Mark Twain 1, Dan Brown 0

In its current issue, Vanity Fair reports the results of a poll commissioned to gauge the cultural and political temper of our times.

The questions ranged from how people feel about changing the Constitution (45% said make no change) to who should be the next athletic role model (45% said sports stars should not be considered heroes).

We were particularly intrigued by this one: “Which of the following American writers has made the most important contribution to literature?” The 1,216 random respondents were given six choices, and here is what they had to say:

  • Mark Twain, 40%
  • Ernest Hemingway, 16%
  • Emily Dickinson, 12%
  • Stephen King, 11%
  • Tony Morrison, 4%
  • Dan Brown, 0%

Sorry, Dan.

Photo Tour :: Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Castle Gates (© Julie O'Connor, 2009)

Welcome to Day Eleven of Julie O’Connor’s Magical, Mystical, Masonic Photo Tour of Washington, DC. We’ve reached Chapter 111, where Robert Langdon is having a flashback to an old lecture delivered by his friend Peter Solomon, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

“This wondrous castle,” the voice said, “was America’s first real science museum. It was a gift to America from a wealthy British scientist who, like our forefathers, believed our fledgling country could become the land of enlightenment. He bequeathed to our forefathers a massive fortune and asked them to build at the core of our nation ‘an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.’ ” He paused a long moment. “Who can tell me the name of this generous scientist?

The answer, of course, is James Smithson. Like Albert Pike, Smithson is a fascinating historical character, who merits more than the passing reference he gets in The Lost Symbol. Undoubtedly, Brown did his research on Smithson and, for whatever reason, left out the intriguing questions that still surround Smithson and his unusual bequest today.

Smithson was born during the 1760’s, the illegitimate son of a British aristocrat. He was a brilliant scientist who, at the age of 22, became the youngest member of the Royal Society in his day. Smithson made many discoveries, including “an improved method of making coffee” and a zinc carbonate, smithsonite, which is named after him.

His work made Smithson a prominent figure in European scientific circles and a very wealthy man. Yet, there are huge gaps in our knowledge about him.

Though we know that Smithson’s father was the Duke of Northumberland and that his mother was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland, no one knows exactly when he was born. More intriguingly, no one has come up with a concrete explanation why Smithson should have bequeathed his entire fortune–about half a million mid-19th century dollars–to the United States, a country that he had never visited.

What we do know is that that fortune was used to build the Smithsonian Castle, pictured above, and to sow the seed for an institution that now spans 19 museums, a zoo, and nine research centers.

Also not mentioned in The Lost Symbol is the fact that, like the Washington Monument and other DC landmarks, the Smithsonian had a Masonic cornerstone-laying ceremony. President Polk even used the same gavel that George Washington had used when he laid the cornerstone for the Capitol and he wore Washington’s Masonic apron as well.

To find out more, read our interview with Smithson biographer Heather Ewing in Secrets of The Lost Symbol.

Photo Tour :: Washington National Cathedral

We have arrived at Chapter 79 of The Lost Symbol:

Washington National Cathedral, Langdon thought, feeling an unexpected anticipation at being back after all these years. Where better to ask about One True God.
“This Cathedral really has ten stone from Mount Sinai?” Katherine asked, gazing up at the twin bell towers.
Langdon nodded. “Near the main altar. They symbolize the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
“And there’s lunar rock?”
A rock from heaven itself. “Yes. One of the stained-glass windows is called the Space Window and has a fragment of moon rock embedded in it.”

The Space Window, Washington National Cathedral (© Julie O'Connor, 2009)

Welcome to the tenth day of Julie O’Connor’s Magical, Mystical, Masonic Photo Tour of Washington, DC. Robert Langdon and Katherine Solomon have given the CIA the slip and reached Washington National Cathedral where they seek answers to the pyramid’s riddle Jeova Sanctus Unus–One True God–from the dean of the cathedral, Reverend Colin Galloway.

Candles in the Cathedral (© Julie O'Connor, 2009)

The Cathedral is a magnificent setting. One can easily imagine Dan Brown taking one of his anonymous tours of DC and being captivated by its possibilities. Here, in Chapter 82 and in true Brownian fashion, is the author’s description of the cathedral’s architectural statistics:

Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and soars higher than a thirty-story skyscraper. Embellished with over two hundred stained-glass windows, a fifty-three-bell carillon, and a 10,647-pipe organ, this Gothic masterpiece can accomodate more than three thousand worshippers.

Washington National Cathedral, Interior (© Julie O'Connor, 2009)

The space is magnificent. It won’t be long now before Tom Hanks and his yet-to-be-announced female companion are led down the aisle.

