A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
1772 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a very serious scholar, mostly remembered today for a couple of poems and a fondness for opium. Actually, Coleridge and his friend “Wordy” Wordsworth were the poetic beginnings of the Romantic Age – “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Coleridge wanted to see the world without reason and enlightenment. He wanted a poetic overthrow of the Industrial Revolution and a return to the magical, pastoral time of his youth. Besides his most famous poems “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge also wrote tons of other poetry, philosophy and literary criticism. The thing that amazes me is that he did all that while sucking back a bottle and a half of laudanum every week.
1833 – Alfred Nobel, who spent the early part of his life trying to find a safe way to blow things up. He succeeded in 1867 when he invented dynamite, but not before he’d accidentally blown up his brother, Emil. Naturally, the military loved dynamite and used it extensively throughout the 19th Century — making Nobel a very rich man. However, Nobel didn’t want to be remembered as “The merchant of death,” so, in a clever attempt to fool history, he left most of his money to The Nobel Foundation and The Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace (Economics was added later.) Except for nerds, very few people care about most of the prizes, but Peace and Literature get an annual discussion about how political they’ve become. This was especially true in 2009, when Barack Obama won the Nobel Prize for Peace because he wasn’t George Bush.
1805 – In general, actual battles don’t mean very much to history; they’re just a way for lazy people to teach it. However, there are a few battles that do mark an epoch or that change the world. Trafalgar is one of those. On a calm, cool autumn day, off the coast of Spain, British Admiral Nelson caught French Admiral Viileneuve and the combined French and Spanish fleets in open water. Even though he was outnumbered and outgunned Nelson attacked “straight ahead.” At the end of the day, the British fleet had achieved an overwhelming victory. It was Britain 22 – France 0. This was the beginning of Pax Britannica and nobody would challenge British power again for nearly 100 years — until a bunch of farmers, called Boers, decided that the British Empire wasn’t all that tough and took them on in a dirty little war in South Africa.
1969 – Jack Kerouac died of the extensive use of alcohol in St Petersburg, Florida. If Ginsberg started the Beat Generation, it was Jack Kerouac who personalized it. On the Road is the soul of the Beat Generation, and Kerouac is its high priest. He wrote the entire novel on one continuous sheet of paper in about 3 weeks, in 1951. It wasn’t published until 1957, and, even then, it was heavily edited. The publisher Viking chopped many of the more descriptive (read “explicit”) parts out and changed most of the names. It didn’t matter, though, because within minutes of its hitting the streets it was a best seller and Kerouac was being called The Voice of a Generation. In truth, Kerouac has become the voice of many generations. There isn’t an undergraduate alive who hasn’t thought about it – just droppin’ the books and gettin’ out On the Road.
1984 – Francois Truffaut, one of the few French film directors who is actually any good. Most of the rest of them wander around in black and white, making their actors look miserable and speak in sub-titles about how crappy life is. Truffaut, on the other hand, had something to say and said it in such a cinematically unique way that he started a whole new movement in French film making – La Nouvelle Vague. His early movies like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim influenced directors on both sides of the Atlantic. His only film in English, Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was done in a strong New Wave fashion and holds together very well in the 21st Century. Before Truffaut began directing his own movies, he was an outspoken film critic and was banned from the Cannes Film Festival.