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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Wendell Holmes

“We look at this as the best of all possible worlds; but the French know it isn’t, because most people speak English.”*…

 

“I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard.” James Thurber’s drawing for “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”

At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works…

Enjoy it (online or in PDF or Google Doc form) at “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Find more of the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” offerings here (where you can also sign up for their nifty weekly email drop of stories from their archive).

* Mark Olson at the “Histories: The Way We Weren’t” panel at Boskone 28.

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As we retreat to the High Castle, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.); he died on this date in 1894.   A physician, poet, and polymath based in Boston, he was a member of the Fireside Poets, acclaimed by his peers (his friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell) as one of the best writers of the day.  His most famous prose works are the humorous “Breakfast-Table” series, which began with The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858).  Many of his works were published in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he named; he popularized several terms, including “Boston Brahmin” and “anesthesia.”

Holmes was also an important medical reformer.  In addition to his work as an author and poet, Holmes also served as a physician, professor, lecturer, and inventor, and although he never practiced it, he received formal training in law… an enthusiasm he passed on to his eldest son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States from January–February 1930.

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“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”*…

 

Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”

It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian,” was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.

From Mental Floss, the origin of 10 familiar insults.

* Sigmund Freud

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As we mind our language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schenck v. United States– in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion famously observed that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As his observation passed into common parlance, “falsely” fell away and the condition of the theater was embellished– so that “shouting fire in a crowed theater” has come to stand for speech that is dangerous and unlawful.  The ever-precise Holmes recognized that, if in fact there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly shout “Fire!”; indeed one might, depending on the law in operation, be obliged to.

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Sweet dreams…

 

PopSci reports from Japan’s International Robot Show:

If you snore, this new pillowbot from Japan will gently brush your cheek to get you to stop — or flip out of bed in terror as its disturbingly slow arm moves toward you.

It’s designed to help people sleep better by stopping chronic snorers and those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, which causes breathing difficulty while sleeping. The robot, called “Jukusui-kun” or “deep sleep” in Japanese, is designed to look like a friendly snoozing polar bear. It is connected to a small glove device (also fuzzy bear-shaped) that measures blood oxygen levels, and a below-the-sheets sensor that detects loud noises. The pillow itself also has a microphone to monitor snore decibel levels. A person’s vital stats are pre-programmed into a terminal, which connects wirelessly so you don’t get tangled up in cables.

When the sensors detect blood-oxygen levels are getting too low, or when snoring becomes unbearably loud (yeah that’s right), the bear-pillow’s paw moves slowly and frighteningly toward the sleeping person’s face. This gentle cheek-brush induces the snoring person to turn over on to his or her side, which stops snoring and restores a more restful sleep…

More at “Japanese Robotic Polar Bear Gently Smacks Snorers in the Face.”

As we consider our overnight options, we might recall that it was on this date in 1846 that physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. coined the word “anesthesia” in a letter to William Thomas Green Morton, the surgeon who had recently given the first public demonstration of the pain-killing effects of ether (allowing for the painless removal by surgeon John Collins Warren of a tumor from the neck of Edward Gilbert Abbott).

Contemporary re-enactment of Morton's October 16, 1846, ether operation; daguerrotype by Southworth & Hawes

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Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music…

… and not just any old way you choose it, but selected and explicated by that master of American music– both classical and popular– Leonard Bernstein:

Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution is a CBS News special, broadcast in April 1967. The show was hosted by Leonard Bernstein and is probably one of the first examples of pop music being examined as a “serious” art form. The film features many scenes shot in Los Angeles in late 1966, including interviews with Frank Zappa and Graham Nash, as well as the now-legendary Brian Wilson solo performance of “Surf’s Up.”

As we tap our toes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that Paul Morphy, an American chess prodigy who became the world’s leading  grandmaster, just returned from a competitive tour of Europe, gave up the game.  Morphy was so dominant that he’d taken to spotting his opponents– other masters and grand masters– a pawn and a move, or playing blindfolded… or both.  After reviewing his games, Bobby Fischer considered Morphy so talented as to be “able to beat any player of any era if given time to study modern theory and ideas.”  And Marcel Duchamp, who abandoned art to become a chess expert, found inspiration in Morphy’s open style and opportunistic strategy in crafting his theory of the endgame…  which means that Morphy was indirectly a contributor to Duchamp’s friends and collaborators Samuel Beckett (whose Endgame is rooted in Duchamp’s thinking) and John Cage (with whom, in 1968, Duchamp played at a concert entitled “Reunion;” music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard).

Morphy’s retirement from chess (an amateur’s game in those days) came the day after he was hailed by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes as “the World Chess Champion” at a banquet in Morphy’s honor attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, Boston mayor Frederic W. Lincoln, Jr., Harvard president James Walker, and other luminaries.  Morphy attempted then to start a law practice, but was side-tracked by the outbreak of the Civil War.  Still, with the resources of a family fortune, he lived comfortably in New Orleans until his death in 1884 in the ancestral mansion– the site today of Brennan’s Restaurant (at which, your correspondent suspects, several readers have breakfasted).

Morphy at the board (source)

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