Literary daybook, July 24

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 24, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 24, 1847, Dr. Alex Pinet dies.
-- "Ship Fever" (1996)
by Andrea Barrett

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

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1725, John Newton, the seaman-turned-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born. Newton's autobiography ("An Authentic Narrative of Some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton," 1764) makes clear how repeatedly lost and found a wretch he was: to sea with his merchant marine father at the age of 11; sent to Spain as a shopkeeper's apprentice at 15; another try as sailor in Venice at 17; press-ganged into service aboard an English man-of-war but such a troublemaker that he was released to a slave trader; abandoned by the trader to the whims of his "African princess" concubine, who starved him, and encouraged the natives to jeer and throw rocks at her white slave; a sequence of better or worse treatment by other captain-traders, and a series of broken pledges to reform a life "big with mischief"; finally, at age 22, a passage home to England and, during a savage storm off the coast of Newfoundland, a "born again" deliverance into evangelical Christianity. Newton's first parish was in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he is buried; his self-written epitaph describes "an infidel and libertine ... preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy."

Apart from the autobiography, and the "Olney Hymns" written with the poet William Cowper, Newton is known for his letters. These are devout and purposeful, but "the old African blasphemer" reveals himself to his parishioners as human, still spirited and mindful of his youth:

"Last week we had a lion in town. I went to see him. He was wonderfully tame; as familiar with his keeper, as docile and obedient as a spaniel. Yet the man told me he had his surly fits, when they durst not touch him. No looking-glass could express my face more justly than this lion did my heart. I could trace every feature: as wild and fierce by nature; yea, much more so; but grace has in some measure tamed me. I know and love my Keeper, and sometimes watch his looks that I may learn his will. But, oh! I have my surly fits too; seasons when I relapse into the savage again, as though I had forgotten all."

-- Steve King

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

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