Saturday, June 30, 2012

John Gay's 18th century work endures

It is the birthday of English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685), whose satirical ballad opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) featured the characters Captain Macheath, a highwayman and his lover, Polly Peachum, and inspired a modern-day musical and an enduring popular song.

Gay's satirical work skewered the government of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister, and its tolerance for the illegal activities of infamous criminal Jonathan Wild and robber Jack Sheppard. It was quite popular in its time and made Gay a wealthy man. Gay was a contemporary of poet Alexander Pope and satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), who encouraged is work.

More than 200 years later, German dramatist  Bertolt  Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were inspired to create The Threepeny Opera, based on Gay's work. They wrote the enduring song The Ballad of Mack the Knife, the best-known recording of which was made by Louis Armstrong in 1956, though a close contender could be Bobby Darin's version in 1959.

Here is Armstrong's 1959 performance of a song written in 1933 based on a work originally used to poke fun at English nobility  in 1728. Enjoy!

Friday, June 29, 2012

John Toland wrote of Hitler, WWII

John Toland
It is the birthday of author and historian John Toland (1912), whose book The Rising Sun, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Toland conducted interviews with Japanese government officials who had survived the war and pored over personal letters and official field reports from military commanders to construct a history of the Pacific war from the Japanese perspective. His was the first such effort in English.

Toland may be best known for his Adolph Hitler: The Definitive Biography (1976), an exhaustive study of the German dictator that reprinted texts of many of his speeches, including the earliest ones before he came to power. The book provided many previously unknown details about the man. Toland tried to provide an objective view of Hitler, an effort that drew criticism and accusations of being a Nazi.

Toland also wrote Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath (1982), in which he argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and top government officials knew in advance that Japan planned to attack the United States but did nothing about it because they wanted war with Japan. It was a position that drew much criticism from historians and journalists.

Toland once said he considered his histories to be drama and he tried to remove himself from the storytelling and let the characters act on their own. He traveled extensively to gather personal accounts and see the places where the history took place.

Toland wanted to become a playwright. When he was 14 years old, a playwright had  come to live in his family's home. He was greatly impressed and decided that would be his career. In his senior year in college, he managed a student book store and saved up more than $5,000 to go to Yale Drama School. While he was working he was offered a job by a man from Esso, the oil company (later Exxon), to become a junior executive with a good salary and go to the South Pacific. He refused the offer and the Esso man was incredulous. "What a waste of talent," he said.

Later Toland liked to tell people he made all that money so he could write, not because he liked to make money. "Otherwise, I might have eventually become head of Exxon. Wouldn't that be terrible?"

Toland's early career as a writer was dismal. He wrote 25 plays, six novels and 100 short stories. None of them was ever published. In 1954, he finally sold a short story to American Magazine for $165.

His first published book, Ships in the Sky (1957), was about dirigibles, including the ill-fated Hindenburg, the German passenger airship that caught fire and was destroyed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Toland interviewed survivors and presented a harrowing account of the accident in his book.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rousseau wrote philosophy, music

It is the 300th birthday of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712), whose book Confessions (1782) was among the first of modern autobiographies. He philosophical works influenced thought that led to the French Revolution. Rousseau wrote extensively on the nature of man, social issues, politics, child rearing, and religion. He wrote novels as well as philosophical pieces. Rousseau also found time to write music, completing seven operas. Here is music from his one-act opera Devin du Village. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Helen Keller: author, political activist

Helen Keller
It is the birthday of author and political activist Helen Keller (1880), whose autobiography The Story of My Life (1903) recounts her triumphant struggle to overcome her deafness and blindness and get an education. She wrote it while she was in school at Radcliffe College, from which she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1904.

Keller became deaf and blind from disease she contracted as an infant. Beginning in 1886, she was trained from childhood by Anne Sullivan, who was first her teacher, then her governess and finally her companion. Sullivan helped Keller for 49 years until her death in 1936.

Keller's account of her life and her development under the direction of Sullivan was the basis of a series of productions called The Miracle Worker. It was first presented as a Playhouse 90 television production in 1957. It became a Broadway play in 1959, and a Hollywood film in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was remade for TV in 1979 and 2000. The title came from friend Mark Twain, who referred to Sullivan as "the miracle worker." She was also friends with Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell.

