Saturday, December 29, 2012

Robert Ruark: outdoorsman, hunter, writer

Hunter Harry Selby with Robert Ruark
It is the birthday of journalist and outdoorsman Robert Ruark (1915), who is best remembered for his  bestseller, The Old Man and the Boy (1957), a collection of essays about hunting, fishing, and camping with his grandfather in the wilds of North Carolina. Ruark originally wrote them as a series under the same title published in Field & Stream magazine in the 1950s.

Ruark also is remembered for his adventures on safari in Africa with famed big-game hunter Harry Selby. Ruark wrote several books based on his experiences in Africa. The most well known was Something of Value (1955), about the Mau-Mau uprisings in Kenya as natives rebelled against British colonial rule. It was adapted as a 1957 film Something of Value, starring Rock Hudson, Dana Wynter, and Sidney Poitier. Ruark also wrote a sequel, Uhuru (1962).

Ruark grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, and worked for small newspapers in North Carolina. In 1936, he worked as a copy boy for The Washington Daily News and soon became its top sports writer. He served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War II and saw duty in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as the Pacific.

After the war, he returned to Washington and became a syndicated columnist. His provocative columns poking fun at such diverse targets as scheming women, Southern cooking, army generals, psychiatrists, and the state of Texas, made him a household name throughout the country. His columns were collected in two books, I Didn't Know It Was Loaded (1948) and One for the Road (1949). After his success as a columnist, he turned to writing fiction. His first novel, Grenadine Etching (1947), skewered historical romances. Its sequel is Grenadine's Spawn (1952). Ruark also wrote articles for Esquire, Colliers, and Saturday Evening Post.

Ruark became interested in big-game hunting after reading about Ernest Hemingway's adventures in Africa. On his first safari, he hunted with Kidogo, a tracker about whom Hemingway had written. Ruark wrote Horn of the Hunter (1953) based on that safari. Later, he and hunter Harry Selby produced a documentary called Africa Adventure (1962), based on another safari. Magazine articles Ruark wrote were collected in a book Robert Ruark's Africa (1991). The Honey Badger (1965) and Use Enough Gun: On Hunting Big Game (1966) were published after his death.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler
It is the birthday of philosopher and writer Mortimer Adler (1902), whose popular How to Read a Book (1940) gives advice on reading great literature, and good books of any genre. Adler aimed the book squarely at the average reader. "I have no interest in the academic audience," he said. "I am interested in Joe Doakes. A general audience can read any book I write — and they do." The book became a bestseller.

Adler's effort to bring classic literature and philosophy to the masses wasn't without its detractors. Adler's book led social critic Dwight MacDonald to observe: "Mr. Adler once wrote a book called How to Read a Book. He should now read a book called How to Write a Book."

In his book, Adler argued that the best way to gain insight into the great ideas is through what he called original communication—that is, from the source of the idea itself. Hence, reading the Great Books is the way to gain that insight from the original thinkers. Adler proceeds to try to teach the reader how to read for understanding.

Adler served on the Board of Editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica from its inception in 1949 and was the director of editorial planning for the 15th edition beginning in 1965 where he oversaw a vast reorganization of the information in that volume. He became chairman of the Board of Directors in 1974. Adler also taught at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

With Robert Hutchins, who had been president of the University of Chicago, Adler founded the Great Books of the Western World program (1952), a series of books published in 54 volumes by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. They also founded the Great Books Foundation. The first two sets were presented to Queen Elizabeth II and President Harry Truman.

The series included works of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides,  Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, Plutarch, Virgil, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Galileo, Cervantes, Bacon, Decartes, Milton, Pascal, Newton, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Immanuel Kant, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Stuart Mill, James Boswell, Hegel, Goethe, Melville, Darwin, Karl Marx, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Freud, among others. Reading the entire set could give the reader a classical education in the liberal arts.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Louis Bromfield won Pulitzer Prize

Louis Bromfield
It is the birthday of writer and conservationist Louis Bromfield (1896), whose novel Early Autumn  (1926) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. It is the story of a wealthy, upper class, old line Massachusetts family experiencing rapid change just after the end of World War I.

Bromfield's father was from New England and his mother's family were Ohio pioneers. Louis Bromfield grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. He studied agriculture at Cornell University, then journalism at Columbia University but left before completing a degree to served in the American Field Service in France during World War I. He received the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre for his service. After the war, he worked as a reporter in New York.

He first novel, The Green Bay Tree (1924), drew immediate attention. It tells the story of a mysterious man who builds an estate outside a midwestern town, fueling speculation about his intentions and his endeavors. After the man's death, his widow and daughters continue to be the topic of fascination in the town. Eventually, steel mills surround the estate.

In 1925, Bromfield and his family visited France, a country Bromfield had become fascinated with during the war. They remained there until just before World War II. He became associated with the literary American ex-patriate community in Paris, making friends with Natalie Barney, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton, among others.

Bromfield wrote 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Among them were A Good Woman (1927), about a woman who thinks of herself as righteous but ruins her son's life; The Rains Came (1937), a romance set in India; and Mrs. Parkington (1943), the story of a chambermaid who became a society matron; The Rains Came was adapted for a film in 1939, starring Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent, and Brenda Joyce. Mrs. Parkington was produced as a film in 1944, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

Bromfield bought a 1,000-acre farm near his hometown in Ohio and pursued his studies in agriculture, becoming an early advocate of organic and self-sustaining gardening. He banned pesticide use on his farm.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer

Henry Miller
It is the birthday of writer Henry Miller (1891), whose explicit novels Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were banned for decades in America. Miller wrote them as an expatriate in Paris. The Tropic books created a new genre of novel, combining fiction with autobiography, philosophical reflection, and social criticism. Black Spring was a retelling of Emily Bronte's literary classic Wuthering Heights.

Miller first visited Paris with his second wife, June Edith Smith, in the late 1920s, where they met French writer Anais Nin. Miller and Nin had an immediate attraction. In 1930, Miller returned to Paris alone. He and Nin lived a bohemian lifestyle together, although Nin was married at the time. They mixed with writers and French Surrealist painters, and became immersed in the city's creative culture. Miller worked as a proofreader at the Chicago Tribune's  Paris edition but mostly he was supported by Nin as he wrote of his life during the period, including detailed accounts of his sexual encounters. The result became Tropic of Cancer, which Nin paid with borrowed money to have published.

The book was banned as obscene in America but was often smuggled into the country. In 1961, Grove Press published the book in the United States. Officials called the book obscene and sought to have it banned, suing individual booksellers for selling it. The case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964, where Tropic of Cancer was declared a work of literature.

Tropic of Capricorn was a prequel to Tropic of Cancer. It detailed Miller's
difficult life with his wife, June, in New York during the 1920s before they went to Paris. At the time, he worked for Western Union Telegraph Company and wrote on the side, struggling to find his voice as a writer. This book, too, was sexually explicit and was  banned in the United States but the Justice Department eventually declare it not obscene.

Miller also wrote The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), a travelogue based on a visit to Greeece; Sunday After The War (1944), a collection of excerpts from other Miller writing; and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), an early indictment of America's wasteful, throw-away culture.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

America's poet laureate of unhappiness

Edwin Arlington Robinson
It is the birthday of poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869), whose dark and pessimistic poetry won the Pulitzer Prize three times: Collected Poems (1922), The Man Who Died Twice (1925), and Tristram (1928). He has been called America's poet laureate of unhappiness. Robinson may be remembered most for his poems Richard Cory (1897) and Miniver Cheevy (1910).

