Literary daybook, June 27

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
June 27, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On June 27, the lottery occurs.
-- "The Lottery" (1949)
by Shirley Jackson

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1787, Edward Gibbon wrote the concluding lines of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." The book had been almost 15 years in the making -- 6 volumes, 1.5 million words, 8,000 footnotes, 1,300 years and three continents covered -- and Gibbon took a moment to "commemorate the hour of my final deliverance," which had come just before midnight, in the small summer-house in his garden in Lausanne:

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"After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion ..."

The first volume of "Decline and Fall" had been printed years earlier, and had sold out; fame had already arrived, as Gibbon knew, bringing controversy and outrage with it. Gibbon's thesis was that the intellectual rigor of the Roman Empire had declined into "barbarism and religion." Christian historians and readers did not like the idea that Christianity was a step backward, and Gibbon was attacked both for his scholarship and his disbelief.

This must have given Thomas Hardy added motivation to sit up in Gibbon's garden until midnight on this day in 1897, the 110th anniversary of the penning of those last "Decline and Fall" lines. Gibbon's house was Hotel Gibbon by this point, and a spot visited by many literary travelers, but Hardy had just published "Jude the Obscure," and was himself vilified by press and public (and wife) for his blasphemy and irreligion. In his commemorative poem "Lausanne: In Gibbon's Old Garden," Hardy joins league not only with Gibbon but Milton, as three who have suffered at the hands of narrow belief:

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"'Still rule those minds on earth
At whom sage Milton's wormwood words were hurled:
'Truth like a bastard comes into the world
Never without ill-fame to him who gives it birth'?"

Byron was another who visited the Gibbon garden, bringing his own experience of persecution, and taking away a leaf from the acacia trees.

-- Steve King

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To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.


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