Politically, Keller was a socialist, radical leftist, and anti-war activist. She was a member of the Wobblies, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. She actively campaigned for workers' rights, women's suffrage, birth control, and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.

Keller wrote 12 books, including The World I Live In (1908), about her world; Out of the Dark (1913), about socialism; and Light in My Darkness (1934), about religion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pearl S. Buck wrote of Chinese peasants

Pearl S. Buck
It is the birthday of writer Pearl S. Buck (1892), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel The Good Earth and the Nobel Prize for Literature for her epic writing about Chinese peasants and her biographies.

Buck's parents were Presbyterian missionaries and took her to China when she was only three months old. She grew up in China and, except for four years of college in Virginia, lived there until 1934.

She married John Lossing Buck in 1917. He was an agricultural economist. They lived in Nanking for 13 years and both taught at the University of Nanking. They left in 1934 with the rise of political unrest and the Communist Party. The Good Earth (1931) is set in a rural Chinese village before World War II. It is part of an ambitious trilogy that also includes Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). The books introduced Americans to Chinese peasant culture.

The Good Earth was adapted as a Broadway play in 1932 and as a film in 1937.  Buck wrote more than 40 books, including two biographies about her mother's life as a missionary, two autobiographies, and numerous short stories. 

She was outraged at the plight of mixed race children born to Asian women, often left abandoned by American servicemen. In 1949, she established an international adoption agency for mixed race children, who were otherwise considered unadoptable. In 1964, she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to support children in Asian countries who weren't eligible for adoption. Today Pearl S. Buck International continues to operate the agencies she started and preserve her legacy.

Monday, June 25, 2012

George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, 1984

George Orwell
It is the birthday of novelist George Orwell, whose best-known books, Animal Farm (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), warn of social ills. Both are considered among the best English language novels of the 20th century. 

Animal Farm is a biting satire that criticizes Stalinist Russia and the Soviet regime that ran the country, and the corruption of original socialist ideas, which Orwell supported. One main principle of the Animal Farm society begins as "All animals are equal" but eventually becomes "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others." 

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a society ruled by a totalitarian group known as The Party and a enigmatic dictator known as Big Brother, a term that has entered the popular vocabulary along with thought police, Newspeak, Oldspeak, doublethink, crimethink, ungood, unperson and more. Orwell's work gave rise to the term Orwellian to describe an authoritarian society or concept. Orwell's name was actually Eric Blair. 

He chose the pseudonym George Orwell because of his love of the Orwell River, a waterway in Suffolk County, England, where he lived much of his life. Orwell worked as a journalist for several newspapers and contributed to numerous magazines. His Homage to Catalonia (1938) tells of his experiences as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. His Burmese Days (1934) is based on his time as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jean Anouilh wrote The Lark and Becket

Jean Anouilh
It is the birthday of French dramatist Jean Anouilh (1910), who is best known for plays Traveler Without Baggage (1939), Antigone (1944), The Lark (1953), and Becket (1959).

Traveler Without Baggage is about an amnesiac World War I veteran who reinvents his sordid past to give himself peace in the future. Antigone was a rewriting of the ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles, and deals with the conflict of practical compromise and idealism. It was first presented in occupied France during World War II and was seen as a veiled criticism of the Vichy government that cooperated with the German occupiers.

The Lark was about the French heroine Joan of Arc, and focused on her rejection of authority. Becket was about English martyr Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury until he was murdered by supporters of King Henry II.

His career spanned half a century, and his work changed and evolved throughout his lifetime. He grouped his lighter comedies and fairy tales as his "pink plays" and his darker realistic dramas and tragedies as "black plays." He classified his historical plays as "costume plays."

His work in the 1940s and 1950s, he called his "brilliant plays," which had settings of wealth and grandeur and featured witty dialogue, and his "grating plays," which were more bitter black comedies. Near the end of his life, he wrote what came to be called his "secret dramas," and were far more focused on the theater itself, dealing with the creative process, writer's block, actors and directors.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Rare Book Moment: Early children's books

Michael Slicker discusses children's books in the 19th century. Michael Slicker's Rare Book Moment is recorded at Lighthouse Books, ABAA in St. Petersburg, Florida. Music by Jack Payne: Back to Those Happy Days

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mary McCarthy wrote The Group

Mary McCarthy
It is the birthday of writer Mary McCarthy (1912), who is most remembered for her popular novel The Group (1963), which examines the post-college lives of eight women who graduated together from Vassar College during the Great Depression. It deals with the women's views on sex, love, psychoanalysis and socialism. The book remained on The New York Times best-seller list for two years.

