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Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

Feb 7th 1812 is the birthday of one of the greatest writers of all time – Charles Dickens. Dickens is so legendary in fact that many historians credit him with igniting the festive way modern society celebrates Christmas.

It’s not difficult to see how. The classic story “A Christmas Carol” is a parable about a miserly old man who gets a second chance to be a human being. A better tale of redemption, love and kindness you might never find.

Even the aesthetics of Christmas belong largely to Dickens. “Snow” and the whole concept of a “white Christmas” was portrayed in his work as a reflection of the environment he grew up in. “A Christmas Carol” is the most adapted work of literature in the English language and that picture has been engrained in the minds of many.

The author of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” – Professor Les Standiford claims Dickens is responsible for the version of Christmas we celebrate today.

“He obviously didn’t invent it as an idea, but what he did with A Christmas Carol began the process that led to what we have today.”

Christmas was barely celebrated at the start of the 1800s and December 25 was just a normal working day.

“The holiday was still suffering the effects of the Puritan era and seen as a Pagan enterprise,” says Professor Standiford.

“The publication of A Christmas Carol added an emotional component to Christmas and changed it. We will never know what Christmas would be like without Charles Dickens, but it would never have been quite the same as we enjoy today without him.”

Happy Birthday to Charles Dickens!



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HL Mencken vs. The State of Arkansas

Today (Feb 3rd) in the year 1931 the Arkansas state legislature passed motion to “pray for soul of HL Mencken” after he called the state the “apex of moronia” among other things.

Let’s rewind a bit.

HL Mencken wrote for the Evening Sun in the 1930’s. Around that time he wrote 3 columns about the state of Arkansas. Here are a few choice exerpts:

“No state offers better picking for evangelists. It has a full outfit of anti-evolution laws and other such products of the camp-meeting, and, though moonshining is widespread, there is heavy majority for Prohibition. The enlightened minority is a minority indeed, and it is confined to a few towns.”

“Several years ago I enjoyed the somewhat depressing pleasure of making a tour of the country lying along the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. I can only say that I came out of it feeling like a man emerging from a region devastated by war. Such shabby and flea-bitten villages I had never seen before, or such dreadful people. Some of the former were so barbaric that they didn’t even have regular streets; the houses, such as they were, were plumped down anywhere, and at any angle. As for the inhabitants, it is a sober fact that I saw women by the roadside with their children between their knees, picking lice like mother monkeys in the zoo.”

“The fields were bare and the woods were half burned. There were few fences. When one appeared, usually far gone in decay, there was always a sign on it, painted crudely with the backward: “Prepare To Meet Thy God.”

“It is a Christian act, of course, to save Americans from starvation. But it would be an even better Christian act, I believe, to try to civilize them. You may be sure, however, that no American statesman will propose it. It would cost too many votes in 1932.”

This level of unvarnished truth was of course met with fierce condemnation by politicians and religious leaders of the time. One of them was former governor Charles H. Brough who responded about a month later. This was a time before television when long thoughtful editorial was published and read widely.

H.L. Mencken
This guy calls it like he sees it…

Mencken did not retreat – “Let Dr. Brough,” he wrote, “as a sociologist, find out why so many of its (Arkansas’) farmers are miserable, exploited, chronically half-starved share-croppers, without reserves and without hope. . . And let him prepare himself for this labor by pasting in his hat the following . . . from the Little Rock Democrat of Feb. 8:

“‘So long as the Arkansas of today remains the Arkansas of 40 years ago, the Menckens are going to make it the butt of ridicule, and millions are going to agree with them.'”

Yes folks, HL Mencken was a literal bad ass… maybe the Jon Stewart of the 1930’s. The Arkansas state legislature finally lost it when Mencken referred to the state as “the Apex of Moronia”. Insulted but to indict or jail him for any crime they passed a motion to “Pray for the soul of H. L. Mencken”.

But Mencken’s writings made many wonder if he believed he actually had a soul. Here are a few more great Mencken quotes – remember this guy was in his prime in the 1930’s. This was a time when it was almost unheard of to be openly atheist.

“We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.”

“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

“I am suspicious of all the things that the average people believes.”

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant.”

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”


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Today in History: The First American Novel “Power of Sympathy” Published

Power of Sympathy
“Power of Sympathy” was the first documented American novel.

