Great Moments in Whatever and Such
My thinking was, it’s 2006. I’ve already missed the opportunity to write on the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, the 200th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin, the 150th anniversary of Madame Bovary and Sigmund Freud, and the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake. (All the major magazines have done their bits on them already.) But there might be other centennials I might be able to write about, and what better place to look for them than in The Timetables of History, a reference book on that very subject (major world events, by year, from the Greeks to the present), which happened to be on the shelf next to the Webster’s Geographical Dictionary I was using to check puzzles with?
So I checked. Unfortunately, the best centennial articles look like they won’t come until 2008. These include such 1908 events as:
* Jack Johnson becomes the first black heavyweight boxing champ.
* General Motors founded.
* Baseball outlaws the spitball.
* Production of the first Model T.
* The Wind in the Willows.
* Anne of Green Gables.
* E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. (Might be a good time to look at gay writers in general.)
* G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. (His only really good novel; he’s due for a reevaluation.)
* Birth of Simone de Beauvoir. (I can see the article already: “Whither Feminism?”)
* Birth of Ian Fleming. (There’ll probably be another crappy Bond film out that year.)
* The first production of ammonia and liquid hydrogen.
* The “Ashcan School” of art established.
In 2007, I have fewer good prospects, including (among topics I’m actually interested in):
300th anniversary of Henry Fielding’s birth (I’ve always needed an excuse to read Tom Jones), of Isaac Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs (many of them still hugely popular despite their clunkiness), and the birth of Linnaeus, the godfather of Latin names for animals! In stranger news, it also apparently marks 300 years since the concept of “counting the pulse” entered medicine via some guy named Sir John Floyer.
It’s also the 200th anniversary of England’s ending of the slave trade, and the U.S. Evangelical Association holding its first convention. (What were “evangelicals” like back then? This would be a hundred years before modern evangelicalism emerged along with the publication of The Fundamentals)
2007 is the 150th anniversary of the first safety elevator (courtesy of E. G. Otis). And, in a potentially amusing article, it’s the 150th birthday of Dutch author Henrik von Pontoppidan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. Might be fun to read one of his novels and snark about the famously bad taste of the Nobel committee in the early years.
Coolest of all, 2007 is the 100th anniversary of the first daily comic strip! (“Mr. Mutt”, by Bud Fisher, which later became “Mutt and Jeff,” running in the San Francisco Daily Chronicle.) It’s tempting to write an article that would ask, “Have daily comic strips ever not sucked?”
Which brings us to 2006, which has already been pretty well covered. The unpicked pickings are rather slim.
The most interesting to me, for its sheer absurdity, is that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Beaufort Scale, which measures the severity of wind. What the hell gave Beaufort the idea? And why is it still so easy to imagine living without it?
Other 200ths this year: The Burr plot (whatever that is), the official end of the Holy Roman Empire (how do you end an empire “officially”? Might be fun to know). And it’s the 200th birthday of both John Stuart Mill, and the collection Rhymes for the Nursery by James and Ann Taylor. If I had to choose which to read, I think I'd go with the nursery rhymes. Same thing if I had to choose a hundred times.
Some 150ths that caught my eye: H. Rider Haggard was born (and I just spent this very evening watching the 1950's film adaptaion of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. It was quite entertaining—and a lot less racist than the novel version I tried to read once). Big Ben was cast. A Neanderthal skull was found in Feldhofer cave. (We can always use another evolution article, given our country’s ignorance of basic science.) But the three most interesting to me are a.) the longest bare-knuckle boxing fight in history—186 rounds, lasting six hours, fifteen minutes, in Melbourne Australia. b.) Some interesting-sounding thing called The Massacre of Potawatamie Creek in Kansas, where slavers were murdered by free-staters. (What do you do when you sympathize with the murderers?) And c.) The first extraction of pure cocaine from cocoa beans. Which is particularly fitting, since it’s also the 150th anniversary of Freud, who prescribed cocaine like it was Prozac.
2006 is also the 50th anniversary of Profiles in Courage, Peyton Place, Auntie Mame, and W.H. Whyte’s criticism of the then-developing corporate culture, The Organization Man. But does anyone care about 50ths? I'm so new at this.
But you know what? I’ve got a library card. Tomorrow I’m gonna see if I can hunt down Peyton Place. It might just be hilarious. And I’ll take any suggestions if people have them. In the meantime, enjoy reading all this trivia! It's the fastest way I know to feel superficially smarter.