Thursday, November 18, 2010

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain


[Mark Twain's story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was first published in 1865 - in an issue of the New York Saturday Press bearing today's date - as Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog; it had been written at the behest of Twain's friend Artemus Ward, and would establish Twain as the era's foremost humourist.]

n compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.

I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel's, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley—Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel's Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me any thing about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him.

Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse. To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd. As I said before, I asked him to tell me what he knew of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and he replied as follows. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once:
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"Steamboat Willie" starring Mickey Mouse

On this day in 1928 the Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks cartoon Steamboat Willie was released; the film itself is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr.. Notable as the first cartoon to sync pictures and sound, it was also the first of Disney's offerings to feature Mickey Mouse - here pitted against longtime Disney villain Peg-Leg Pete... Opening at New York City's 79th Street Theatre, it played ahead of the independent film Gang War, which is all but forgotten today, except as a footnote in the story of Steamboat Willie.

Since 1998 Steamboat Willie has been on the National Film Registry, putting it under the protection of the Library of Congress.
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The Death of Gia Carangi

With all due respect to Suzy Parker, Lauren Hutton, and even Janice Dickinson, the world's first supermodel was a wild child from Philadelphia with a European look and a dangerous side that would prove as prophetic as it was sexy...

PhotobucketBorn in January 1960, Gia Carangi's childhood was marred by her parents' constant squabbling, which drove her to seek solace on the mean streets - and by the early Seventies few streets were meaner than those of North Philly; at the age of 17 she took off for Manhattan, and having worked for such noted fashion photographers as Francesco Scavullo, Arthur Elgort, Richard Avedon, and Chris von Wangenheim in short order she soon found herself the most sought-after fashion model in the world.

Regular readers of the Pop Culture Institute will be all too aware of the corrosive effects of fame on the young, effects which derailed not just the career but eventually as well the life of Gia Carangi...

A regular at famed nightspots Studio 54 and the Mudd Club, Carangi soon tried cocaine and eventually heroin, which would prove her downfall; the double shock of two deaths, one year apart - first of Gia's mentor Wilhelmina Cooper in March 1980 then that of Chris von Wangenheim in March 1981 - hastened Carangi's headlong slide when she chose to take solace in her addiction. Posing for her last Cosmopolitan cover in the winter of 1982, she was caught with drugs on a shoot in Africa in 1983 and her career was over.

The last five years of her life were spent in and out of various rehab and detox environments, punctuated by short-lived relationships with both women and men; Gia Carangi died on this day in 1986, one of the first prominent female figures to die of AIDS. The entire sad story - in which most of her highs were themselves lows - is told in Stephen Fried's book Thing of Beauty; the book was loosely adapted for television, and made into the 1998 TV-movie Gia, starring a then-obscure Angelina Jolie, who won a Golden Globe for her work.
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Pop History Moment: "Calvin and Hobbes" Debuts


On this day in 1985 Universal Press Syndicate debuted the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. In the same way Calvin baited his tiger trap with tuna and caught himself Hobbes, so did Watterson bait his strip with razor-sharp insight into the human psyche and catch himself a cult following; during its decade-long run each and every tantrum, flight of fancy, and philosophical discourse left the strip's regular readers enraptured. I know I for one hoped it would go on forever...

More than a decade after Watterson called it quits (on the last day of 1995) the entire strip was published in a hard cover collectors' edition, which has yet to find its way into the collection of the Pop Culture Institute*...

*This is a hint, for any of you potential benefactors out there... After all, 'Tis the Season and all that.

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"Reefer Man" by Cab Calloway

In a way it's no shock to learn that famed bandleader Cab Calloway (who died on this day in 1994) was born on Christmas Day, in 1907; not only was he prodigiously gifted, but he was incredibly generous with those gifts all his life. During the darkest years of the Great Depression, Calloway's high-energy song-and-dance-filled recordings and radio broadcasts, film and nightclub appearances livened up many a dark night, and even when he occasionally indulged in a bit of tear-mongering - such as with St. James Infirmary Blues - audiences could be guaranteed that it would be far more entertaining than mere self-pity.

Whether teamed up with Betty Boop - who sashayed her way through his classic Minnie the Moocher in a way he could only dream of - with his band or on his own, seen here taking the time out to campaign on behalf of relaxed marijuana laws with the song Reefer Man.
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Happy Birthday Margaret Atwood

She traced the outlines of her life well enough in Cat's Eye (1988) so that even the most casual observer could recognize her from the shape she'd made there; still, never be fooled by any writer who uses their own facts to fill out their fiction. Often, rather than verisimilitude, it's a very personal form of subterfuge they have in mind...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1939, Atwood's childhood was peripatetic; she never attended a full year of school until the 8th Grade, when her father gave up his job as a field biologist for a professorship at the University of Toronto (if Cat's Eye is to be believed, anyway). An early reader - both voracious in scope and catholic in taste - Atwood began writing at the age of 16 (what we call around here 'a late bloomer'); she soon made up for her patchy education and laggard start by obtaining her university degree and self-publishing her first book of poems, Double Persephone, both in 1961.

