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‘Mad as a Hatter’ – The History of a Simile – NYTimes.com

By PAT RYAN
Published: March 5, 2010

Is the Hatter mad?

Hatter-Sir John Tenniel/Rischgitz-Getty Images,1865

Hatter-Sir John Tenniel/Rischgitz-Getty Images,1865

Since 1865, when “Alice in Wonderland” was published, readers have quoted and parsed his every utterance. He’s called simply the Hatter in “Alice” and Hatta in “Through the Looking-Glass,” but we know he’s mad; the Cheshire-Cat tells us so.

Like the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter is such a familiar figure that we’ve felt free to use his name without gleaning what afflicts him. His image has remained vivid, from the first book illustrations by Sir John Tenniel to Johnny Depp’s fleshed-out version in the Tim Burton movie that opened Friday.

But what did Lewis Carroll, a lover of riddles, mean by “mad”? The phrase “he’s mad as a hatter” was colloquial in Britain before “Alice.” Inquiries “respecting this simile” had appeared in the journal Notes & Queries, and in 1863 an answer, of sorts, was published, though its author was “at a loss to understand why a hatter should be made the type of insanity rather than a tailor or a shoemaker.” Readers were referred to the French phrase “Il raisonne comme une huitre” (“He reasons like an oyster”), suggesting that the French word for oyster, when Anglicized, may “have given occasion to the English ‘hatter.’” Hmm.

In the book, Alice herself finds the Hatter “dreadfully” puzzling; his remark “seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”

Linguists and phraseologists have tried to pinpoint the simile’s origins. Eric Partridge, in his “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” concluded that Carroll “definitely fixed the English sense” of the phrase as “extremely eccentric.” (Mr. Partridge also dismissed “mad” for “angry” as an American notion, though, he said, hatter/attercop, or spider, “has some support in ‘mad as a bed-bug.’”)

Since Carroll was well known as a mathematician, logicians have looked to his writing and discovered a sympathetic mind under the Hatter hat: perhaps a Mad Adder.

Physicists have used Hatterian concepts, often citing this quotation: “‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’” The physicist Robert A. Millikan was quoted in 1932 as saying that the Hatter was not mad “when he gave to Time changeable, undependable, capricious qualities which we assign to personality,” and furthermore, “who is the nearer right — the Mad Hatter or the common-sense citizen?”

The Hatter is focused on time, understandably, since the Queen of Hearts has accused him of being a time-murderer. This has added heft to the theory that a top-hat wearing inventor, Theophilus Carter, was the inspiration. Mr. Carter had displayed his Alarm-Clock-Bed — which was supposed to tip the sleeper out at the correct time — at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.

Next we come to the notorious “hatters’ shakes,” a result of poisoning from mercury used in the early days of hat manufacturing. At a recent news conference, Johnny Depp suggested that that was where “mad as a Hatter” came from. The Hatter is “this guy who literally is damaged goods,” he said. In the British Medical Journal in 1983, however, H.A. Waldron concluded that the Hatter did not have mercury poisoning. The principal psychotic features of this type of poisoning are “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self confidence, anxiety and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.” The Hatter, he states, was “an eccentric extravert.”

All of this fits the spirit of illogicism in “Alice.” In response to one textual query, Carroll answered: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them.”

He would have liked the Unreasoning Oyster.

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Attention–to whom it may concern:

February 7th to 13th is officially FREELANCE WRITER APPRECIATION WEEK! Honest! So why don’t you visit your friendly neighbourhood writer and buy them a cuppa*, sharpen some pencils, trim a quill, or tidy up the piles of crumpled paper, pizza crusts, worn out keyboards, Red Bull tins and gnawed desktop surrounding them, or even give them a hug, (but approach carefully–if more four letter words are being mumbled or screamed than are being entered into the manuscript, frenzied attacks and/or uncontrollable sobbing may occur). Perhaps it’s best if you appreciate them from outside leaping range, but please do something.

