, Salem, MA


March 30, 2013

Shribman: On connections, perhaps coincidence?


How are we to account for this astonishing blossoming of political, scientific and artistic power from the boys of 1809? Was it merely a coincidence that so much genius was created in a single year, or did social, political and cultural events conspire to produce an especially fertile environment?

While the crop of 1809 was unusually bountiful, we stand in wonder, too, at other examples of generational fecundity — the ties that bind but mystify.

How was it possible for Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, three of the titans of serious art music, to all have been born in the year 1685, with Handel and Bach born just over a month apart? (Taking this one step further, what are we to make of the death of Joseph Haydn in that luminous year of 1809? And could it be possible that Kit Carson’s birth in December 1809 — on Christmas Eve! — was some celestial compensation for the death of another explorer, Meriwether Lewis, a few months earlier?)

History is full of surprising connections, none more beguiling than the West Point Class of 1915, known as the class the stars fell upon. That class produced nearly five dozen generals, accounting for more than a third of the class. Among them were two with five stars (Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley), two with four stars and seven with three. The West Point Class of 1976 has produced two four-star generals (nearly three dozen generals in all) and is the only class to have produced commanders of two concurrent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their only known rivals for achievement might be the Harvard Business School Class of 1949, which counts among its ranks onetime chiefs of Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, Capital Cities/ABC, General Dynamics and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under their sway were the Hilton Hotels, Rockefeller Center, the Chicago Bulls — and a powerful government bureaucracy.

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