The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature (1789) is an 18th-century American sentimental novel written in epistolary form by William Hill Brown, widely considered to be the first American novel. The book was published by Isaiah Thomas in Boston on January 21, 1789. In the story, the characters’ struggles illustrate the dangers of seduction and the pitfalls of giving in to temptation. The book also “advocates the moral education of women” and the use of rational thinking as ways to prevent the consequences of such actions. In other words it’s a story that reinforces Puritanical Christian doctrines by scaring women.

The novel reflects early American interest in the role of women as both the representatives and the safe keepers of the country’s moral health. It show examples sexual temptation, displays the disastrous effects of giving in to seduction, and explains ways for the young girl to avoid this fate. The book is very didactic, (warning against sexual profligacy in both men and women) yet also takes on a sympathetic tone toward the seducer and the fallen woman. It urges the community to view the repentant sinners with compassion.

The book is historic in that it is considered the first novel by an American-born writer in the United States. The book was originally published anonymously. It’s story line is an example of sentimental romance written in epistolary form. Letters between the two main characters are a dialogue. The two young men who both have a love interest; Harrington has fallen in love with Harriot, who is beautiful and virtuous, but poor and beneath Harrington’s station in life, and Worthy is engaged to Harrington’s sister, Myra. Myra and Harriot are also friends, and their exchange of letters communicates Harriot’s dilemma of maintaining her virtue, even though her poverty makes the prospect of marriage to Harrington unlikely.



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NY Times Retracts Editorial Saying Rockets Can’t Fly

”Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” – Albert Einstein

The New York Times is a respected paper. Some might even call it a beacon of journalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s unquestioningly right 100% of the time. Back in 1851 the Times published one of it’s most memorable errors. Errors will be errors but this one is special not only because of how wrong it was but because of the tone the original author took.

On Jan. 13, 1920 the NY Times published an editorial about how rockets could not fly in space. The NYT opinion writer took to task one Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer. The writer gleefully mocked Goddard as lacking even a basic high school education, here’s the actual quote:

”That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

A correction was issued by the paper on July 17, 1969 just a day after the Apollo 11 launch to the moon. This correction surprisingly contains no reference whatsoever to this launch.

A Correction: On Jan. 13, 1920, “Topics of the Times,” an editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:

‘That Professor Goddard with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

Given the way journalism is today the Times gets bonus points for issuing this retraction even though it was a full 49 years later. Being able to admit when you’re wrong and correct those errors is an incredibly important part of journalism… one that doesn’t seem to really exist in the new millennium.

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Utah’s Journey to Statehood

Mormon Pioneers
Mormon Pionners were a large part of the West being settled

Utah had been around for about fifty years prior to President Cleveland granting the statehood on this day (January 4th) 1896.

Mormon settlers had begun to enter the Salt Lake Valley while the land was still owned by Mexico in 1847. Fortunately for them, the Americans won the Mexican war the following year while President Polk was in office. In the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico had to give what is now the American West to the United States.

The Mormons immediately wanted to form their own state and name it Deseret-a word from the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee or referring to the ‘bee crown’ in ancient Egypt. The terrain it would encompass included parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada. The members of the church elected all LDS leaders and voted in Brigham Young to be the official governor of Deseret.

Congress had other ideas.

During this time, the Civil War was still headline news and slavery was a hot topic. States were individually voting to keep or abolish it. The leaders in Washington knew creating such a humongous state wouldn’t be in the best interest of the country. It would give too much power to the west. Congress formed the Utah and New Mexico territories under the Compromise of 1850 giving them each their own control and vote regarding slavery. The Utah territory (which most still called Deseret) was cut substantially in size but was still bigger than modern Utah, including the majority of Nevada and a bit of Colorado and Wyoming.

President Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as the official territorial governor and (much to the local’s dismay) added some non-Mormon leaders to the administration as well. Somewhere along the line in 1852 some of the leaders made a public announcement that many of the Mormon families engaged in a plural marriage, or polygamy. Many politicians in the east called polygamy ‘the twin to slavery.’ They were denied statehood based on that revelation.

Another decade passed and Deseret was still not a state. While Abraham Lincoln was president an act called the Morrill Act was passed giving land rights to several states and territories. During that same year, the Morrill Anti-bigamy act was passed. This act limited church and non-profit ownership. There were no federal funds allocated for the enforcement of this act leaving Utahns to govern their own marital status.