Staring at a blank recording surface, equally blankly, wondering why every muse and inspiration took this particular time to vacation in the Bahamas, can be a lonely, frustrating experience, and we tend to forget food, sleep, phones, Facebook and most everything else other than wondering when it will stop, and a touch of the milk of human kindness can be very soothing, especially in the cuppa.  Or when the words are flowing and the pages are piling up, writing can be everything up to and including transcendent as we are ‘in the zone’ and we tend to forget food, sleep, phones, Facebook and most everything else other than wondering when it will stop. I, for one, (or occasionally several), promise not to growl–well–for this week, too much, anyway.

As a freelance writer, I shall appreciate your appreciation.

Now I have another two deadlines, past and passing, respectively, to which I should return. Another about which I’m currently playing “Phone Hide & Seek,” (a variation of “Phone Tag”), with a charming editor, (as Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.“), and I promise to appear delightfully surprized at any appreciation I receive this annual Freelance Writer Appreciation Week. Unless, I suppose, I am actually surprized, (startled) by the attention, at which time I am not accountable for and apologize in advance at any injuries, physical, emotional or psychological incurred by anyone present, nor for my complete lack of recognition, acknowledgment, response and/or rejoinder.

Enjoy the week,
and I’m sure your day is coming.
As ever,

–doc–
Dr. H. Doc (Cheshire Hobbes) Burns, MA, MFA, Ph.D, Writer (Freelance)

* Caution: upon ascertaining the current mental state of the writer dictates what liquid the cuppa should contain. This can be another incendiary moment. If a cup containing the wrong percentage of alcohol and/or caffeine appear, the ‘appreciator’ should be ready if flying crockery occurs.  -d-

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“Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing–the rest is mere sheep-herding.”

Ezra Loomis Pound

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was born in Hailey, Idaho, grew up near Philadelphia, but lived much of his adult life overseas. In his early career he was the influential and a controversial leader of Imagism and Vorticism. He also championed young writers, including H.D., T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. Among his best-known works are “In a Station of the Metro,” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” and The Cantos, a ranging, lifelong work that expounded his political and economic theories.

Possibly There Are Things to Come...
A Taste of Pound

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Salinger,JD-byLotte Jacob

JD Salinger - photo Lotte Jacob/"Catcher In the Rye" Cover

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: January 28, 2010
New York Times Books

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday [January 27, 2010] at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.

Mr. Salinger’s literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes. “Despite having broken his hip in May,” the agency said, “his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death.”

Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.

With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.

The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon in 1980, even said the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In 1974 Philip Roth wrote, “The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.”

Many critics were more admiring of “Nine Stories,” which came out in 1953 and helped shape writers like Mr. Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it) and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

Mr. Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony — of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times in 1963, “Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation.”

As a young man Mr. Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953 Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

He seldom left, except occasionally to vacation in Florida or to visit William Shawn, the almost equally reclusive former editor of The New Yorker. Avoiding Mr. Shawn’s usual (and very public) table at the Algonquin Hotel, they would meet under the clock at the old Biltmore Hotel, the rendezvous for generations of prep-school and college students.

After Mr. Salinger moved to New Hampshire his publications slowed to a trickle and soon stopped completely. “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam,” both collections of material previously published in The New Yorker, came out in 1961 and 1963, and the last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a 25,000-word story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker.

In 1997 Mr. Salinger agreed to let Orchises Press, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., bring out “Hapworth” in book form, but he backed out of the deal at the last minute. He never collected the rest of his stories or allowed any of them to be reprinted in textbooks or anthologies. One story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” was turned into “My Foolish Heart,” a movie so bad that Mr. Salinger was never tempted to sell film rights again.

Befriended, Then Betrayed

In the fall of 1953 he befriended some local teenagers and allowed one of them to interview him for what he assumed would be an article on the high school page of a local paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. The article appeared instead as a feature on the editorial page, and Mr. Salinger felt so betrayed that he broke off with the teenagers and built a six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property.

He seldom spoke to the press again, except in 1974 when, trying to fend off the unauthorized publication of his uncollected stories, he told a reporter from The Times: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

And yet the more he sought privacy, the more famous he became, especially after his appearance on the cover of Time in 1961. For years it was a sort of journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters to New Hampshire in hopes of a sighting. As a young man Mr. Salinger had a long, melancholy face and deep soulful eyes, but now, in the few photographs that surfaced, he looked gaunt and gray, like someone in an El Greco painting. He spent more time and energy avoiding the world, it was sometimes said, than most people do in embracing it, and his elusiveness only added to the mythology growing up around him.