Robinson was born to parents who wanted a girl and didn't even give him a name for six months, and then had a stranger draw it out of a hat when they were on vacation. His childhood in a tiny town in Maine was stark and unhappy, he said. His oldest brother, Dean, became a doctor, treated himself for neuralgia and became a drug addict. His middle brother, Herman, was good looking and outgoing and seemed destined for success. Herman married Emma, a woman Edwin loved. Edwin was so distraught he refused to go to the wedding. Instead, he stayed home and wrote a poem to protest the marriage. Herman failed in business, became a drunk, split up with Emma and their children, and died alone in poverty.

Later, Edwin proposed to Emma twice, was turned down twice and moved from Maine to New York, where he self-published his first two volumes of poetry, The Torrent; and the Night Before (1896) and The Children of the Night (1897). The second book came to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who arranged for Robinson to work at the New York Customs Office with the understanding that he write poetry and contribute to the betterment of American letters instead of doing customs work. Robinson kept the job during Roosevelt's presidency.

Emma, brother Herman's widow, believed that the poem Richard Cory was really about her late husband. Robinson wrote it during the depression after the Panic of 1893, when the economy was in shambles and there was great disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Scholars suggest that its message is to not judge people by outward appearances.


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Miniver Cheevy first appeared in The Town Down the River (1910). Scholars suggest that Robinson is poking fun at his own anachronistic tendencies as well as the dreamers with which he surrounded himself. In any case, Miniver Cheevy seems bent on slow self-destruction.


Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Albert P. Terhune wrote Lad, A Dog

Albert P. Terhune
It is the birthday of writer Albert P. Terhune (1872), whose collected stories about his collie resulted in the bestseller Lad, A Dog (1919). He was the world's most prolific writer of dog stories and a famed dog breeder. Terhune was a prolific writer. For 30 years, he wrote 11 hours a day, six days a week, producing many novels and articles, and more than 30 books about dogs. Terhune had written about people for 20 years before his first dog article sold.

Lad, A Dog was a collection of 12 stories loosely based on the life of his rough collie. Terhune always referred to Lad's home as the Place. Lad lived there with Master, Mistress, and Lady, his mate. In the stories, Lad was a classic hero, noble and strong, intelligent and loyal. He battled human and canine villains, rescued the helpless (both human and beast), and understood his owners and their needs. Lad, A Dog was adapted for a 1962 film starring Carroll O'Connor and Angela Cartwright. 

Terhune's kennels on his 44-acre estate, Sunnybank, in Wayne, New Jersey, became the most famous collie kennels in the country. The dogs that Terhune raised there became fodder for his extensive writing on dogs.

Terhune once wrote of Blind Fair Ellen, a golden collie who was born blind, in a story that appeared in The Baltimore Sun Magazine and later was reprinted in Reader's Digest. All dogs are born with their eyes closed, Terhune wrote, but Fair Ellen's remained closed after the other pups in her litter opened their eyes. When her eyes finally opened, vets discovered the optic nerves were dead. "I loaded my pistol to put her out of her misery," wrote Terhune. His wife stopped him, reminding him that the little puppy had no misery to be put out of.

Indeed, she was the liveliest pup in the litter. Although at first she collided with the food dish and various other objects in the play yard, she quickly learned their location and never ran into them again. Blind Fair Ellen produced several litters, and none of her puppies were blind. She died peacefully in her sleep at age 12.

Terhune was  reporter for The Evening World (which later became the New York World-Telegram). He had written 18 novels in various genres before the Lad book. Ray Long, the editor at The Red Book Magazine (later Redbook), was visiting one day and Lad, who was usually standoffish, rested his head on Long's knee.  Long jokingly suggested that Terhune write a story about Lad. Terhune thought that was a splendid idea. In fact, he had been trying to figure out how to sell the idea of dog stories to magazines for several years.

After the first story appeared in The Red Book Magazine, other magazines wanted stories, too. Terhune wrote for Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, the Hartford Courant, and other publications. The articles later were collected as a book, which became a bestseller. It appeared a year after the real-life Lad died. Two sequels about Lad followed.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

T.F. Powys wrote Mr Weston's Good Wine

T.F. Powys
It is the birthday of British writer T.F. Powys (1875), once called the English Tolstoy, whose best known novel, Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927), is  a lyrical allegory about a traveling wine merchant and his assistant who spend one night in a rural English village as they offer the inhabitants cures for what ails them: light wine (love) or dark wine (death). Powys' prose is populated with strange and whimsical characters, and  symbolism galore.

Powys came from a talented family of 11 children. His brothers, John Cowper Powys and Llewelyn Powys, were novelists. One sister, Philippa Powys, was a novelist and poet. His sister Marian Powys wrote an authoritative book on lace and lace-making. His sister Gertrude Powys was a painter. His brother A.R. Powys wrote books on architecture and served as secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. His father, Charles, was an Anglican priest.

T.F. Powys tried to become a farmer. He apprenticed when he was 15 and eventually ran his own farm but apparently spent more time sitting in the shade reading than he did plowing the fields. In his mid-20s, he gave up farming, moved to Dorset, a county in southwestern England, and pursued a writing career. He married a local girl, had two children and then adopted a daughter.

Critics say Powys seems to be a religious writer, and much of his work is apparently inspired by the Bible, yet there is no discernible orthodoxy in his writing. Indeed, he seems to poke fun at clergy, often the only intellectuals in his stories. Other village characters he depicts as cheeky and mischievous or unsophisticated dolts or useless sentimentalists.

Powys was enamored with the work of such diverse writers as Thomas Hardy and Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps the influence is seen in works in which he populates a seemingly idyllic English countryside with decidedly odd characters. In Unclay (1931), one John Death arrives in a village in search of two inhabitants he is charged with removing from human life. Trouble is, Mr. Death has misplaced the parchment upon which was written the names of his targets. Instead Mr. Death, who is depicted as sexually attractive, sleeps with many of the residents, including those he is there to "unclay."

Powys other books include Black Bryony (1923), Mark Only (1924), Mr Tasker's Gods (1925), and Mockery Gap (1925) and numerous short story collections. His previously unpublished book, The Market Bell, was published in 1991.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Oliver La Farge wrote of Navajo tribe

Oliveer La Farge
It is the birthday of writer and anthropologist Oliver La Farge (1901), whose first novel, Laughing Boy (1929), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. Laughing Boy is the story of a love between a Navajo boy and an American-educated Navajo girl. It examines the clash of American and Native American cultures in the Southwest. It was adapted as a 1934 film starring Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez.

La Farge was born in New York into an accomplished Northeastern family. His full name was Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge. He was named for his great-grandfather, American naval hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. His father was Beaux-Arts architect Christopher Grant La Farge. His grandfather was painter and stained glass pioneer John La Farge. He was descended from Mayflower pilgrims, Narragansett natives and Benjamin Franklin. He graduated from Harvard University in 1924 and earned a Master's Degree there in 1929.

While he was at Harvard, his participation in an archaeological trip to study Navajo ruins in northern Arizona may have sparked his lifelong interest in earlier cultures, particularly the Navajos. He became an anthropologist, did research into the Mayan cultures in Central America, married socialite Wanden Matthews in New York, had two children, and settled in the Southwest in the 1920s. The marriage didn't last and La Farge remarried Consuelo Baca, the daughter of a New Mexico rancher. His oldest son, Peter La Farge, shared his father's enthusiasm for Native American culture and was a well known Greenwich Village folk singer in the 1950s and 1960s.

 La Farge devoted much of his adult life to Native American causes. He served as president of two Indian affairs associations, and wrote extensively about Native American issues, including a column for the Santa Fe newspaper The New Mexican. His columns were collected and published in a book The Man With the Calabash Pipe (1966).

