Echoes of Sir Walter Raleigh in Mojave Desert crash

“Long before last Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, the economist Brent Lane had been thinking about failed missions and Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s adventurous founder.

“Lane, a professor of heritage economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the school’s Carolina Center for Competitive Economies, isn’t an expert on space travel — far from it. He is, instead, a scholar of the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and of entrepreneurial finance, and, for several months before Friday’s crash, which claimed the life of a test pilot, Lane had been pondering parallels between Raleigh’s sixteenth-century sea voyages and twenty-first-century space exploration….”

— From “Sir Walter Raleigh and the Uncertain Future of Space Travel” by Theo Emery in The New Yorker (Nov. 6)


How did Sir Walter write like an early T.S. Eliot?

“….One of the ‘papers,’ as they called them in the big Cambridge exam, was on the period from 1569 to 1603. In the course of immersing myself in that brief period, I read the poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh, which amazed me — really amazed me. I couldn’t understand how someone in the 1590s had written poetry that sounded to me uncannily like T.S. Eliot.

“When I came home and entered graduate school at Yale, I chose to do my dissertation on Ralegh. I wanted to discover what it was in this man’s life that made him produce such strange poetry. And it turned out that Ralegh had an astonishing life. He was a courtier and a monopolist and an explorer and an adventurer and a scoundrel and a troublemaker. He wound up spending years in the Tower of London and eventually ended up getting his head chopped off.

“Once I began to understand something about Ralegh’s career, the question with which I had begun turned itself inside out. I wanted to know how someone who had led such a life had written poetry at all. It didn’t make sense. What was someone who was scrambling at court to get the monopoly on playing cards or exploring Guiana doing writing poetry?”

— From ” ‘So that represented my own little rebellion’: The literary adventures of Stephen Greenblatt” by Corydon Ivy at Harvard Gazette (June 3)

Greenblatt’s fascination with Ralegh/Raleigh/etc. produced “Sir Walter Ralegh; the Renaissance man and his roles” (1973), recently excerpted by John Blythe.


No wonder he misplaced Sir Walter

“In 1937, Postmaster General James Farley dedicated a new post office in Arlington, Virginia, and managed to place Sir Walter Raleigh in the wrong place at the wrong time and also to locate Roanoke Island in Virginia rather than North Carolina. These lapses received front-page coverage….

“While gently chiding Farley, a New York Times editorial explained that his errors were entirely understandable. ‘As we remember our school books,’ it observed, ‘everything from the vicinity of Florida up to Canada was ‘Virginia’ in the vague and spacious time of Elizabeth. Indeed, if Mr. Farley will look at a map of Virginia in those days, it will remind him tremendously of a map of the Roosevelt states last November.’ ”

— From “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” by Michael Kammen (1991)