Depending on one’s point of view, he was either a crackpot or the American Tolstoy, who had turned silence itself into his most eloquent work of art. Some believed he was publishing under an assumed name, and for a while in the late 1970s, William Wharton, author of “Birdy,” was rumored to be Mr. Salinger, writing under another name, until it turned out that William Wharton was instead a pen name for the writer Albert du Aime.

In 1984 the British literary critic Ian Hamilton approached Mr. Salinger with the notion of writing his biography. Not surprisingly, Mr. Salinger turned him down, saying he had “borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.” Mr. Hamilton went ahead anyway, and in 1986, Mr. Salinger took him to court to prevent the use of quotations and paraphrases from unpublished letters. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and to the surprise of many, Mr. Salinger eventually won, though not without some cost to his cherished privacy. (In June 2009 he also sued Fredrik Colting, the Swedish author and publisher of a novel said to be a sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye.” In July a federal judge indefinitely enjoined publication of the book.)

Mr. Salinger’s privacy was further punctured in 1998 and again in 2000 with the publication of memoirs by, first, Joyce Maynard — with whom he had a 10-month affair in 1973, when Ms. Maynard was a college freshman — and then his daughter, Margaret. Some critics complained that both women were trying to exploit and profit from their history with Mr. Salinger, and Mr. Salinger’s son, Matthew, wrote in a letter to The New York Observer that his sister had “a troubled mind,” and that he didn’t recognize the man portrayed in her account. Both books nevertheless added a creepy, Howard Hughesish element to the Salinger legend.

Mr. Salinger was controlling and sexually manipulative, Ms. Maynard wrote, and a health nut obsessed with homeopathic medicine and with his diet (frozen peas for breakfast, undercooked lamb burger for dinner). Ms. Salinger said that her father was pathologically self-centered and abusive toward her mother, and to the homeopathy and food fads she added a long list of other enthusiasms: Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Christian Science, Scientology and acupuncture. Mr. Salinger drank his own urine, she wrote, and sat for hours in an orgone box.

But was he writing? The question obsessed Salingerologists, and in the absence of real evidence, theories multiplied. He hadn’t written a word for years. Or, like the character in the Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining,” he wrote the same sentence over and over again. Or like Gogol at the end of his life, he wrote prolifically but then burned it all. Ms. Maynard said she believed there were at least two novels locked away in a safe, though she had never seen them.

Early Life

Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan on New Year’s Day, 1919, the second of two children. His sister, Doris, who died in 2001, was for many years a buyer in the dress department at Bloomingdale’s. Like the Glasses, the Salinger children were the product of a mixed marriage. Their father, Sol, was a Jew, the son of a rabbi, but sufficiently assimilated that he made his living importing both cheese and ham. Their mother, Marie Jillisch, was of Irish descent, born in Scotland, but changed her first name to Miriam to appease her in-laws. The family was living in Harlem when Mr. Salinger was born, but then, as Sol Salinger’s business prospered, moved to West 82nd Street and then to Park Avenue.

Never much of a student, Mr. Salinger, then known as Sonny, attended the progressive McBurney School on the Upper West Side. (He told the admissions office his interests were dramatics and tropical fish.) But he flunked out after two years and in 1934 was packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, in Wayne, Pa., which became the model for Holden’s Pencey Prep. Like Holden, Mr. Salinger was the manager of the school fencing team, and he also became the literary editor of the school yearbook, Crossed Swords, and wrote a school song that was either a heartfelt pastiche of 19th-century sentiment or else a masterpiece of irony:

Hide not thy tears on this last day

Your sorrow has no shame;

To march no more midst lines of gray;

No longer play the game.

Four years have passed in joyful ways — Wouldst stay those old times dear?

Then cherish now these fleeting days,

The few while you are here.

In 1937, after a couple of unenthusiastic weeks at New York University, Mr. Salinger traveled with his father to Austria and Poland, where the father’s plan was for him to learn the ham business. Deciding that wasn’t for him, he returned to America and drifted through a term or so at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. Fellow students remember him striding around campus in a black chesterfield with velvet collar and announcing that he was going to write the Great American Novel.

