Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Historical This and That

It's the birthday of novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, (books by this author) born in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). When she was two years old, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, America's first incorporated all-black town. Her father was a carpenter and preacher who was several times elected mayor of their town. In 1920, she enrolled in Howard University and then to Barnard College in New York City. While in New York, Hurston published the "Eatonville Anthology," a series of fourteen brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, including glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backwards farmer, the greatest liar in the village, and a cheating husband. Her best work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in just seven weeks and published in 1937. She wrote her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942. Although for a time she was the most prolific and most famous black woman writer in America, interest in her work faded away in the 1950s, and so did her money. She worked at odd jobs for the next ten years, writing a few magazine articles every now and again. Her death in 1960 in a welfare home went largely unnoticed and she was buried in an unmarked grave.

It's the birthday of journalist, poet, and biographer Carl Sandburg born in Galesburg, Illinois (1878). He started traveling as a hobo in 1897 and collected nearly 300 folk songs, which were published in The American Songbag (1927). In 1922, he came out with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, and his publisher suggested that he try writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln for children. Instead, he wrote a six-volume chronicle of Lincoln's life for adults, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for its volumes on Lincoln during the Civil War. In 1945, Sandburg moved with his wife and her herd of prize-winning goats to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Complete Poems (1951).

It's the birthday of French military leader Saint Joan of Arc, known as "the Maid of Orleans," born in Domrémy, France (1412), to peasant-stock parents. At the age of 13, she began to hear voices and see visions she believed came from saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret. These saints urged her to embark on a divine mission to help Charles Dauphin (later King Charles IV of France) and save France, embroiled at that time in the Hundred Years' War with England. She went to Charles and told her story; Charles sent her before a board of theologians who approved her religious claims; he then provided her with troops to lead into battle. Dressed as a male soldier, her hair shorn, carrying a white banner symbolic of God's blessing on the French campaign, Joan guided them to a decisive victory for France. Charles was later crowned king with Joan at his side. At age 18, Joan was divinely led to embark on another campaign against the English at Compiégne near Paris, this time without the support of Charles. She was captured by the Burgundian allies of the English, and was tried for heresy and sorcery at the ecclesiastical court in Rouen. She was burned in the Old Market Square in Rouen in 1431 at the age of 19. Years later, the Church reexamined her case and found her innocent.


It was on this day in 1825 that the writer Alexandre Dumas fought his first duel at the age of 23. He lost the battle and a bit of dignity as well — his pants fell down as he stood opposite his opponent. Later in his career, Dumas wrote stories of duels and the adventures of headstrong heroes in his books The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

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