Category Archives: general interest

“the business of the biographer”

 

His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets

 

 

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Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750

 

 

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In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shorakkopoch

 

 

 

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Shorakkopoch (also spelled Shorakopok) stone; Inwood Hill Park, New York City

 

 

 

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SHORAKKOPOCH

 

According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626, purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.

This boulder also marks the spot where a tulip tree (Liriodendron Tulipiera) grew to a height of 165 feet and a girth of 20 feet. It was until its death in 1938 at the age of 280 years. the last living link with the Reckgawawanc Indians who lived here.

Dedicated as part of New York City’s 300th anniversary celebration by the Peter Minuit post 1247, American Legion January 1954.

 

 

 

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This marker is in Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan, where I was walking yesterday. It’s a beautiful spot, and I can imagine what it was like for the Indians who lived there (sadly, once, no more).

The stone is easy to miss. It’s on one of the paths in the forested area of the park.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 28, 2018

 

‘the wide effulgence of a summer noon”; the beauty of great writing

 

 

I suffered a near loss of vision. It was terrifying, but treatment seems to have restored my sight to its former state, or near to it.

I temporarily lost the ability to read. To celebrate my recovery, I have begun reading Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets, a work I have been intending to read.

I think reading gives me the greatest pleasure of all. Here is Johnson on the metaphysical poets:

Their attempts were always analytick; they broke every image into fragments and could no more represent by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature or the scenes of life than he, who dissects a sun-beam with a prism, can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.” — “Cowley”

Like a biologist or physician examining a tissue under a microscope, I can detect great writing (and tell good from mediocre or bad); can recognize, appreciate, and delight in power and subtlety of exposition, when happily seen, from a sentence or two.

Reading gives me the greatest pleasure imaginable. The above sentence shows why Samuel Johnson is so admired and why he has few rivals as a writer of expository prose.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 4, 2018

 

 

J’accuse…!

 

 

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.

 

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

 

 

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When most people get indignant about government policies and actions, it’s usually against a leader such as Trump or Nixon whom they hate, or perhaps Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Or a present or past dictator or tyrant. Their regime or administration. Their policies.

But, as William Blake has shown. Epigrammatically, emphatically. What most offends the moral sense, what tears a fiber from the brain is not policy or programs. As much as to contemplate the suffering of INDIVIDUALS, inflicted upon them by the state. Meaning they can’t prevent it, and usually have no recourse.

This includes the prisoners in our inhumane, horrible prison system – most of them. Guantanamo detainees. Offenses against human decency and Christian norms observable in the USA today. And, similar horrors abroad or in the days of yore. Such as political prisoners being tortured in Syrian jails and held and perhaps tortured elsewhere. The Gulag. Internment and concentration camps. The Killing Fields. And ….

I can’t resist preaching. I feel that I am right. Be thou like Christ. Love man. Not like the Pharisees. Obsessed with finding rulebreakers.

People seem to have for the most part moved on to the next issue du jour. The Mueller probe and the misdeeds of the Trump administration. The latest developments and revelations.

Believe me, these issues pale by comparison and will seem a lot less important at a future date.

What about the roughly 700 children who were separated from their parents at the border and have still not been reunified with those parents by the administration, according to a CNN report from five days ago (this figure includes more than 40 children who are 4 years old and younger)? And, the children who have suffered psychological harm from being torn from their parents and detained?

The separation of migrant families — of parents from children, and children from parents — under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards migrants is a crime against humanity. Or, to use another generic term, a human rights abuse. Pure and simple.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  August 29, 2018

the music of the spheres (linguistically speaking)

 

 
I live in the borough of Queens in New York City.

In a metropolitan area with the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the nation, and in a City where far more languages are spoken than in any other city in the world — in public; on the streets and in parks; in stores and restaurants; on buses and the subway; and so on.

To hear the variety of languages spoken in NYC is exhilarating.

I love to hear foreign languages.

Their musicality.

To hear the wonderful sonorities of Spanish being spoken. To hear Russian, and to be able to recognize it. To be able to recognize Polish, which I hear spoken very often in my neighborhood.

To guess at other languages that I hear being spoken during my peregrinations.

To me, it’s just another reason to WELCOME IMMIGRANTS. If only others — some do, but I fear, and in fact know, it’s far too few — could see this.

 

 

—  Roger W. Smith

    August 2018

 

 

 

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photos taken in Manhattan by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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a brief exercise in “verbal impressionism”

 

 

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Juniper Valley Park, Queens, NYC; August 21, 2018

 

 

 

Observations made by me while jaunting this week.
Monday, August 20, 2018

girl with mother and siblings eating lunch in a Macdonald’s in Queens

 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

kids eating potato chips in a park in Queens (see photo above)

 

I noticed the same thing. That when kids are happy they get a glassy eyed, dreamy look. Like they are looking at nothing in particular. And are happy in a half-conscious way.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 21, 2018