Mr. Salinger’s most sustained exposure to higher education was an evening class he took at Columbia in 1939, taught by Whit Burnett, and under Mr. Burnett’s tutelage he managed to sell a story, “The Young Folks,” to Story magazine. He subsequently sold stories to Esquire, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post — formulaic work that gave little hint of real originality.

In 1941, after several rejections, Mr. Salinger finally cracked The New Yorker, the ultimate goal of any aspiring writer back then, with a story, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” that was an early sketch of what became a scene in “The Catcher in the Rye.” But the magazine then had second thoughts, apparently worried about seeming to encourage young people to run away from school, and held the story for five years — an eternity even for The New Yorker — before finally publishing it in 1946, buried in the back of an issue.

Meanwhile Mr. Salinger had been drafted. He served with the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division, whose job was to interview Nazi deserters and sympathizers, and was stationed for a while in Tiverton, Devon, the setting of “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” probably the most deeply felt of the “Nine Stories.” On June 6, 1944, he landed at Utah Beach, and he later saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1945 he was hospitalized for “battle fatigue” — often a euphemism for a breakdown — and after recovering he stayed on in Europe past the end of the war, chasing Nazi functionaries. He married a German woman, very briefly — a doctor about whom biographers have been able to discover very little. Her name was Sylvia, Margaret Salinger said, but Mr. Salinger always called her Saliva.

A Different Kind of Writer

Back in New York, Mr. Salinger moved into his parents’ apartment and, having never stopped writing, even during the war, resumed his career. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” austere, mysterious and Mr. Salinger’s most famous and still most discussed story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and suggested, not wrongly, that he had become a very different kind of writer. And like so many writers he eventually found in The New Yorker not just an outlet but a kind of home and developed a close relationship with the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, himself famously shy and agoraphobic — a kindred spirit. In 1961 Mr. Salinger dedicated “Franny and Zooey” to Shawn, writing, “I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

As a young writer Mr. Salinger was something of a ladies’ man and dated, among others, Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill and the future wife of Charlie Chaplin. In 1953 he met Claire Douglas, the daughter of the British art critic Robert Langdon Douglas, who was then a 19-year-old Radcliffe sophomore who in many ways resembled Franny Glass (or vice versa); they were married two years later. (Ms. Douglas had married and divorced in the meantime.) Margaret was born in 1955, and Matthew, now an actor and film producer, was born in 1960. But the marriage soon turned distant and isolating, and in 1966, Ms. Douglas sued for divorce, claiming that “a continuation of the marriage would seriously injure her health and endanger her reason.”

The affair with Ms. Maynard, then a Yale freshman, began in 1972, after Mr. Salinger read an article she had written for The New York Times Magazine titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” They moved in together but broke up abruptly after 10 months when Mr. Salinger said he had no desire for more children. For a while in the ’80s Mr. Salinger was involved with the actress Elaine Joyce, and late in that decade he married Colleen O’Neill, a nurse, who is considerably younger than he is. Not much is known about the marriage because Ms. O’Neill embraced her husband’s code of seclusion.

Besides his son, Matthew, Mr. Salinger is survived by Ms. O’Neill and his daughter, Margaret, as well as three grandsons. His literary agents said in a statement that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.”

“Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it,” the statement said. “His body is gone but the family hopes that he is still with those he loves, whether they are religious or historical figures, personal friends or fictional characters.”

As for the fictional family the Glasses, Mr. Salinger had apparently been writing about them nonstop. Ms. Maynard said she saw shelves of notebooks devoted to the family. In Mr. Salinger’s fiction the Glasses first turn up in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Seymour, the oldest son and family favorite, kills himself during his honeymoon. Characters who turn out in retrospect to have been Glasses appear glancingly in “Nine Stories,” but the family saga really begins to be elaborated upon in “Franny and Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam” and “Hapworth,” the long short story, which is ostensibly a letter written by Seymour from camp when he is just 7 years old but already reading several languages and lusting after Mrs. Happy, wife of the camp owner.