McCarthy, who was never as well known as her actor brother Kevin McCarthy, was a Communist sympathizer in the 1930s, a Trotskyite, and a vocal opponent of Stalinism. Later, she vigorously opposed the Vietnam war and wrote articles supporting the Vietcong. She contributed to The New York Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and The New Republic.

She served as an editor of The Partisan Review, a literary journal she helped revive in 1937 with its founder, Philip Rahv, with whom she had an affair.

She famously feuded with writer Lillian Hellman, who was also a left-wing writer. Some scholars attribute the feud to differences in degrees of liberalism or professional jealousy. Others say Hellman once tried to seduce McCarthy's lover, Philip Rahv.

In any case, on PBS in 1979, McCarthy told interviewer Dick Cavett that "… every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " Hellman didn't think the comment was that funny. She sued McCarthy for $2.25 million. The lawsuit never came to trial, though. Hellman died and her executors dropped the case. McCarthy had prepared by fact-checking Hellman's work and finding many errors. She was disappointed not to have her day in court. "I didn't want her to die," said McCarthy. "I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that."

Writer Nora Ephron wrote a musical, Imaginary Friends (2002), in which she creates a fictional conversation between McCarthy and Hellman. It examines how similar they were and tries to imagine why they hated each other.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lillian Hellman wrote The Children's Hour

Lillian Hellman
It is the birthday of playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905), whose "tough broad" lifestyle may have made her as memorable as her work. She drank, she smoked, she cursed, she fought and she loved in the grand style of contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.

She carried on a long-term love affair with detective writer Dashiell Hammett, who encouraged her to write her first play. The Children's Hour (1934) explored abuse of power, and it ran on Broadway for more than two years. It concerned two women who run a girls' boarding school and are accused falsely by an angry student of carrying on a lesbian affair.

She publicly supported the Spanish leftists against the Franco forces, she was briefly and nominally a member of the Communist Party, but mainly she was fiercely independent, saying it was clear to her she was not suited for any political party. In the 1950s, she was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but refused to name names, instead testifying only about herself.

Her best-known play may be The Little Foxes (1939), about siblings struggling for the control of the family business. It is considered a scathing critique of capitalism. It starred Tallulah Bankhead in the premiere performance, and ran for more than four years on Broadway. It has been revived many times and was adapted for film by Hellman in 1941, The film starring Bette Davis was nominated for nine Oscars.

Her play Watch on the Rhine (1941) deals with a family's struggle against the rise of Fascism in Germany before World War II. It, too, was made into a film, also starring Bette Davis. Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay.

Hellman's The Lark (1955) is an English adaptation of a French play about Joan of Arc. Her Toys in the Attic (1960) is a family drama set in her native New Orleans. She had no involvement in the film of the same name, which flopped.

She won the National Book Award for her memoir, An Unfinished Woman (1969). Part of her second memoir, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), was the basis of the Oscar-winning film Julia (1977), starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Her third memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), dealt with her experience in testifying before Congress during the McCarthy era. Her short novel, Maybe: A Story (1980), was published as fiction but includes the author, Hammett and other real people. Some critics suggested that it was another installment of her memoirs.

Hellman died in 1984 at her home in Martha's Vineyard. She was 79 years old.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hobson wrote Gentleman's Agreement

Laura Z. Hobson
It is the birthday of writer Laura Z. Hobson (1900), whose best-selling novel Gentleman's Agreement (1947) examined antisemitism in New York City and the affluent Connecticut suburbs. It was a controversial book and a sensation throughout the country. Hobson's parents, Michael and Adella Zametkin, were Russian Jewish immigrants who fled their homeland after her father was tortured and imprisoned for being a socialist. He became a labor organizer and editor of a prominent Jewish newspaper In New York. Hobson was educated at Cornell University and became an advertising copywriter. He married a fellow student and divorced after five years, producing no children. She adopted a son then became pregnant and had her second son under an assumed name, then formally adopted him so both sons would be adopted. She raised them as a single parent at a time when that was not socially acceptable. She kept the circumstances from her children until they were grown. Hobson also wrote The Tenth Month (1970), about an unwed mother; Consenting Adult (1975), about a mother's discovery that her son is gay; and other books based on various aspects of her life. Gentleman's Agreement tells the story of a gentile magazine writer who decides to tell people he is Jewish to do research on an article about antisemitism. It was adapted for a movie starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield in 1947.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Philip Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story