La Farge wrote 24 books as well as dozens of articles and short stories. His books include Sparks Fly Upward (1931), Long Pennant (1933) and The Copper Pot (1942). His short story collections include All the Young Men (1935),  A Pause in the Desert (1957), and The Door in the Wall (1965, published posthumously). His autobiography is Raw Material (1945).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

H.H. Munro satirized Edwardian culture

H.H. Munro
It is the birthday of British writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870), whose acerbic satires of Edwardian culture appeared under the pseudonym Saki as well as H.H. Munro. He was a gifted short story writer of the ilk of Dorothy Parker and O. Henry. He was influenced by Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde. His witty and sometimes macabre stories were published in newspapers and then collected into books. Among his best known works are The Westminster Alice (1902), Not So Stories (1902), Reginald in Russia (1910), The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), and When William Came (1913), an imaginative tale of a German invasion of England.

Munro was born in Burma, where his father was an inspector general of the Burma police when the country was part of the British Empire. He was one of three children. On a visit to England, Munro's mother was killed by a runaway cow while he was still a tot. After her death, the children were sent to England to live with aunts. Munro grew up in a strict Puritan household in western England, educated at first by governesses, then sent away to boarding school.

In his early 20s, Munro rejoined his father in Burma, where he served for about a year in the Burmese Military Police until he contracted malaria and returned to England. On his return, he obtained a newspaper job and began a career as a journalist. Munro wrote for a host of newspapers, including the Daily Express, the Bystander, The Morning Post, and the Outlook. He also worked for the Westminster Gazette, for which he wrote a political column, Alice in Westminster, a parody of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Munro's witty satire depicted politicians as characters in Carroll's story. Munro also served as a foreign correspondent, seeing duty in Warsaw, St. Petersburg (Russia), and Paris.

His pen name, Saki, means cup-bearer in Farsi. Scholars think he took the name either from a species of South American monkey or from a character in the Persian poem The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam. He mentions both in his stories.

When World War I broke out, Munro refused a commission and instead enlisted in the 22nd Battalion, Royal Fusilliers, at the age of 44. He said he wanted to learn to be a soldier before he would take a command, and he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. In November 1916, he and his unit were in northern France near the Belgian border. They had taken shelter in a shell crater in the chilly pre-dawn darkness. A German sniper shot him dead. His last words were said to have been "Put that damned cigarette out."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ford Madox Ford wrote The Good Soldier

Ford Madox Ford
It is the birthday of innovative English novelist Ford Madox Ford (1873), whose book, The Good Soldier (1915), a story of two marriages, friendship and betrayal, is considered to be among the greatest literature of all time. He once wrote that a friend called his book "the finest French novel in the English language."

He was a friend and writing collaborator of Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. He was born Ford Hermann Hueffer but changed his name to honor his grandfather, painter Ford Madox Brown. Hemingway wrote that he changed it because it sounded too German.

At the beginning of World War I, he worked in the British War Propaganda Bureau with popular writers such as G.K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, and Hilaire Belloc. Ford enlisted in the Welch Regiment in 1915, and was sent to France. His four-part work, Parade's End 1924-1928) was inspired by his wartime activities. It is set in England and not he Western Front before, during, and after the war.

He was editor of two literary magazines, The English Review (which published works of Conrad, Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells) and The Transatlantic Review (which published works of Hemingway, Jean Rhys, and Gertrude Stein, as well as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake).

Ford also wrote The Fifth Queen trilogy (1906-1908), about Henry VIII fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Critics say Ford went far beyond the known facts and even beyond reasonable probability, to create a fictional, and highly imaginative, account of Catherine as a beautiful, honest, stubborn, and saintly woman. Admirers say he captured the atmosphere of Tudor English life in a highly impressionistic work.

Ford was a prolific writer, who produced dozens of novels, essays, poetry, memoirs, and literary criticism. He collaborated with Joseph Conrad on The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903), and The Nature of a Crime (1924). He also wrote Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (1911), which was inspired by Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Unlike Twain's hero, though, Ford's protagonist hasn't a clue about how to make himself more powerful than kings. The details of Medieval life, however, are presented much more realistically.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith
It is the birthday of writer Betty Smith (1896), whose first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), became an instant bestseller. The semi-autobiographical book chronicles the struggles of an Irish-American family in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. The title is a reference to the Tree of Heaven, an invasive species from China that is found on vacant lots in New York. Its struggles for survival are the central metaphor of the book.

Smith, who was born Elisabeth Wehner, grew up poor in Brooklyn. She attended Girls' High School, a sought-after center for advanced education and college preparation. She married George H.E. Smith and moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied law at the University of Michigan. She had never finished high school, so after her two girls were born, she resumed her education, taking classes at the university, especially journalism, literature, writing, and drama. In her early 40s, she divorced and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she lived for many years, and worked in the Federal Theater Project. In Chapel Hill, she married Joseph Jones in 1943.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, an 11-year-old girl whose hardworking mother supports the family by cleaning apartment buildings and alcoholic father is sporadically employed as a singing waiter. Francie survives with reading, a vivid imagination, and a thirst for education. The book's five parts deal with different times in the girl's life. It ends with Francie, about to turn 17, entering the University of Michigan, with the help of a student friend with whom she envisions having a future relationship. Her father has died and her mother remarries. Her younger brother becomes a ragtime piano player. 

The book was adapted as a 1945 film directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dunn, Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner. It won two Academy Awards. In 1951, Smith helped Broadway producer/director and film director George Abbott write a musical based on the book. Arthur Schwartz wrote the music and Herbert Ross did the choreography. Shirley Booth and Marcia van Dyke starred. Francie was played by 12-year-old Nomi Mitty, who later appeared in Hill Street Blues, Picket Fences, Knot's Landing, and L.A. Law on television and in the films Serpico and Melvyn and Howard.   

Smith also wrote Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963), which was adapted as a 1965 film starring Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimieux.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson
It is the birthday of writer Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which was adapted as the film The Haunting (1963). She is known for writing in the mystery and horror genres.  Her best known short story, The Lottery, appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and generated hundreds of letters from bewildered readers. It was banned in South Africa, a development that evidently pleased Jackson.  It is one of the most famous short stories in American literature.

The story concerns an annual tradition in a small town in Vermont. Villagers gather each year on June 27 to participate in a ritual they believe will ensure a good harvest. Youngsters gather stones as the head of each family draws a slip of paper from a black box. One man draws the slip with a black spot on it. His family has been chosen. In the next round of the lottery, his family members draw slips. The man's wife gets the one with the spot. In the last scene, villagers surround her and stone her to death.

Readers of The New Yorker were outraged. Many sent hate mail to Jackson and some even canceled their subscriptions to the magazine. About a month after the story was published, Jackson sought to respond to the criticism in the San Francisco Chronicle. She said it was difficult to say what she hoped the story would say. "I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

Jackson later wrote that of the more than 300 letters she received, only 13 of them, mostly from friends, spoke kindly to her. Some, she said, she was scared to open. Her mother even chastised her, suggesting that such a gloomy kind of story seemed to be all "you young people think about these days."

The Lottery was adapted for radio, television, theater, and film. Jackson wrote close to 100 short stories, five other novels and several children's books. She is said to have inspired Stephen King, English author Neil Gaiman, British screenwriter Nigel Kneale, and screenwriter Richard Matheson, whose credits include What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, and a short story, Duel, with he adapted into a screenplay for a TV movie that was directed by  Stephen Spielberg.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ross Macdonald wrote Lew Archer series

Ross Macdonald
It is the birthday of American-Canadian writer Kenneth Millar (1915), who created the fictional hardboiled detective Lew Archer and wrote under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald. He produced such bestsellers as The Goodbye Look (1969), The Underground Man (1971), Sleeping Beauty (1973), and The Blue Hammer (1976).

