It’s always a bit depressing to read the year-end obituary wrap-ups, especially when several well-known people pass on in the last days of the year, as happened in this one. For a change, in the past several years I’ve made lists of famous birth anniversaries of that year from past centuries, noting those who changed their world for the better, or at least made it more interesting. As for those who made it worse, who wants to end the year with a list of history’s monsters? (Here are the links to my lists for ’09, a banner year; ’10; and ’11.)
This year saw the centennials of many notable births — especially in the past century, but also much longer ago. It starts in 912 with Otto I (Otto the Great), founder of the Holy Roman Empire, who ruled from 936 to 973 in one of the first successful attempts to rekindle state power and rebuild civilization in Europe after the fall of Rome.
Four hundred years later, in 1312, England’s King Edward III was born. His half-century reign (from 1327 to 1377) saw the crucial development of a more powerful Parliament. France’s national heroine, St. Joan of Arc, arrived a century later, in 1412. The modern states these two helped create soon compassed the oceans, using the reliable maps of Gerardus Mercator, born in 1512 in Otto’s Holy Roman Empire (Flanders, to be precise).
As the Renaissance ended and the era of modern states began, 1612 saw the birth of Thomas Fairfax, leading general for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, which shaped Albion’s destiny. On the opposite end of Europe, the Conqueror of Baghdad, Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, also was born that year. And 1612 produced more than just statesmen: The English poet Samuel Butler (Hudibras) arrived to a farming family in Worcestershire.
The 18th century saw the dawn of the Enlightenment, marking the emergence of the modern Western view of the world. In 1712 were born two men who defined that shift, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose views on nature and politics helped inspire the French Revolution, and Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, whose military brilliance changed the map of Europe. They were joined by the artist Francesco Guardi, the last prominent member of the Venetian school of classical painting (some of whose works can be seen here).
Reaching the century before last, a distinguished crop of writers and artists uttered their first cries in 1812 (as did a bevy of Union and Confederate American Civil War generals, whom I shall refrain from listing here). The year began with one of the greatest authors in the English language, Charles Dickens, on February 7, so read a page-turner about Victorian London before next year is too far gone. And Dickens had good company, including his fellow Englishmen, the poets Robert Browning and Edward Lear (follow the links to their poetry), and Scottish popular writer Samuel Smiles, whose Self-Help remained a touchstone of the 19th-century reform movement. On the other side of the continent, Russian author Alexander Herzen, who became the intellectual godfather to Russian reformers and socialists, was born in Moscow to a Russian father and a German mother. Other newborn artists in 1812 included the great German composer Robert Schumann and the American jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, who lived to the hoary age of 90, redefining the aesthetics of luxury goods.
Tiffany died just a decade before the arrival of a long list of luminaries born in 1912, many of whom are well-remembered today. Artists of various stripes emerged by the bushelful in the year Woodrow Wilson was first elected president, including the macabre cartoonist Charles Addams, master of modernism Jackson Pollock, and illustrator Garth Williams. I’d like to think the most influential was Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny fame, though. Writers such as the historian Barbara Tuchman, dystopian author Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes and the anti-war classic Bridge over the River Kwai), absurdist dramatist Eugene Ionesco (Rhinoceros), Partisan Review circle member Mary McCarthy, Chicago fixture and chronicler of the common man Studs Terkel, and quintessential New Englander John Cheever would soon be acquainted with their first alphabet blocks. The background music would be provided by babes who first clinked spoons against feeding tables in 1912, including longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Georg Solti, jazz musician Stan Kenton, bandleader Les Brown (“and his Band of Renown”), crooner Perry Como, and radical folk singer Woody Guthrie.