Philip Barry
It is the birthday of playwright Philip Barry (1896), who wrote his best-known work, The Philadelphia Story, especially for his friend Katherine Hepburn. Barry was educated at Yale and studied drama at Harvard. He wrote comedies about high society, circles within which he moved, and he had several Broadway successes. Hepburn starred in a film version of his 1928 play, Holiday, which skewered materialism. In the late 1930s, Hepburn's career was on a downturn. She had had a string of box-office flops and was looking for a winner. (She had been turned down for the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.)  Barry was working on an idea for a play inspired by a prominent young Philadelphia socialite who had married a classmate of his.  She was Helen Hope Montgomery, a free-spirited daughter of a Philadelphia investment banker and a highly visible member of the WASP Main Line society. Hepburn liked Barry's idea and helped him shape it from the story of a prominent family under siege from the press on the eve of their daughter's second wedding to the story of the daughter's transformation from an ice queen to a vulnerable real woman. Hepburn's ex-boyfriend, Howard Hughes, put up a large share of the money for the production. It opened in March 1939 to appreciative audiences and rave reviews. Hepburn had chosen to take 10 per cent of the gross instead of a salary. The show made more than $1.5 million. Hughes bought the film rights for Hepburn and she sold them to MGM for $250,000 and the right to choose the director and leading men. She wanted Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable (who weren't available) so she chose Cary Grant and James Stewart. The film adaptation was an enormous box-office success, and was nominated for several Oscars, though the only ones who won were James Stewart for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Screenplay. Barry's play was adapted again as the 1956 musical High Society, starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, with the music of Cole Porter. The movie was adapted as a Broadway musical in 1998.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

John H. Griffin wrote Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin
It is the birthday of writer John Howard Griffin, whose best-selling book Black Like Me (1961) chronicled his experiences in the Deep South in 1959 passing as a black man after darkening his skin. He wrote of the discrimination he received from both whites and blacks as he traveled through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana. He used a series of prescription drugs, skin creams and sunlamp treatments to change his appearance. He also shaved his head so his straight hair wouldn't show. He traveled from town to town hitchhiking or riding the bus. He told of the struggle to find food, shelter, and toilet facilities. Bus drivers, shop clerks, ticket sellers, and others displayed hatred toward him. He was surprised some white men were curious about his sex life. James Whitmore starred in a 1964 film adaptation of the book. Griffin produced about a dozen books, including some photography volumes. He did research for a biography on his friend, American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, but didn't finish it before his death in 1980. His book Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, the Hermitage years 1965-1968 was published in 1993.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rare Book Moment: How old is that map?

Welcome to another edition of Rare Book Moment. If you like it, share it!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stowe is famous for Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe
It is the birthday of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811), whose best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin brought her international fame and financial security. The book helped fire up the abolitionist movement and, some historians say, helped set the stage for the Civil War. It was first published in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper National Era, starting in June 1851. She expected to write only a few installments but response was so great that she ended up writing 40 episodes. It was published as a book in March 1852. Stowe, the daughter of a minister and educator, was taught early to debate issues of the day and make her case forcefully. She began writing at age 7,  winning a school essay contest. She continued to write all her life, completing more than 30 books, including novels, text books, advice books and biographies. With her sister, Catherine, she wrote The American Home, a homemaking advice book. She married a professor, Calvin Ellis Stowe, and they had seven children. Her husband taught at a seminary in Cincinnati. Later he taught at Bowdoin College in Maine, and she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin there. Still later the family settled in Hartford, Connecticut. With her earnings from Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe bought a cottage and orange grove on the banks of the St. Johns River in Mandarin, south of Jacksonville in 1872. Her family wintered there for 17 years until Calvin was too ill to travel from their home in Hartford. Well known by then, Stowe charged 75 cents each to tourists who came by steamboats to meet her and visit her home. Stowe wrote Palmetto Leaves,  a book extolling the virtues of Florida as an idyllic playground for tourists seeking to escape the chilly northland.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