Lew Archer is the heir apparent to Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's hardboiled detective. Both were based in California and both were tough as they come but Archer was more openly sensitive than his predecessor. Archer's name came from another fictional detective Miles Archer, who was Sam Spade's partner in the series by Dashiell Hammett, and from Lew Wallace who wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Lew Archer first appeared in 1946 in short story Find the Woman.

Millar lived in for three decades in Santa Barbara, California, and used it as the setting for most of his books, renaming it Santa Teresa. Later, mystery writer Sue Grafton set her alphabet novels in Santa Teresa.

There are 18 books in the Lew Archer series. The first one, The Moving Target (1949), was adapted for film as Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman. Scholars say Millar's first books were closely patterned after Chandler and Hammett. Millar, who held a doctorate in literature, drew on classic Greek myths for inspiration and post-war California for locale. His later works introduced more personal themes such as childhood trauma, the family secret, and the family scapegoat.

Millar first used John Macdonald as his pen name to avoid confusion with his wife Margaret Millar, who was becoming well known as a mystery and suspense writer, too. Then he changed briefly to John Ross Macdonald but that created confusion with John D. MacDonald, of Travis McGee fame. So Millar finally settled on Ross Macdonald.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger

John Osborne
It is the birthday of English playwright John Osborne (1929), whose play Look Back in Anger (1956) is credited with transforming British theater from escapist fantasies to stark realism. The play came to represent a generation of disaffected Brits after World War II and was hailed as a significant theatrical breakthrough. Osborne was described as the first of the "angry young men," working class British playwrights and novelists who came to prominence in the 1950s. The play was adapted for a 1959 film starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Mary Ure (whom Osborne married). It was directed by Tony Richardson.

The play had an inauspicious beginning. Osborne was working in a tiny theater company in a resort town in northern England. He wrote the play in 17 days while sitting a deck chair on a pier recalling earlier acrimonious days with his actress wife in their cramped living quarters in a small town in central England. They fought and argued, and all the while she was having an affair with a local dentist. The play was full of vitriol and pessimism, and included tirades on the mediocrity of middle-class British life.

When he returned to London, Osborne submitted the play to numerous agents but it was returned, (remarkably quickly, Osborne thought, though he wasn't surprised at the rejections.) Finally, he sent it to a new theater group, English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre. The company had had three flops in a row and desperately needed a hit. Osborne was pretty desperate himself. At the time he was living in a leaky houseboat on the Thames River with an actor friend. They had little money. They gathered plants from the river bank and cooked them to eat.

At first, the play received negative reviews, with critics calling it a failure and "a self-pitying snivel." But then the most influential critic of the time, Kenneth Tynan, called it the best young play of the decade. Audiences took notice, and the play became a commercial success. It eventually played in London's prestigious West End and Broadway. During the original production, Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, who was in the cast, and  divorced his wife, actress Pamela Lane.

Osborne followed the success of Look Back in Anger with The Entertainer (1957), which used the transition from vaudeville to rock 'n roll as a metaphor for the British Empire's decline in world stature. It starred Laurence Olivier, who also did a movie version two years later. Osborne also wrote Luther (1961), a study of the life of Martin Luther, and the screenplay for Tom Jones (1963), the film adaptation of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Happy birthday, Hector Berlioz

Watch Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique on PBS. See more from Keeping Score.
It is the birthday of French composer Hector Berlioz (1803), whose most well known and popular work was Symphonie fantastique (1830), about the life of an artist and his passions. He wrote it when he was 26 years old. Here is a fascinating PBS program about Berlioz based on Symphonie fanastique. Enjoy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mary Norton wrote The Borrowers series

Mary Norton
It is the birthday of English writer Mary Norton (1903), who is best remembered for her children's fantasy series The Borrowers (first published 1952), about a family of little people who live in the floors and walls of a Georgian English house and "borrow" what they need to survive from the big people in the house. Norton's first book, The Magic Bed Knob: or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943), was the basis of a 1971 Disney movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Norton, whose father was a physician, grew up in Leighton Buzzard, a small town in Bedfordshire, England, about 50 miles northwest of London. The family lived in a house called The Cedars, which is said to be the original setting for The Borrowers. She graduated from a convent school in London and studied to be an actress at the Old Vic Shakespeare Company. During World War II, she worked for the British Purchasing Commission in the United States. Her first book was published while she lived in New York.

After the war, she returned to London and wrote a sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947). The two stories told of three children and their adventures with an amateur witch. They were published as a single volume, Bed-Knob and Broomstick in 1957. The 1971 Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks starred Angela Lansbury, David Tomlinson, and Roddy McDowall.

Now a children's classic, The Borrowers told the story of Pod and Homily Clock and their adventurous teenaged daughter, Arrietty. The Clocks are a race of tiny people, no bigger than six inches tall, who survive by "borrowing" items from the "human beans" (big people) who also live in the house. It is a perilous existence with the Borrowers constantly in danger of being discovered. After the Clock family is chased out of their home, their adventures continue in four sequels, including, The Borrowers Afield  (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982).

The Borrowers was adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie in 1971 and a film starring Tom Fenton, John Goodman, and Jim Broadbent in 1997, as well as several BBC productions. Norton received the Carnegie Medal, a British award for outstanding literature, in 1952. She has been compared with such creative writers as Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hervey Allen wrote Anthony Adverse

Hervey Allen
It is the birthday of writer Hervey Allen (1889), who wrote the sweeping Napoleonic-era novel Anthony Adverse (1933), a bestseller in its time and the basis of a blockbuster movie of the same name (1936). Allen also encouraged Marjory Stoneman Douglas to write The Everglades: River of Grass (1947).

Allen, who grew up in Pittsburgh, entered the Naval Academy but was injured and returned home. He finished his education at the University of Pennsylvania, and later joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in the signal corps. His unit saw duty near El Paso, Texas, where Mexican bandit Pancho Villa was raiding American settlements. Finally his unit was sent to France during World War I.

During his time in the military, Allen wrote poetry, at first creating verse inspired by Rudyard Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads. When he returned from the war, Allen became something of a poet vagabond, traveling up and down the East Coast. He settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and collaborated with poet DuBose Heyward, whose novel and play Porgy inspired the opera Porgy and Bess. Allen and Heyward wrote Carolina Chansons (1922).

Beginning in 1924, Allen taught English at Columbia University and Vassar College for two years. There he met Ann Hyde Andrews, one of his students. They created a minor scandal when they married after her graduation. He wrote a biography, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926). With proceeds from the book, he bought a plantation in Bermuda, and lived there five years. The couple's three children were born there.

Allen's 1,224-page novel, Anthony Adverse (1933), became an instant success, rivaled only by Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind that was published the same year. It was the sweeping saga of an illegitimate child of a French noblewoman and an Irish soldier who grows up to face a difficult life. With exotic settings in Cuba, Africa, Paris, the Italian Alps, New Orleans, and the American West, as well as colorful characters and, for its time, risque sex scenes, the book became a bestseller. A 1936 epic film starring Frederic March and Olivia de Havilland was based on the book.

Allen went to Miami in the early 1940s to visit his aunt. By then he was editor of the Rivers of America series published by Rinehart and Company. He asked Marjory Stoneman Douglas to write a book about the Miami River. "You can't write about the Miami River," she replied. "It's only about an Inch long." She suggested, instead, that she write about the Everglades, and include in it the story  of the Miami River. Allen encouraged her to do so, and the idea consumed her for the rest of her life.