By 1964 she'd won her first Governor-General's Award, for The Circle Game, and just like that she was off; her first novel, 1969's The Edible Woman is notable not just for its distinctly Canadian setting, but for its humour, a quality for which she has not been overpraised but which is nevertheless there, in amongst the eloquence of her phrasing and vivid characterization.

Ever since the outset of the 1970s, then, she has been a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, and investigations into the Canadian identity; simply by outliving her idols she stands as the undisputed Queen of Canadian Literature. Approaching seventy, Atwood shows no signs of relenting, for which I am grateful (despite the groaning of my bookshelves). There are very few writers whose works I snap up the instant they're published, but she is at the top of that short list, a sensation with which the much-lauded author is well familiar I am sure.

In 2008, Atwood hit the zeitgeist jackpot by publishing Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth just as the world's rich decided to make it that little bit harder for the other 95% of us... It's a slim volume - derived from her Massey Lectures - but fairly bulges with the wit, insight, and commonsense we who revere her have come to expect.
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POPnews - November 18th

[By 1450, when this image was made, the Renaissance St. Peter's Basilica which had grown up around the tomb of Saint Peter had itself grown too old-fashioned for the silk- and velvet-dressed, perfumed and bejewelled he-men who lived and worked there; originally intending to preserve the old building, Pope Julius II eventually tore one architectural masterpiece down with an unshakable faith that someday an even greater one would arise...]

326 CE - The Old St. Peter's Basilica was consecrated, during the papal reign of St. Sylvester I.

1302 - When Pope Boniface VIII issued the Papal bull Unam sanctam - 'The One Holy' - it wasn't the first bull issued by a Pope (and Lord knows it wouldn't be the last) but it was one of the strongest statements to date about Papal infallibility, and is probably responsible for that holier-than-Thou attitude of theirs the rest of us must contend with to this day.

1307 - According to legend, William Tell shot an apple off his son's head.

1477 - When William Caxton produced Dictes, or Sayengis of the Philosophres (written by the King's brother-in-law Earl Rivers, whose sister Elizabeth married Edward IV), it would be the first book printed on a printing press in England.

1626 - The extensively remodeled St. Peter's Basilica was re-consecrated by Pope Urban VIII.

1803 - At Battle of Vertières, the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated French troops under Vicomte de Rochambeau - leading to the establishment of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, the Republic of Haiti, where the day is still celebrated.

1863 - Denmark's King Christian IX signed that country's November Constitution, which (in part) declared Schleswig to be part of Denmark; this was seen by the German Confederation as a violation of the London Protocol and would eventually lead to the German-Danish War of 1864.

1865 - Mark Twain's story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was first published, in the New York Saturday Press.

1905 - Denmark's Prince Carl became King Haakon VII of Norway following the 1905 dissolution of the union between the two countries.

1916 - The First Battle of the Somme ended when British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig called off the battle - which had started on July 1st.

1928 - The animated short Steamboat Willie, the first fully-synchronized sound cartoon, was released; directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, it featured the second appearances of cartoon stars Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This date is also considered by the Disney Corporation to be Mickey's birthday.

1929 - The Grand Banks earthquake - a submarine seismic event recorded at 7.2 on the Richter scale and centred on the Grand Banks in the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Newfoundland - broke 12 underwater transatlantic telegraph cables and triggered a tsunami that destroyed many south coast communities in the Burin Peninsula area.

1947 - A fire at Ballantyne's Department Store fire in Christchurch killed 41, making it the worst such catastrophe in New Zealand history.

1978 - At the Jonestown incident in Guyana, Jim Jones led his Peoples Temple cult in a mass murder-suicide that claimed 918 lives in all, 909 of them at Jonestown itself, including over 270 children; the event had been precipitated by the fact-finding mission of Congressman Leo Ryan (D.-Calif.) and his subsequent murder (along with four journalists) at the hands of Jonestown thugs, also on this day.

1985 - Bill Watterson's legendary comic strip Calvin and Hobbes debuted.

1987 - During a fire in London, 31 people died at the city's busiest Tube station, King's Cross St Pancras.

1991 - Following the 87-day siege of Vukovar, that Croatian city capitulated to the besieging Yugoslav People's Army and allied Serb paramilitary forces.

2000 - Welsh beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones married Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas at New York City's famed Plaza Hotel.

2003 - The UK's Local Government Act 2003 received Royal Assent, repealing the Thatcher government's controversial anti-gay amendment Section 28 in England and Wales; Scotland had already repealed it in June 2000 with the passage of its Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. First passed in May 1988 and championed by, among many others, Michael Howard, Section 28 remains one of the most loathsome pieces of legislation ever produced by the Mother of All Parliaments.
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