Readers also began to learn about the parents, Les and Bessie, long-suffering ex-vaudevillians, and Seymour’s siblings Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Walt, Waker and Boo Boo; about the Glasses’ Upper West Side apartment; about the radio quiz show on which all the children appeared. Seldom has a fictional family been so lovingly or richly imagined.

Too lovingly, some critics complained. With the publication of “Franny and Zooey” even staunch Salinger admirers began to break ranks. John Updike wrote in The Times Book Review: “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.” Other readers hated the growing streak of Eastern mysticism in the saga, as Seymour evolved, in successive retellings, from a suicidal young man into a genius, a sage, even a saint of sorts.

But writing in The New York Review of Books in 2001, Janet Malcolm argued that the critics had all along been wrong about Mr. Salinger, just as short-sighted contemporaries were wrong about Manet and about Tolstoy. The very things people complain about, Ms. Malcolm contended, were the qualities that made Mr. Salinger great. That the Glasses (and, by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, Ms. Malcolm wrote, and it said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.
Charles Mcgrath – New York Times Books

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Miriam was the name of the wife of Seymour Glass, one of Mr. Salinger’s characters. And it erroneously gave June 4, 1944, as the date that Mr. Salinger landed at Utah Beach.

New York Times Related Articles

An Appraisal | J. D. Salinger: Of Teen Angst and an Author’s Alienation (January 29, 2010)
Room for Debate: Holden Caufield’s Afterlife (January 29, 2010)
ArtsBeat: Share Your Thoughts (January 28, 2010)
ArtsBeat: Readers Respond to J.D. Salinger’s Death
Get a Life, Holden Caulfield (June 21, 2009)
ArtsBeat: How The Times Reviewed J. D. Salinger
An Author’s Prose (January 29, 2010)
City Room: Taking a Walk Through J. D. Salinger’s New York
Times Topics: J. D. Salinger
More Posts on J. D. Salinger

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Sonnets Served With a Slice of Pi
Dear Reader-
A slightly backward, left handed forward.

Philosophical Mathematics, a $73 million hedge fund in New York, 3.14159, or Pi, and Sonnets. Strange bedfellows?  Not in these days, I think…

This is a little late, and with the speed in which the economy shifts these days, it may be a touch dated. Mea culpa. For this I apologize. I’ve been used to writing my own pages, including the HTML and CSS and I came upon this article very early in the life of this…blog, site, information disseminator, bit of self indulgence…whatever it is other than a creel of trout pulled from a pleasant little time stream, with all its ‘all mod cons’, as the realtors are so fond of saying, and it seems it became lost among drafts, in somewhat the way socks disappear into washers and/or dryers or where ever they go.

I still think it’s a nifty bit of writing about a nifty bit of writing offering an interesting view of money, in all its various forms, so, if you’ll forgive me the tardiness of the piece, perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Of course, living as I do, as an anachronist, something I’ve begun an attempt to explain on the vanity…or, uhhmn, bio page, (you honestly didn’t think that little scrap of writing was the end of it, did you?), this is no more nor less dated than I am. [Insert clever comment here.] In any case, I offer it as something to divert your attention for a few moments from New Year’s Eve preparations, and hopefully to help you forgive my future tardiness in posting the Amnesty International Letter Writing Guidelines and Samples I promised to have ready and published before the end of the year. Just checking the time, I see I’m already too late for some of my friends, who might see this sometime when I feel it’s ready to be seen and publish the address…or have I done that already? Seen in that light, and knowing, as most of my friends do, my life long dance with procrastination, I might get away with the prevarication that the new year of which I spoke is 2011.

In any case, I hope you enjoy this, and perhaps look up Al Lewis’ column sometime,
and Bon Année to those of you who recognize tomorrow, (January 1), as the beginning of a new year.
As ever,
–doc–

PS: As Douglas Adams once said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
A word from your host
from al lewis | columnist

Sonnets Served With a Slice of Pi
By Al Lewis
Denver Post Staff Columnist
Posted: 07/15/2007 01:00:00 AM MDT

Lee Slonimsky, who runs a $73 million hedge fund in New York, shows up at my office with a book of sonnets.

He’s a risk-adverse quant. A conservative investor who trades according to mathematical models and recurring trading patterns. He’s also a published poet.

