The Boston Molasses Plot Thickens, and Other News


On the Shelf

The aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster.

  • In January 1919, a freak molasses accident claimed the lives of twenty-one people in Boston: a steel holding tank burst open, flooding the streets (and the nation’s nightmares) with 2.3 million gallons of treacle. Scientists have never really figured out why the spill was so deadly, but a team of researchers from the American Physical Society have an idea, writes Erin McCann: “By studying the effects of cold weather on molasses, the researchers determined that the disaster was more fatal in the winter than it would have been during a warmer season. The syrup moved quickly enough to cover several blocks within seconds and thickened into a harder goo as it cooled, slowing down the wave but also hindering rescue efforts … The cooler temperature of the outside air raised the viscosity of the molasses, essentially trapping people who had not been able to escape the wave. About half the people who were killed ‘died basically because they were stuck.’ ”
  • Forrest Gander has translated some never-before-seen Neruda poems, and while he’s not ready to quote them, he’s willing to offer a few tantalizing descriptions, because that is his right: “There’s a love poem that turned my solar plexus into a cavern. There’s an ode to Neruda’s wife’s ear that depends upon a conceit that most Chileans today wouldn’t fathom, since few remember the 1940s vernacular for abalone: ‘little ears of the sea.’ There’s a poem in which Neruda recalls his arrival at the age of seventeen in Santiago. He’d come hoping to cut his teeth on big-city poetry, but when he stepped off the train, he walked into squadrons of mounted police swinging batons at protesters in a widespread violence organized by the ruling elite, the nitrate barons, in a period that came to be called the ‘White Terror.’ There are inclusive Whitmanesque paeans to working men and women, and there’s a hilarious tirade against the depredations of the telephone.” 

  • Before manga referred to Japanese graphic storytelling, the word had a broader meaning, encompassing an entire tradition of informal drawing. At the center of this tradition is Hokusai Katsushika, an eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrator whose craftsmanship is still impressive today, Christopher Benfey writes: “When French artists like Manet and Degas first encountered Hokusai’s manga, in fifteen volumes numbering some 4,000 plates, it was the disjunctive, off-the-cuff quality of the images that proved most exciting. Hokusai seemed to be a Japanese flâneur, sketchbook in hand, who quickly took down whatever he saw on his travels or in his teeming imagination. Again and again in Hokusai’s Lost Manga, travelers take a break from their journeys—up craggy mountains, down dangerous rivers—to scrutinize the countryside. A dapper falconer, a hawk perched on his shoulder, looks out over carefully tended fields. A dog beside him reinforces the intent gaze of hawker and hawk. This is how to view this variegated world, Hokusai seems to say, in plate after plate in this visually arresting album.”
  • People are always going on about how King Lear feels like a modern play—but Stig Abell would prefer for us to remember its primitive ambitions: “Lear, perhaps more than any other tragedy, is an investigation into foolishness. And its apparent modernity is connected to what feels (incorrectly) like the recent sophistication of combining the serious with the absurd. Lear is a tragic figure because of the ridiculousness to which he descends: ‘the worst,’ as Edgar puts it, ‘returns to laughter.’ Shakespeare was fascinated by that point of utter degradation where misery can only be conveyed in mirth … Shakespeare the dramatist knew that there was a thin line sometimes between laughter and slaughter.”
  • Ben Lerner talks to Kate Kellaway: “I feel the materiality of language most intensely when writing poetry. It is a push/pull relationship where the material resists. You have a sense of speaking through language and of language speaking to you. The plasticity is primary. This doesn’t mean that content doesn’t matter, but poetry is this space where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning—like where you break a line, how it is disposed on a page, sound patterns … that requires a playfulness. It means being open in the space of composition to the place that language takes you; it means not trying to know what you are doing in advance.”