It was documented that President Lincoln compared the LDS church to a log he had encountered as a farmer. He said, “[It] was too hard to split, too wet to burn, too heavy to move, so we plow around it. That’s what I intend to do to the Mormons.” The messenger was instructed to return and give the message ‘If he will let me alone, I will let him alone,’ regarding Brigham Young and his territory. Again, Utah was denied statehood.

When President Buchanan came on the scene he fired Brigham Young as the governor and sent Alfred Cumming to be the new man in charge as well as a twenty-five-hundred-man army to make sure there were no problems. During this same time, 1864, Nevada became a state and a large chunk of Deseret was granted to them. Again, they applied for statehood, again they were denied.

Later, in 1872 and again in 1882, Deseret applied for statehood and was rejected both times. In 1876 Colorado was granted statehood and took another small slice of Deseret. By this time the Utah territory had made polygamy a misdemeanor instead of a felony, a huge relief for those still practicing plural marriage. In 1881 the People’s party was dismantled and the citizens were forced to follow suit of the rest of the country and join the Republican or Democratic party. There were over a thousand convictions of unlawful cohabitation between the years 1884 and 1893. (One of which, I believe, was my great-great grandfather… at least so the story goes.)

1890, Wyoming was granted statehood and took another chunk of Deseret for itself, creating the unique shape and boarders of modern Utah.

Congress passed the Enabling Act in 1894 to set many areas on the path to statehood, however; polygamy was banned across the board. It took two more years for Utah to finally reach their goal of statehood. By that time, the government had a mix of Mormon and non-LDS affiliates and Utah was voted the named opposed to Deseret.

After forty years of being denied by Congress and losing more than half of their original acreage, it seemed a good exchange for them to officially give up polygamy to become the forty-fifth state.

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Today in History: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

One hundred ninety-nine years ago today, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published – anonymously. There have been debates regarding the amount of influence Percy Shelley, her husband, had in writing that fictional masterpiece. In those days, women weren’t taken seriously as authors and many, including Mrs. Shelly, wrote under their partner’s names or used a pseudonym. Jane Austen was just as vague as Shelly publishing her first works under ‘A Lady’. Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, often published her child-reading advice under her famous father’s name so the guidance would be taken seriously by the reader.

More examples; Charlotte Bronte, the author for the famous novel Jane Eyre wrote for years under the name Currer Bell. Her sisters, Anne and Emily became Acton and Ellis Bell. Lousia May Alcott wrote several small fictional pieces under A.M Bernard until her most prominent novel, Little Women was released. It then made sense for a woman to write about women and seemed fitting for her to unveil her true identity.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf stated that in order to write, a woman needed her own income and her own room. (A Room of One’s Own). She continued to predict during that time a women’s revolution would occur due to the increase in literacy for middle-class ladies. We can all be grateful for this progression.
And here I thought I was so original to use my own initials and pseudonym when publishing but alas, I’m merely following a long-standing trend. Even though feminism and women’s rights have cultivated in the writing profession, many have written under a gender neutral names throughout the decades.
One would correctly guess by the nature of the book that Mary Poppins was written by a woman even though P.L Travers could be either male or female. For the record, her real name is Pamela Lyndon Travers.

Joanne Rowlings was asked by her publicist to use a gender neutral name, J.K, to attract male readers. She commented she didn’t care at that point what they called her, (Enid Snodgrass perhaps) she was just eager to get her novel, Harry Potter, out to the world. It was said she channeled ‘her inner bloke’ when she published The Cockoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in 2013. It’s really all about the reader not the writer, right?

Have you read any of Erika Leonard’s work? Most likely you have, but would you have picked up Fifty Shades of Grey had she published under her full legal name instead of her initials and the made-up last name James? (Or her previous pen-name Snow Queen Ice Dragon?)

Some author’s like Nora Roberts write under different names for different genres. J.D Robb is Nora’s alter ego when she writes her true crime stories, In Death. When talking crime, a man would obviously be more of an expert in that field, right? Of course.
Recently I read a blog by an up and coming author Victoria Griffin. She wondered if she should be ashamed of her name due to the publishing industry’s gender bias in which she showed proof. Her nickname growing up was Tori and in hindsight, she wonders if her works would have been better received had she published under a gender neutral name.

In a world where women make only a fraction of what their male counterparts make, is it any wonder we women are wanting to become anonymous… just like Mary Shelley did in 1818?