on this day in 1618. He is best known for his religious painting. And rightly so; it’s great. And that was where the money was in Catholic Spain of the 17th century. But in many ways, he is the successor of Diego Velazquez, another painter I greatly admire. And so I think we see Murillo at his best when he was painting the street life of Seville and Madrid. For example, here is The Little Fruit Seller, which he painted in 1670 in Seville:

The Little Fruit Seller - Murillo

Happy birthday Bartolome Esteban Murillo!

0 thoughts on “Artist, Physicist, and Two Great Writers

  1. Thanks for mentioning "The Machine Stops." I’ve always considered it as prescient as _Nineteen Eighty-Four_, especially when I am sitting in front of my computer, in my tiny little apartment, interacting with the rest of the world. Never connected it up with "A Room With a View," though. Makes sense.

  2. @Don Wilkie – Absolutely! And I think it was because of his humanist beliefs that he was so prescient. Even at that time he could see that problems we were increasingly facing were alienation from each other. Really, what is the philosophy "Greed is good" but anti-humanism.

    Also, I still just find it amazing that Forster wrote science fiction at all. It’s very cool!

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