W.B. Yeats won Nobel Prize for Literature

William Butler Yeats
It is the birthday of Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats (1865), whose body of work representing Irish literature won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which featured the work of Irish playwrights. Yeats was closely associated with the Irish Literary Renaissance, the revival of Irish literature in the late 19th and early 20th century and he is considered a leading figure in 20th century English-language literature. Some scholars consider Yeats to be representative of the transition between the centuries, similar to the way Picasso represented the transition to modern art. Still, Yeats work has little in common with such modernists Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. For a time, Pound served as secretary to Yeats. Early in his life Yeats fell in love with ardent Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. However, she turned down his proposals several times and ended up marrying someone else. They maintained a lifelong relationship. When he was 51, Yeats proposed to, Georgie Hyde-Lees, the 25-year-old friend of one of his old flames. They were married until his death in 1939 and produced two children. Yeats was fascinated with mysticism and the occult for most of his life, and he and Georgie experimented with "automatic writing," which is claimed to be influenced by  spiritual sources. Yeats is known for his use of symbolism in his work. His early writing was influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelly, Edmund Spenser, and William Blake. His poetry collections include The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robares and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), and Last Poems and Plays (1940). Among his plays are The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The King's Threshold (1904), and Deirdre (1907).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Johanna Spyri wrote children's book Heidi

Johanna Spyri
It is the birthday of Swiss writer Johanna Spyri, whose book Heidi (1872) earned her a place in Swiss literary history.

The children's story about an orphan girl who is taken to live with her gruff grandfather in a secluded cottage in the Swiss Alps. He initially resents her presence but she eventually cracks his crusty exterior and she thrives, only to be taken away to live with a wealthy family in Frankfurt. Heidi becomes homesick (and physically ill) and eventually returns to her grandfather.

The book was quite popular in Spyri's lifetime and has never been out of print. Scholars think Spyri might have borrowed from an 1830 German book Adelaid: The Girl from the Alps. The two have similar plot lines and settings.  Spyri also vacationed in the book's locale for several summers.

Heidi spawned numerous live action films, animated films and television productions, as well as sequels written by Spyri's English translator long after her death.

Famously, one television version gave rise to the Heidi Game, a dark day in the annals of television broadcasting.

It happened on November 16, 1968, a Sunday evening. The Oakland Raiders were locked in a fierce battle on their home field with the New York Jets. NBC was broadcasting the game. The score was 32-29, New York winning. There were 65 seconds left on the clock.  Oakland had the ball on its own 23-yard line. Football fans all over America eagerly awaited the outcome of the game. Meanwhile, Heidi fans all over American eagerly awaited the premiere of a new TV movie about the Swiss Alps girl that was to start at 7 p.m.

NBC cut to a commercial and never came back to the game. Instead, the scheduled Heidi movie began on the East Coast. Football fans were outraged. Heidi fans were gleeful.

Football fans learned later that in those 65 seconds Oakland scored twice to win the game 43-32. The furor went on for weeks. When it was all sorted out, it developed that NBC had originally planned to switch to Heidi no matter what but thousands of calls from football fans lit up the NBC switchboards and NBC officials decided to stay with the game and delay the beginning of Heidi.

Trouble was, they couldn't get a call through to the control room. Why? Because football fans and Heidi fans were tying up all the circuits trying to find out what NBC was planning to do.

In the aftermath, professional sports organizations began stipulating in their contracts that their games had to be shown in their entirety. Furthermore, NBC installed a red hotline in their control room, a direct line immune to phone circuit tie-ups so that such a situation would never occur again. The line was called the Heidi Phone.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

John H. Payne wrote Home, Sweet Home

John Howard Payne
It is the birthday of actor, poet, and playwright John Howard Payne (1793), who is remembered for one song, Home, Sweet Home (1822), a lyric for which he initially received no credit.

Payne wrote numerous plays and translated many from French, but most are ignored today. He was a child prodigy, who started working in theater at age 16 to help support the family after his mother died and his father went bankrupt and became ill. He was immensely successful, the toast of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities where his company toured.

He went to London as a young man and was well received there, too, though not as popular as in the United States. He was commissioned to go to France to watch live theater and write English translations that could be quickly produced in Britain, a practice that created a hubbub in England and public debate about plagiarism. While he was in Paris and growing homesick and a bit melancholy, he wrote the verses that became his signature song.