Allen later moved to an estate he called The Glades in Coconut Grove, then a small town near Miami, and became good friends with Douglas and with poet Robert Frost, who lived there, too.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Happy birthday, Willa Cather

Willa Cather
It is the birthday of writer Willa Cather (1873), who may be best known for her Prairie Trilogy — O Pioneers (1912), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918), her stories of ordinary people of the Midwestern plains. Critics such as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis praised them, and readers loved them. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1923 for One of Ours (1922),  the tale of a young man from a Midwestern farm who seeks purpose on the battlefield in France during World War I.

One of Ours didn't fare as well as her earlier books. Former supporters were particularly critical. Mencken said it read like a Hollywood movie, and he didn't mean it as a compliment. Wrote Mencken: "… the second half was dreadful stuff indeed. It was so bad, in fact, that it won … the Pulitzer Prize of 1923." Sinclair Lewis was unconvinced by her depiction of soldiers, saying they seemed like violinists in disguise. The most scathing criticism may have come from Ernest Hemingway, who said the source for Cather's battle scenes clearly was D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation.

The beginning of Cather's career had been promising. After teaching, working on a women's magazine, and a newspaper in Pittsburgh, Cather joined the staff of McClure's Magazine in New York in 1906, where she wrote short stories and biographical profiles. McClure's published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), in serialized form. It is the story of a world-renowned bridge builder whose mid-life crisis leads him to reevaluate his marriage as he reconnects with a former lover. It received generally good reviews. The Atlantic magazine called her writing deft and skillful.

By the 1930s, however, Cather's conservative outlook and Midwestern values seemed to be out of step with prevailing liberal attitudes. Critics such as Granville Hicks and Edmund Wilson savaged her work. Scholars say she became reclusive, retreating to her cottage in New Brunswick, Canada. She burned early drafts, letters, and personal papers, and restricted the use of those that remained.

Today Willa Cather is considered to be one of the leading writers of American literary Modernism. Scholars continue to study her life and contribution to literature, particularly her skill at creating a personal intimacy between writer and reader.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Happy birthday, Ira Gershwin

It is the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin (1896), who collaborated with his younger brother George Gershwin to produce such memorable songs as Someone to Watch Over Me, The Man I Love, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, Fascinating Rhythm, and They Can't Take That Away From Me. With his brother, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind, he won the first Pulitzer Prize for Songwriting in 1932 for the musical comedy Of Thee I Sing. In collaboration with novelist DuBose Heyward, he wrote the libretto for his brother's 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. After his brother's death in 1937, Ira collaborated with composers Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Kurt Weill. Here is Frank Sinatra with the Brothers Gershwin's hit Someone to Watch Over Me from the 1926 musical Oh, Kay.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happy birthday, Jose Carreras

It is the birthday of Spanish tenor Jose Carreras (1946), who is best known for his performances in operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini as well as his appearances with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarot ti in the fame series of The Three Tenors concerts for 13 years beginning in 1990. Here is his performance of the immensely popular Music of the Night from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thomas Carlyle wrote on French Revolution

Thomas Carlyle
It is the birthday of Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795), who is best known for his three-volume work, The French Revolution: A History (1837), a book he wrote because his friend, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, was too busy. Mill had a contract to produce the book but was immersed in other projects so he suggested that Carlyle write it.

The result is a sweeping history of the revolution from 1789 to 1795. It is considered to be one of the most authoritative accounts of the earliest part of the revolution. Mill supplied Carlyle with a library of material about the revolution. The book had its mishaps in getting completed, though. Carlyle labored furiously on the first volume and sent his only manuscript to Mill. However, Mill's maid mistakenly burned it, thinking it was trash. So, Carlyle rewrote it, producing a book that he said came "direct and flamingly from the heart."

The book was very different in style from other histories, which tend to be dispassionate and detached from the events. Carlyle's poetical prose style and his use present tense, first person plural involve the reader as close observer and nearly participant as the events unfold. The technique has been both praised and severely criticized.

The first volume was an immediate success and it helped establish Carlyle's literary reputation. It was a triumph of enthusiastic storytelling combined with detailed accounts of historical fact and philosophical discourse. So dramatic was his approach and accurate in its details that it inspired Charles Dickens to use it as his primary reference in writing A Tale of Two Cities.

Carlyle produced numerous other works, including Signs of the Times (1829), Sartor Resartus (1831), Chartism (1840), On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), Past and Present (1843), The Life of John Sterling (1851), History of Friedrich II of Prussia (1858), and Reminiscences of my Irish Journey in 1849 (1882).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Rex Stout created detective Nero Wolfe

Rex Stout
It is the birthday of writer Rex Stout (1886), creator of one of the most brilliant fictional detectives of all time, Nero Wolfe. Stout produced Nero Wolfe books for four decades, until his death in 1975. Stout wrote 47 novels and 40 novellas in the Wolfe series. His last two books, Death Times Three (novella collection) and Assault on a Brownstone (novella) were published in 1985.

Wolfe's confidential assistant, Archie Goodwin, narrates the stories, most of which are set in New York City. Wolfe lives in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th Avenue. According to Stout, Wolfe is 56 years old (though his age is never stated in the novels). He never ages. He is extremely obese, and "limits his physical movements to what he regards as the irreducible essentials," writes Goodwin. Wolfe also usually does nothing to disturb his usual daily routine. The cases are brought to him. Archie Goodwin does his leg work.

In the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934), an out-of-work steel worker goes missing after coming into an inheritance. Wolfe takes on the case for the man's sister. Many of the recurring characters appear in this first book.

Politically, Stout was an outspoken liberal. He helped start the American Civil Liberties Union and a radical Marxist magazine The New Masses. He supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. During World War II, he served a chairman of the Writers' War Board, a propaganda organization. In the McCarthy era of the 1940s and 1950s, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee but he ignored it.

J. Edgar Hoover had FBI agents keep an eye on him, considering him to be a Communist or a Communist dupe. Stout's 1965 novel The Doorbell Rang attracted considerable attention. In it, Stout described a cryptographic technique which allowed users to send secret information over an insecure channel.

Stout wrote 10 novels and numerous short stories for pulp magazines in the teens, '20s and '30s before his first Nero Wolfe book appeared.

Stout died in 1975 at age 88.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy birthday, Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott
It is the birthday of writer Louisa May Alcott (1832), who is best remembered for her novels Little Women (1868), Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), a trilogy set in Concord, Massachusetts, in the late 19th century. The books were loosely based on Alcott's life with her three sisters. Alcott never set out to write a trilogy but the books are linked by characters who appear in all three.

Alcott's family struggled financially throughout her childhood. She was educated primarily by her father as well as family friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. To help support the family, Alcott worked as a teacher, governess, seamstress, and domestic helper. Writing became an emotional outlet to relieve the stress of her life.

Alcott's first published work, Flower Fables (1854) was a collection of stories she wrote for Emerson's daughter Ellen. She received about $35 after it was published. In her late 20s, Alcott's work was published in the Atlantic Monthly. She volunteered as a nurse at a Union hospital at the beginning of the Civil War. Her letters home were published in an abolitionist newspaper in Boston and later collected as Hospital Sketches (1863). Alcott wrote impassioned political pieces under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.

Little Women chronicles the lives of the four March sisters in their family home in Concord. It was based on Alcott's home, Orchard House. The initial book was such a success that she wrote a second volume titled Good Wives that also was well received. Later the two books were combined under the Little Women title. The book gave Alcott financial independence.

