Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thoughts from the Book of Ages

Cover of A Book of AgesI continue to slowly peruse Eric Hanson's A Book of Ages, in which he relays facts about hundreds of historical and fictitious people at every age from 0 to 100. I'm now up to 44.

Here are a few favorites since my last post.

A whiplash juxtaposition at age 13:

  • "Malcolm X tells a teacher that his goal in life is to become a lawyer, 1939. She tells him a lawyer is not a realistic goal for a 'nigger' and maybe he'd better try to be a carpenter instead. Malcolm's mother is committed to the state mental hospital in Kalamazoo. He is placed in a juvenile home."
  • Followed immediately by: "William F. Buckley Jr. takes up sailing, 1939."
Same year. Same age. And a glimpse of the effect of privilege or the lack thereof.

Age 37: "Songwriter Stephen Foster, the inventor of American popular song, dies in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital, 1864. He has thirty-eight cents in his pocket, and a piece of paper with the words 'dear friends and gentle hearts' written upon it."

Wondering how that came to be, I found this in the Wikipedia entry about Foster: "Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Consequently, due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, not paying Foster anything. For 'Oh, Susanna' he received $100."

Age 39: It's startling to realize it was at this relatively young age that John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence (didn't you always assume he was much older?), Thomas Paine published the words "These are the times that try men's souls," and Martin Luther King had accomplished everything he did in his life, since he was killed that year. (Malcolm X was 39 when he was killed also.) What was i doing at 39? What were you?

Self portrait of Whistler next to black and white photo of Ruskin
Age 44: "James Abbott McNeill Whistler files a lawsuit after the critic John Ruskin writes a savage review of his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1877. He wins the case but is given only a farthing in damages, which becomes a comment on his reputation. The cost of bringing the suit ruins him. He loses his house and his famous collection of blue and white porcelain."

While I felt badly for Whistler, I was even more struck by the fact that he would even consider suing a critic, and that (despite the farthing judgment) he actually won instead of being laughed out of court. It's facts like this that make me realize how different U.S. and British laws are, and I'm glad I live in the U.S.

I recently read an article about European companies choosing U.K. courts to sue people who criticize them, because British defamation law is so biased against the defendant. In the age of the interweb, anything published on a website could be subject to U.K. law, since it can be read there. Now that's messed up.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

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