 He also wrote plays—more than 60 all together— and in one instance, a package of three for Covent Garden Theatre that he sold for 230 pounds. One of them was already being presented by another theater so he reworked the plot, added some songs (including Home, Sweet Home) and turned it into an opera titled Clari; or the Maid of Milan. The production was wildly popular, especially Home, Sweet Home. The song made the Covent Garden and the music publisher very wealthy. The tune, based on an Italian folk song Payne had heard and suggested to the arranger, Sir Henry Bishop, was credited to Bishop when it was published. Payne wasn't mentioned.  Some 100,000 copies were sold out immediately. After two years, the publisher’s profit was said to be 2,000 guineas.

Later, when Payne returned to the United States, he toured with artist John James Audubon, and stayed with the Cherokee tribe in Georgia, studying their culture.  It was a time of great unrest, and the Cherokees were being encouraged by the federal government to move to Indian Territory west  of the Mississippi River. Payne liked to tell an anecdote about being arrested by Georgia state militia while meeting with Cherokee Chief John Ross. One of the soldiers guarding him often whistled Home, Sweet Home. When Payne told him he wrote the song, the soldier told him he was sure that wasn't true. He had seen it in a songbook.

At some point, Payne gained recognition for the song. When he was in Washington, D.C., Payne sat in a box seat at a concert by Jenny Lind.  She sang her program of classical pieces then, acquiescing to the audience's wishes, performed Home, Sweet Home. She stood right in front of Payne’s box seat. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even the hard boiled secretary of state, Daniel Webster, wept.

 Payne served as the American consul in Tunis for 10 years, and he died and was buried there. Such was his fame in America 30 years later (because of the song), that a wealthy industrialist paid to have his remains disinterred and brought home. The arrival in New York was chronicled in all the papers and a huge crowd turned out as a band played Home, Sweet Home. Amid much pomp and circumstance, and the attendance of thousands, including the President and high government officials, he was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, near Washington, D.C. on his 91st anniversary of his birthday.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Happy birthday, Robert Schumann

It is the birthday of German composer Robert Schumann (1810), who wanted to become a great pianist but hurt his and ended his career. He turned to composing instead. Fortunately. Schumann's work, beautiful in itself, also influenced Johannes Brahms and Edward Elgar. Here's one of the world's greatest pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, playing one of Schumann's best known pieces, Traumerei.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

