Today in History: March 18

Laurence Sterne (seen above) died on this date in 1768. At the time of his death, he was one of the most famous writers in England, having written two comic novels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. His reputation flagged a bit after his death—Samuel Johnson complained about Shandy’s many storytelling tricks that, “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last”—but by the 20th Century Sterne was once again a beloved novelist whose works were thought to be worth study.

His body was stolen soon after the funeral and sold to a medical school for dissection, which was a fairly common occurrence at the time, but in a Sternian bit of comedy, someone recognized the body on the anatomy class slab and did what he could to have the author of Tristram Shandy re-buried. In another Sternian bit of comedy, all the confusion this engendered meant that he was buried in an unmarked grave and each person who ought to have known where he had been buried pointed to different spots.

Two centuries later, the Laurence Sterne Trust was established and set to restoring the writer’s home and to locating his remains for a final proper burial. At the churchyard where he had been buried anonymously, one skull was located that showed evidence of being the subject of an anatomy class, like Sterne had been, and that also was the same size as a bust that had been made from life while Sterne was alive and famous enough to have sculptors make portraits. A service was held for these remains on June 8, 1969.

Kenneth Monkman, a scholar who helped found the Laurence Sterne Trust, wrote, “If we have reburied the wrong one, nobody, I feel beyond reasonable doubt, would enjoy the situation more than Sterne.” One other Sterne scholar who helped build the Trust, Arthur H. Cash, wrote the definitive biography of Sterne and was one of my professors at SUNY New Paltz. In his biography, Cash describes Sterne’s final, final resting place:

In this traditional churchyard, all other headstones face east. Sterne’s grave alone looks to the south, across lovely rolling fields and the stream that comes down from Byland to the pastures and woods of Newburgh Priory which rise on the other side. The sun strikes it squarely at noon.—Arthur H. Cash, Laurence Sterne: The Later Years

* * * *
Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov became the first human to exit his spacecraft and “walk” in space on this date in 1965. He spent only twelve minutes outside his capsule, which may have been more than enough: Upon returning to the Voshkod 2 he discovered that in the vacuum of space his suit had inflated to the point he could not bend his waist, legs, or arms, making it almost impossible to crawl back through the hatch. He got stuck in the doorway head-first and sideways, and then he opened a valve on the suit to release air pressure so he could move, a very dangerous decision that worked anyway. He had become so overheated in only twelve minutes that the spacesuit filled up to his knees with his sweat. After climbing back in, he and his crew partner discovered that with both of them in space suits (the partner had to wear a space suit with the hatch open), and with one of the suits still over-inflated, neither could fit in their seats, which put the craft out of balance and sent it spinning. This complicated re-entry, and the craft landed safely more than 250 miles off course, deep in a forest so thick that even when the crew was spotted, helicopters could not land there. The two cosmonauts were retrieved after two wintry nights spent in the woods; Leonov and his crewmate had even built a small cabin and a fire pit to safely wait for the rescue. Of course, the USSR only reported the fact of the successful spacewalk at the time and none of the (mis)adventures.

* * * *
Bernard Malamud died 30 years ago today. Bill Beutel, who anchored WABC news in New York City from 1970 till 1999, died ten years ago today.

* * * *
Stéphane Mallarmé was born on this date in 1842. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 on this date. Wilfrid Owen was born on this date in 1893. George Plimpton was born 89 years ago today. The late Lillian Vernon was born 89 years ago today. John Updike was born on this date in 1932. Wilson Pickett was born 75 years ago today.

* * * *
John Kander is 89 today. F. W. de Klerk is 80 today. Charley Pride is 78 today. Michael Reagan is 71. Ben Cohen (of & Jerry’s) is 65 today. Queen Latifah is 46 today. Dane Cook
is 44. Adam Levine is 37 today.

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