Reverend Colin Galloway–dean of the cathedral–looked like he had been alive forever. Stooped and withered, he wore a simple black cassock and shuffled blindly ahead without a word. Langdon and Katherine followed in silence through the darkness of the four-hundred-foot-long nave’s central aisle, which was curved ever so slightly to the left to create a softening optical illusion.

Buy Secrets of The Lost Symbol or download the e-book.

Robert Frost – a Mason?

The New York Times ran the following report recently:

A forgotten Robert Frost manuscript recently turned up in the basement of a Masonic lodge in Methuen, Mass. It’s not a poem or an essay, but rather an attendance book Frost kept while teaching eighth grade at the Second Grammar School in Methuen in 1893. City officials say the book is somewhat the worse for wear, The Boston Globe reported, and they’re applying for a $3,000 grant to restore and rebind it. The entries are apparently all in Frost’s hand as he painstakingly ticked off, day by day, who showed up and who didn’t. At the time Frost himself was only 17, or just a few years older than his pupils, and a recent dropout from Dartmouth College, where he hadn’t even finished his first semester. But teachers didn’t need credentials in those days, and besides, Frost had pull: his mother also taught at Second Grammar. Teaching was the family business. Frost’s father was a teacher and a journalist, and after his death Frost’s mother, who had been a teacher, supported the family by returning to the classroom. She even opened her own private school in Salem, N.H., and, not surprisingly her son, who was already writing and publishing poetry but needed a day job, was hired there too.

But the Times report didn’t indicate any reason why this artifact of the great American poet’s early life would have been found in a Masonic lodge. (In fact, it appears from some accounts that the attendance record was found in the Masonic lodge 20 years ago and has been stored in Methuen’s City Hall since then).

Frost is not listed on any of the web databases that seek to index “famous Masons.” However, Frost’s Mending Wall poem (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”) has connoted an affection for stonemasons and the art of wall building to some literary critics. And a number of Masonic writers have used Frost’s The Road Not Taken (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference”) as a literary allusion to the difficult path of those on a quest for knowledge and meaning, and for the path of Freemasonry itself.

There is no indication Frost was a Mason, but we’d appreciate hearing from anyone who has a clue as to why this news-making attendance record in Frost’s hand showed up in a Masonic lodge or other thoughts on this bit of history.

Columbia Begins Work on Lost Symbol Movie

Warren Bellamy: A role made for Morgan Freeman?

The movie version of The Lost Symbol is starting to take shape. Columbia PIctures recently announced that Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has signed to write the screenplay. Ron Howard and Tom “Robert Langdon” Hanks are yet to sign contracts, but their agreement is doubtless close at hand.

Columbia must be hoping the trio can come up with a better movie than last year’s Angels and Demons, which grossed a paltry $486 million compared to 2006’s Da Vinci Code movie, which grossed $758 million.

No word yet on who will play Warren Bellamy in The Lost Symbol. But the movie’s casting director is in for a tough job if Morgan Freeman says no.

And what about the problem of casting Katherine Solomon? Columbia bosses must be scratching their heads about finding a box office draw to play a female lead who, in the novel, is a few years older than Robert Langdon. Perhaps they should look no further than Meryl Streep? She has had quite a run lately, playing everything from an older woman having an affair with her ex-husband to a vivacious (and slightly potty) Julia Child. Surely, noetic scientist is within her range.

What do you think? Is Tom Hanks the best man to fill Robert Langdon’s shoes? Who would you like to see play Katherine Solomon? And is anyone other than Morgan Freeman capable of playing Warren Bellamy?

A Visual Tour of The Lost Symbol

For many fans of The Lost Symbol, Washington DC will never quite look the same again.

During the past few months, we have highlighted some of the magnificent and unusual locations Dan Brown used in his latest novel in a regular feature, called Julie O’Connor’s Magical, Mystical, Masonic Photo Tour of Washington, DC.

We will complete the tour in the weeks ahead. But for now, we would like to share an encyclopedic photo slideshow, composed of Julie’s images, that provides a total, visual immersion in the world of The Lost Symbol.

Highlights include the House of the Temple, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Rotunda, the Capitol Visitor’s Center, the National Cathedral, the Library of Congress, the George Washington Masonic Memorial, and the US Botanical Gardens. The music, by the way, is taken from Mozart’s Masonic compositions.

Buy Secrets of The Lost Symbol or download it as an e-book.

Secrets of The Lost Symbol Goes Global

Secrets of The Lost Symbol has gone global with the first six of an expected twelve foreign language editions appearing in the UK, Spain, Holland, Brazil, Italy, and Germany:

Order now from your local bookstore or Amazon store.