R.D. Blackmore wrote Lorna Doone

R.D. Blackmore
It is the birthday of English novelist R.D. Blackmore (1925), whose romantic novel Lorna Doone (1869) achieved great success in both England and the United States, spawned several movie and TV adaptations, and even inspired a cookie. Blackmore was immensely popular in England at the end of the 19th century but most of his 21novels have been largely forgotten. Blackmore was admired for his vivid language in describing the countryside of Devon in Western England, where his works are set. He produced a strong sense of place and is especially lauded for his connection with nature. He took great pains to make his dialogue reflect the speech patterns of the characters of his region. His most popular novel has never been out of print. The title character, whose name apparently had Scottish origins, is the granddaughter of the head of a clan of outlaws. She falls in love with the son of a prominent farmer who was brutally murdered by her clan. The story is set in the late 17th century against a backdrop of actual historical events, though Blackmore wasn't inclined to call it a historical novel. Many events are set on dates specifically mentioned in the book. The story was filmed at least five times, the best known version, perhaps, being the 1951 production starring Barbara Hale and Richard Greene. It also was a TV series at least twice. As for the cookie, Nabisco says its version of Lorna Doone is a shortbread cookie introduced in 1912. Shortbread is said to have originated in Scotland and is made all over the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Happy birthday, Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin
It is the birthday of Russian novelist and poet Alexander Pushkin (1799), who is widely considered the father of Russian literature. Pushkin was easily insulted and was forever fighting duels. He is said to have fought 29 of them, the last one leading to his demise. He fought with his brother-in-law, whom he had long suspected of trying to seduce his wife. Each shot the other but Pushkin's stomach wound proved fatal. He died at 37, a literary life tragically cut short. He wrote plays, novels, fairy tales and poetry. Pushkin's play, Boris Godunov (1831), dealt with a Russian czar who ruled in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but the play wasn't cleared by censors for production until 1866. Many of Pushkin's works were critical of the Russian ruling class, earning him unwanted attention from the secret police. Pushkin's novel, Eugene Onegin (1833), is a Russian classic written entirely in verse. It was first published in serialized form over seven years, beginning in 1825. The saga follows the life of a selfish and superficial young nobleman whose life consists only of parties, balls and concerts. The story ends tragically, Onegin a victim of his own selfishness. Pushkin is credited with creating the style of Russian literature that would influence writers Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and others. Pushkin was known for his rich vocabulary. In fact, if he couldn't find a Russian word to express his meaning, he frequently borrowed words from other languages and Russianized them. Pushkin's work inspired operas, ballets and cantatas. Composers wrote music for his verses.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Happy birthday, Federico Garcia Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca
It is the birthday of Spanish dramatist and poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898), who is considered one of the greatest of Spain's 20th century poets. He was assassinated at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. A collector of folk songs and lore, he was known in his lifetime for his work rooted in the Andalucia section of southern Spain. The Gypsy Ballads (1928) was translated into English in 1953. He also wrote of flamenco dancing, bullfighting, and Andalucian culture. Lorca also was known for his plays, though his career as a dramatist began rather inauspiciously. His first play, The Butterfly's Evil Spell (1920), about an unlikely love affair between a butterfly and a beetle, was laughed off the stage after only four performances. His second, however, was quite a success. Mariana Pineda (1927) told the story of a folklore heroine from Granada who famously opposed King Ferdinand VII. Salvador Dali designed the sets. The political theme proved popular throughout Spain. Garcia Lorca was associated with the artists group Generation of '27, where he met Dali and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Garcia Lorca came to America in 1929 and stayed in New York, though he also visited Vermont and Cuba. When he returned to Spain, he ran a government-sponsored traveling theater company that presented his plays and others throughout the country. When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Garcia Lorca was arrested by Nationalist militia the same day his brother-in-law, who was a Socialist, was murdered and dragged through the streets of Granada. His body was never found. Scholars still investigate the circumstances of his death as well as his work, some of which has been published only recently. Garcia Lorca produced at least 14 poetry collections, 15 plays, and other writings. He also produced drawings and paintings.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Happy birthday, Robert Anderson

Robert Anderson
It is the birthday of playwright and screenwriter Robert Anderson (1917), whose Broadway play Tea and Sympathy (1953) was the story of a sensitive, artistic prep school boy who falls in love with the housemaster's wife. Anderson, who was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, based the play on personal experience. In the play, the housemaster's wife draws the young man into an sexual encounter, then later leaves her husband. At the end of the play she takes the student in her arms and says, "Years from now when you talk of this, and you will, be kind." The play starred Deborah Kerr and John Kerr (who were not related). They also starred in the 1956 film adaptation. Anderson also wrote Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959), a Christmas story about two married strangers who are instantly attracted to each other; You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967), a collection of four one-act comedies about sex; and I Never Sang For My Father (1968), a middle-aged college professor's difficult relationship with his father. Anderson also wrote screenplays for The Nun's Story (1959) and The Sand Pebbles (1966). Anderson's first wife, Phyllis Stohl, was a playwright's agent and director. She died of cancer in 1956. He wrote about the experience of caring for her over several years in a novel, After (1973). Anderson married actress Teresa Wright in 1959. They divorced after 19 years but remained close friends.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Happy birthday, poet John Masefield

John Masefield
It is the birthday of English poet and novelist John Masefield (1878), who served as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for 37 years. He is best known for his poems Sea-Fever (1902) and The Everlasting Mercy (1911) and the children's novels The Midnight Folk (1927) and its sequel, The Box of Delights (1935). Less known, except by scholars, are 19 poetry collections and 24 novels and five plays, plus several non-fiction pieces. Masefield's mother died when he was six and his father died soon after. Young John was educated in boarding schools and then sent to a training ship at 16 to get his voracious reading habit out of his system. On board, he found plenty of time to read and write, and he decided to become a storyteller. Still a teenager, he shipped out on a tall-masted merchant ship bound for New York but he jumped ship when he got there and stayed in America for a couple of years. While in New York, he happened to read a poem by Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott that inspired him to become a poet. He worked odd jobs and spent his spare money on books, reading Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas as well as classical literature. When he returned to England, Masefield married, had children, and kept on writing. His first poetry collection, Salt-Water Ballads, appeared when he was 24. The first stanza of Sea-Fever reads: "I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky,/And all that I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,/And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,/And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking."

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