Little Men follows the main character, Jo, as she teaches at the unorthodox Plumfield Estate School. The school is mentioned at the end of Little Women. It is financed by Jo's inheritance. The youngsters are taught lesson by running their own businesses and tending their own gardens. For fun, they have pillow fights on Saturdays.

Jo's Boys carries the subtitle How They Turned Out: A Sequel to Little Men. The boys at the school are now grown up and they face the challenges of adulthood. They enter various professions, fall in love and travel in Europe.

Alcott died in 1888 at age 55. Scholars think she died of lupus, though her earliest biographers attributed her death to mercury poisoning received in treatment for typhoid fever during the Civil War.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Happy birthday, John Bunyan

John Bunyan
It is the birthday of English writer John Bunyan (1628), who is best remembered for his book The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a sweeping allegorical tale that takes the protagonist (an everyman named Christian) from the road to perdition to the feet of the Lord. Bunyan's use of simple imagery (taken from his Bedfordshire homeland north of London) gives the book its wide appeal. it was reprinted in the Puritan colonies and distributed throughout colonial America only three years after its initial publication.

When he was a youth, Bunyan led a decidedly impious life, by his own admission laced with profanity, dancing, and bell  ringing. Then, in his early 20s, he married a young woman and settled down. As a young man, Bunyan joined a nonconformist sect that refused to abide by the teachings of the Church of England. He started preaching in his late 20s. The Puritans were in power and Bunyan had considerable freedom to preach. Bunyan's first book, Some Gospel Truths, was published in 1656. The following year, his second book, Vindication, came out.

His first wife died, leaving him with four children. He married again and had two more children. In the meantime, Charles II restored the monarchy in England and the Church of England became the mandatory church of the land. He was arrested for preaching without a license.

Still, Bunyan refused to conform and continued to preach in private meetings not part of the Anglicans. He was taken to court where he told magistrates "If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow." The judges had no choice but to put him in jail, where he remained for some time. He was finally released again in 1672, was licensed to preach under a new law. But then the law was withdrawn and he landed in jail again. Scholars think he began writing The Pilgrim's Progress while he was in jail, though there is some disagreement whether he began it during the first term or the second.

Bunyan also wrote an imaginary biography, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), another allegory, The Holy War (1682), and a spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666).

The Pilgrim's Progress, along with the Bible, was once the among most widely read and translated books in the English language. In all, Bunyan wrote about 60 books and pamphlets. Rudyard Kipling considered him the father of the novel and "salvation's first Defoe."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Happy birthday, James Agee

James Agee
It is the birthday of writer James Agee (1909), whose autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Agee was a journalist, film critic, screenwriter, and poet. He wrote his most well known book. Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941), as a magazine article but it wasn't published.

Agee and photographer Walker Evans spent two months at the height of the Great Depression during the summer of 1936 among sharecroppers in Alabama to do an article for Fortune magazine but editors decided not to run it. Agee and Evans turned their work into the book, Let us now Praise Famous Men. It contained 31 of Evans photographs.

The book was initially a miserable failure. Only 600 copies were sold. However, the book was republished in 1960 with the 62 photographs Evans originally intended. It found an enthusiastic audience and has been lauded by critics, who cited Agee's poetic writing and his unusual practice of inserting himself into the story as he agonizes about spying on the sharecropper families and exposing their private lives the the world. The title is from a biblical quotation in the Wisdom of Sirach: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us."

Agee wrote for Time and Fortune magazines as well as The Nation. He was considered a brilliant and perceptive film critic. He thought of film an art form. He lavished praise on Chaplin's hugely unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947). It has since become viewed as a classic. His article for Life magazine about silent film stars Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton is credited with reviving Keaton's career. The two-volume Agee on Film (1958) collects his reviews from various magazines. It has been republished.

Agee wrote screenplays for The African Queen (1951), based on the E.M. Forester book, and for The Night of the Hunter (1955), based on the Davis Grubb novel. For The African Queen, Agee is credited along with two other writers and the director, John Huston. Agee's script for The Night of the Hunter was originally  293 pages. At director Charles Laughton's request, Agee cut it in half.

A Death in the Family is based on the sudden death in a car accident of Agee's father in 1915 when Agee was six years old. It is considered one of the best English-language novels in the 20th century. It was adapted as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, All the Way Home (1961) by Tad Mosel and later as a movie starring Robert Preston, Jean Simmons and Pat Hingle.

Agee died in 1955 at age 45 from a heart attack in a taxi on the way to a doctor's appointment. His publisher released A Death in the Family as a way to help support his widow and children.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Eugene Ionesco, absurdist playwright

Eugene Ionesco
It is the birthday of Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco (1909), one of the leading absurdist writers of the 20th century. Among his best known plays are The Bald Soprano (1950), The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), Jack or The Submission (1955), The Killer (1958), Rhinoceros (1959), Exit the King (1962), A Stroll in the Air (1963), and Macbett (1972).

Ionesco was born in Romania but grew up in France, and though he moved back to Romania for a period and attended the University of Bucharest, he eventually moved back to France and remained there during World War II, settling in Paris in 1944.

At the age of 40, he decided to learn English. He copied sentences from an English text book with the idea of memorizing them. But soon he found  himself carefully reading the sentences and absorbing the meaning. He discovered amazing truths: The floor was down, ceiling was up. The week had seven days. Though he already knew these things, they suddenly took on new meaning.

The text became more complex. Two characters, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, had a complete back story. They lived near London, had several children and a servant who was also English. Mr. Smith was a clerk. Mrs. Smith was methodical in her quest for truth. Apparently this amazing text had a profound effect on Ionesco.

"A strange phenomenon took place," he wrote later. "I don't know how--the text began imperceptibly to change before my eyes. The very simple, luminously clear statements I had copied so diligently into my notebook, left to themselves, fermented for a while, lost their original identity, expanded and overflowed. The clichés and truisms of the conversation primer, which had once made sense gave way to pseudo-clichés and pseudo-truisms; these disintegrated into wild caricature and parody, and in the end language disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words."

Ionesco translated the experience into his first play, The Bald Soprano, which opened in Paris in 1950 and was roundly ignored until drama critic Jaques Lemarchand and writers Raymond Queneau and Jean Anouilh saw it and began to champion it. Ionesco wrote more than 20 plays in which he rejected the conventions of traditional drama such as character development and plot. His anarchic comedy portrays the meaningless of existence in the modern world.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Happy birthday, Felix Lope de Vega

It is the birthday of Spanish playwright and poet Felix Lope de Vega (1562), one of the most prolific writers in literature. He created more than 3,000 sonnets, 1,800 plays, nine epic poems, four novellas and three novels. Some 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces. In Spanish literature, he is admired along with Miguel de Cervantes. Here is his poem To Love, in Spanish with English subtitles. Enjoy!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy birthday, Roaring 20s star Ruth Etting

It is the birthday of 1920s singer and actress Ruth Etting (1897), who was known in her day as America's sweetheart of song. She was a girl of 17 when she left her small hometown in Nebraska to study art in Chicago. She designed costumes at a nightclub there and then sang and danced in the chorus, and eventually became the featured vocalist. She married a gangster named Moe the Gimp, who managed her career and got her a recording contract at Columbia. Her Broadway debut was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. In the 1930s, she appeared in Hollywood movies. Here is one of her signature songs, Ten Cents a Dance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy birthday, Jim Bishop, Reporter

Jim Bishop
It is the birthday of journalist Jim Bishop (1907), who is best known for his books The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1955), The Day Christ Died (1957), The Day Christ Was Born (1960), and The Day Kennedy Was Shot (1968). Bishop's work FDR's Last Year, April 1944-April 1945 (1974) is his most critically acclaimed book.