His latest book, published in January by Orchises Press of Alexandria, Va., is called “Pythagoras in Love.”

“It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of a famous mathematician who thought almost continuously in terms of numbers,” Slonimsky said. “You can’t do quantitative trading for 15 years and not kind of get into that mindset.”

Most people I know hate math. Slonimsky, 56, writes poems about it. More specifically, he writes sonnets, which are typically associated with love.

They are also among the most classical forms of poetry, written by literary legends such as Milton, Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley. They traditionally have 14 lines and 10 beats per line.

“It’s kind of like doing crosswords,” Slonimsky said with only a slight smile.

His poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Carolina Quarterly, Connecticut Review, Poetry New York and other journals. They combine metaphors from nature with mathematical formulas, such as pi, or the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Pi – or 3.14159 – has been known since ancient times but never fully known. Modern computers have calculated its decimals back billions of digits, but they can’t get to the end because pi is infinite and at some point falls into the realm of philosophers and poets.

In “The Last Digit of Pi” Slonimsky writes:

“Bisected by a tree, the sun’s gold light
draws angles on the glass skin of the pond
dawn’s revelers, a pair of geese in flight
soar high above the wooded hill, beyond Pythagoras’s line of sight. And now
he’s all alone, high priest of water, sky,
intuiter of theorems, teller how
this world’s the weave of math, the art of Pi.”

All I know is that it’s amazing to see anyone get a book of poems published.

Poetry’s popularity has waned, perhaps since the photograph. With today’s media putting a premium on novelty, sound bites and shock value, poems seem so pensive, obtuse and esoteric.

These days they say there are more people trying to write poems than there are trying to read them. Not even a hedge-fund manager is in it for the money, or even a large audience.

“There are a lot of people who may have an interest in something – like arts and crafts – and they’re not going to have a lot of people watching them do it,” Slonimsky said. “That’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”

Slonimsky, however, has developed a strategy to expand his market share.

He married Carol Goodman, the award-winning author of “The Seduction of Water,” “The Ghost Orchid” and other novels. Goodman now creates characters based on her husband and slips some of his work into her tales. Her latest book is called “The Sonnet Lover” and contains six of Slonimsky’s poems, ensuring they’ll be read by thousands of readers.

Goodman will be reading at the Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Slonimsky will be there, too.

An understated and cerebral man with thinning black hair, Slonimsky grew up in Manhattan. His father was a bookkeeper who once worked for a firm that shorted stocks and infused his son with stock-market lore.

As a student, Slonimsky loved English, math and reading about the history of financial panics. He began trading stocks as a sophomore in high school. But don’t ask him if today’s heady Dow will crash or soar higher. He not only doesn’t know but would just as soon see it go flat.

He came of age as an investor at a time when the Dow only bounced between roughly 600 and 1,000. “I was weaned on the idea that the stock market is a place where you can make money when it doesn’t go anywhere,” Slonimsky said.

His hedge fund – Ocean Capital Partners LLC – targets stocks with small but predictable trading ranges, buying at the lows and selling at the highs.

“Some of our most profitable trading stocks have not changed price in several years,” he said. “I’m a great believer in ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.”‘

Leave it to a risk-adverse quant/poet to find an unchanging universe on Wall Street.

I asked Slonimsky if he’d ever written a poem about his business. He gave me this one, called “July 16, 2017,” which envisions a time when even America’s cities have held initial public stock offerings:

Cities themselves trade as stocks now;
Chicago opens higher,
Seattle’s flat while Boston’s soft,
and then news hits the wire:
Atlanta’s got a deficit,
Houston a major fire.
A pair of shorts to gamble on
amidst a dearth of buyers –
these trades are brief though – caution wins
out over greed, desire.
A two point move, cat-sudden in
a quick and profitable hour,
enough to sleep well on at night.
Cash never is a liar!

“It’s a sonnet in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, with occasional irregularities, known in the poetry trade as ‘roughing up the rhythm,”‘ Slonimsky explained.

Oh. Yes. Of course. I knew that.

Al Lewis’ column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to Lewis at denverpostbloghouse.com/lewis, 303-954-1967 or alewis@denverpost.com.

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