Bishop grew up in an Irish Catholic family and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. His father, a railroad man and later a policeman, found him various jobs, none of which he kept more than three weeks. He learned typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping at a secretarial school. In 1929, in his early 20s, his dad got him a job as a copyboy at the New York Daily News.

At the Daily News, he met Mark Hellinger, who would become film critic for the New York Daily Mirror, and later, a Hollywood movie producer. Bishop worked as Hellinger's assistant and later became a reporter at the Daily Mirror. In 1943, Bishop went to work for Collier's magazine as the war editor. He later worked for book publishers in New York. In 1947, Bishop was to go to Hollywood to work as a writer for Mark Hellinger but days before Bishop planned to resign and move to California, Hellinger died. In 1951, Bishop founded Gold Medal Books, a division of Fawcett Publications. Later he worked for Catholic Digest.

Bishop began collecting information about Lincoln's assassination in 1930, while he was still a cub reporter. His interest in Lincoln began with a remark from a nun in grade school about something Lincoln had said. Bishop's book brought him instant acclaim. The book was chosen as a Book of the Month Club offering and became a best seller. 

On the basis of the book about Lincoln, Bishop became well known by readers throughout the country. For 26 years, he wrote a syndicated column, Jim Bishop: Reporter, that was distributed to hundreds of newspapers by Hearst's King Features Syndicate.

Among Bishop's other books are The Glass Crutch, the Biographical Novel of William Wynne Wister (1945), The Mark Hellinger Story, a Biography of Broadway and Hollywood (1952), The Girl in Poison Cottage (1953), Parish Priest (1953), The Making of a Priest (1954), Fighting Father Duffy (1956), The Golden Ham, a Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason (1956), Go With God (1958), The Murder Trial of Judge Peel (1962) [a famous Florida murder trial], A Day in the Life of President Johnson (1967), The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1971), The Birth of the United States (1976).

Bishop's last book was his brutally honest autobiography, A Bishop's Confession (1981). Bishop died in 1987 in Delray Beach, Florida. He was 79.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gordimer wrote of South African apartheid

Nadine Gordimer
It is the birthday of South African writer and activist Nadine Gordimer (1923), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 for her writing on racial and moral issues, especially apartheid in South Africa. Several of Gordimer's books have been banned at various times in her home country. Among them are A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1976), Burger's Daughter (1979), and July's People (1981).

Gordimer's first published novel, The Lying Days (1953), tells the story of a young white woman who gradually becomes aware of South African racial divides as she grows up in a small town. Occasion for Loving (1963) had a white woman married to an ethnomusicologist but falling in love with a black artist during a time when mixed relationships were illegal in South Africa.

 In A World of Strangers, a young English publisher whose parents are politically liberal remains apolitical as he moves between friends in the wealthy white suburbs and seething black townships. The Late Bourgeois World deals with a white woman's life on the edge of political action when her ex-husband kills himself after betraying fellow resistance workers under police pressure.

Burger's Daughter tells the story of a white South African woman dealing with the legacy of her father, who was an anti-apartheid activist with the South African Communist Party. July's People follows the life of July, a black servant to a liberal white South African family, during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans violently fight apartheid.

Gordimer's A Guest of Honor (1970) won the British James Tait Black Memorial Award and the Booker Prize. It deals with a black African who becomes president of his country through revolution and must now attend to affairs of state while those who helped him into power still seek revolution.

Gordimer has written 15 novels, a play, numerous short stories, and articles for various magazines. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Allen Tate was a Southern poet

Allen Tate
It is the birthday of poet Allen Tate (1899), who was a member of the Southern Agrarian poets, along with Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom. Tate served as poet-in-residence at Princeton University and United States Poet Laureate.

The Southern Agrarians contributed to the revival of Southern literature in the 1920s and '30s. They wrote a collection of essays titled I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, that serves as a manifesto of the tradition. Tate met Warren and Ransom when he started at Vanderbilt University in 1918.

Originally they were known as the Fugitive Poets and they published a literary magazine called The Fugitive, once considered one of the most influential publications in American letters. Also among the Fugitives were Merrill Moore, Donald Davidson and William Ridley Wills. The group eventually morphed into the Southern Agrarians and included a dozen American writers, novelists, and essayists as well as poets. Their roots were in the agrarian South.

Tate moved to New York City in 1924 and met poet Hart Crane. Tate contributed to The Nation magazine, the Hound and Horn, Poetry magazine and, eventually, the National Review. The writing didn't pay the bills, however, and Tate worked as a janitor to support himself.

He married writer Caroline Gordon and they lived in Greenwich Village and then for a time in London and Paris but after 20 years they divorced only to remarry after a year and then divorce again. They remained close for the rest of their lives.

In early adulthood, Tate espoused atheism but eventually became a Roman Catholic. He married poet Isabella Gardner in the 1950s but began an affair with a nun enrolled in one of his classes, divorced Gardner and married the nun, Helen Heinz. They settled in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he helped transform The Sewanee Review into a prestigious literary journal.

Tate's best known poem is Ode to the Confederate Dead (1928), a long poem set in a graveyard in the South in which the narrator contemplates his own mortality.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shelby Foote wrote Civil War history

Shelby Foote
It is the birthday of historian and novelist Shelby Foote (1916), who wrote the three-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-1974), a 1.2-million word study of the war. Foote became widely known after he appeared in Ken Burns' PBS documentary The Civil War (1990).

Foote came to write the Civil War histories at the invitation of Random House's Bennett Cerf after his detailed historical novel Shiloh: A Novel (1952) was published. Foote's accuracy and detailed description of the war's bloodiest battle had impressed Cerf, who wanted him to write a 200,000-word narrative history.

Foote researched the project for several weeks and concluded that it couldn't be properly done as requested. It would take much more time and effort. He proposed a three-volume project and Cerf agreed. During the 20 years of research and writing, Foote supported himself with Guggenheim Fellowships, Ford Foundation grants and loans from his friend, writer Walker Percy.

The project became a detailed military history, though it also briefly considers political and social themes. The first volume Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958) covers the battles of Perryville, Bull Run, Shiloh, Second Bull Run, Antietam and a lot of smaller conflicts. It also includes the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac.

The second volume, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), covers the great battles and the efforts of General Robert E. Lee, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, and General Stonewall Jackson.

It took Foote 10 years to finally complete the third volume. Current events occupied his attention and he wasn't able to focus on the book. The third volume took as many years to complete as the other two combined. Red River to Appomattox (1974) covers the last two great battles, General Ulysses S. Grant against Lee and General William Sherman's March to the Sea. It also deals with Abraham Lincoln's assassination and Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

At first, Ken Burns had Foote's work on his reading list as he prepared his documentary but hadn't planned to interview him. However, Burns received a phone call from Robert Penn Warren suggesting he meet Foote.  After an initial filmed interview in 1986, Foote emerged as a leading consultant on the project. In the end, Foote appeared in the documentary for nearly an hour of the 11-hour series, more than any other authority. The result was a huge increase in sales of Foote's three-volume series. In fact, every time the documentary was rebroadcast on PBS, sales went up.

Foote told Ken Burns: "You've made me a millionaire."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael Arlen wrote of 1920s England

Time cover featuring Michael Arlen
It is the birthday of writer Michael Arlen (1895), who once was the toast of literary circles England and America, the subject of a cover story in Time magazine in 1927. He was part of London's modernist literary circles and a friend of Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. Lawrence's character, the society playwright Michaelis in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), was based on Arlen.

Arlen is best remembered for his novels that captured the wild abandon of the Roaring Twenties in England, especially The Green Hat (1924). It is a tapestry of nightclubs, parties and the pursuit of pleasure in London and Paris, whose heroine cultivates a reputation of recklessness. On their wedding night, her husband leaps from their bedroom window to his death. In the end, the heroine is killed when her yellow Spanish-Swiss luxury car crashes into a huge tree. Her rakish green hat floats away above the flames.

Arlen himself developed a reputation as something of a dandy, driving around London in a luxurious yellow Rolls Royce. He was an impeccable dresser and an immaculately mannered man with the practiced air of a born aristocrat but with a slight hint of foreignness. He fueled a sense of adventure and intrigue, especially among women, describing himself as "every other inch a gentleman."

He was Armenian by birth, born in Bulgaria. He father was a successful merchant and importer who moved the family to England to escape the Turkish persecutions of Armenians. Arlen's birth name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian. He became a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, though his family wanted him to attend Oxford University. it was a time spent in the study of metaphysics, theosophy, and elementary medicine. it was also a time spent consumed in fecklessness and beer. Arlen remained at the university only a few months before he moved to London and decided to pursue a career in writing. His deeply disappointed family disowned him.

He wrote under his birth name for awhile, producing essays for London-based Ararat: A Searchlight on Armenia. Then he wrote for a British weekly, The New Age. He began using Michael Arlen as a pen name and in 1922 became a naturalized British citizen and adopted his pen name as his real name.

Arlen also wrote gothic horror stories and dabbled in crime fiction with the creation of the gentleman detective Gay Stanhope Falcon in a short story Gay Falcon (1940). George Sanders starred in a series of mystery films based on the character.

During World War II, Arlen served as the Civil Defence Public Relations Officer for the East Midlands but when his loyalty to England was questioned he resigned and moved to America. He settled in New York in 1946 and lived there until his death 10 years later. His son, Michael J. Arlen, was formerly the television critic for The New Yorker magazine and won the National Book Award for his book Passages to Ararat (1975).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hauptmann was top German dramatist

Gerhart Hauptmann
It is the birthday of German playwright, poet, and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann (1862), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912 for his body of work. He is considered the leading German dramatist of the early 20th century and one of the founders of the German Naturalism school of literature. Among his best known plays are After Dawn (1889), The Weavers (1892), and The Sunken Bell (1896). He is remembered for his vivid depiction of human suffering and his characters as victims of social forces beyond their control.

Hauptmann was born in the resort region of Silesia (now part of Poland), where his father owned the most prominent hotel. He was sent to the country as a youth to study agriculture at his uncle's farm and learn to be a farmer but the field didn't suit him. He studied sculpture and, later, science and philosophy, then worked for two years as a sculptor in Rome, but returned to his homeland for his health.

In his early 20s, he finally settled down to work in literature. However, he found it hard to focus, so his most productive years came later. In 1904, he divorced his first wife from whom he had been separated for three years and married a violinist, with whom he had lived during that time.

Hauptmann instantly became famous when his play Before Dawn premiered. it was a starkly realistic tragedy about a woman who comes from a family of alcoholics and commits suicide after she is taunted about heredity by the man she loves. It shocked audiences but earned Hauptmann a place in German literature. 

The Weavers tells the story of the 1844 uprising of linen weavers caught in the mechanization of the cloth industry and the subsequent loss of work.

The Sunken Bell concerns a famous bell maker and his doomed quest to create the perfect, clear-toned bell. Torn from his family, he is drawn high into the mountains by beautiful forest elf who convinces him that there he can realize his dream. In the end, he loses not only his family but also the forest elf, and he never achieves his goal.

Hauptmann's 1912 novel, Atlantis, concerned a romance aboard a doomed ocean liner. It had the serendipitous fortune to be published about the same time as the Titanic disaster, making it a best seller. A Danish silent film based on the book came out the following year to great success, thought was banned in Norway for being insensitive to the recent tragedy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Salisbury wrote of Russia, Vietnam, China

Harrison Salisbury
It is the birthday of journalist Harrison Salisbury (1908), who won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1955 for a series of stories he wrote after serving as the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. Salisbury was one of the Times' top editors. He also reported from Vietnam and China. He was a prolific writer, the author of 29 books.

Salisbury began working for United Press after being suspended from the University of Minnesota in 1930. He never graduated. He served as UP's foreign editor during the last two years of World War II, and traveled with the Red Army as it pursued the retreating Germans. In 1945, he wrote a series for Collier's Weekly about Russia that became a book Russia on the Way (1946). He served as the Times' Moscow bureau chief for five years beginning in 1949. In Russia, he constantly sparred with Soviet officials over censorship, though he was criticized by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and by writer Gay Talese (The Kingdom and the Power) for being too sympathetic to the Soviets.

Salisbury served as the Times' chief of domestic correspondents during the 1960s and covered the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He directed the coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He visited North Vietnam in 1966 and became convinced that the United States policy of pursuing the air war was a bad policy as it was killing thousands of civilians. He was the first American journalist to report on the war from North Vietnam and among the first to oppose the war.

Salisbury also traveled extensively in China. He witnessed the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that led to a bloody massacre at the hands of the Chinese military.

Salisbury's books include American in Russia (1955), The Shook-Up Generation (1968), Behind the Lines: Hanoi (1967), Orbit of China (1967), War Between Russia and China (1969), The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969), The Gates of Hell (1975), Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1978), Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980), Journey For Our Times (autobiography) (1983), China: 100 Years of Revolution (1983), The Long March: The Untold Story (1985), Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June (1989), The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (1992), Heroes of My Time (1993).

Salisbury died from a sudden heart attack in Connecticut in 1993 at the age of 84.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

R.L. Stevenson wrote Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson
It is the birthday of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850), who wrote such classics as Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Black Arrow (1888). He also wrote two volumes of poetry, A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) and Underwoods (1887).

Treasure Island was Stevenson's first widely popular novel. Stevenson's tale of pirates and buried treasure on tropical islands gave us many of the conventions of pirate stories known today, including peg-legged sailors with parrots on their shoulders, treasure maps with X marking the spot where the gold is buried, and the perilous Black Spot that indicated a verdict of guilty among pirates.

Stevenson's works have been reissued numerous times. Among the most well known and best regarded are volumes illustrated by artist N.C.Wyeth. Stevenson's most popular writing also has been adapted for film, television, and the theater.

Stevenson was born in Scotland and grew up there, but he also lived in France, England, the United States and the South Pacific. Stevenson was sickly as a child and much of his adult life. He lived for a time on the French Riviera to recuperate. As a young man, he visited a cousin in England and became part of London literary circles.

In 1878, Stevenson went to California to see an American woman whom he had met in France. The trip was arduous for him, and he was near death by the time he got to San Francisco. He finally connected with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the American divorcee,  who nursed him back to health. He and Fanny were married in 1880. For seven years, they lived in Scotland and England. These were his most productive years.

In 1888, Stevenson and his family hired yacht and sailed from San Francisco for an extend voyage throughout the South Pacific. They visited the Hawaiian Island, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Samoan Islands. In 1890, Stevenson bought 300 acres on Upolu, one of the Samoan Islands, and became known among the Samoans as Tusitala (teller of tales). He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the end of 1894. His Samoan friends carried his body on their shoulders to Mount Vaea and buried him in a place overlooking the sea.

His tombstone carries a line from one of his poems: "Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/ And the hunter home from the hill."

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