Saturday, September 29, 2012

'Mrs. Gaskell' wrote Victorian novels

Elizabeth Gaskell
It is the birthday of English novelist Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1910), who examined the plight of the poor in Victorian England in her novels, Mary Barton (1848), Cranford 1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865).

She was a friend of Charles Dickens, who published her Gothic ghost stories and other works in his journal Household Words, among them Cranford, North and South, and My Lady Ludlow

She wrote the first biography of her friend, Charlotte Brontë, which helped develop Bronte's reputation as a writer. The Life of Charlotte Bronte was published 1857, after Bronte's death. Gaskell used hundreds of letters, supplied by a friend of Bronte's, in writing the volume. Gaskell included a lot of details, but omitted the fact that Bronte was in love with a married man on the grounds that it would cause harm to her friend's family.

Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, deals with a working class young woman and her family in Manchester in the Victorian era. It was originally published anonymously. Later, her books followed Victorian convention and were signed "by Mrs. Gaskell."

Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister and the values of the denomination appear in her works, although she tried to keep her beliefs hidden. Gaskell's work is known for its use of local dialect in her characters' speech, including colloquialisms such as "nesh," meaning unusually susceptible to cold weather, and "unked," meaning old, strange, ugly or lonely.

Friday, September 28, 2012

James Campbell: popular poet in late 1880s

James Edwin Campbell
It is the birthday of black poet James Edwin Campbell (1867), whose best remembered poems are in the dialect of his subjects and vernacular of the 1880s and 1890s. He wrote for daily newspapers in Chicago, particularly the Times-Herald, and was widely celebrated at the turn of the century.

His best known work is Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere (1895), a collection of his poetry that critics say is one of the finest 19th century collections of dialect poems. Echoes mixes folk wisdom and realism with authentic, rhythmic dialect. Campbell also published Driftings and Gleanings (1887), a collection of standard English poems and essays.

James Weldon Johnson selected Campbell's work to be included in the collection he edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).

Little is known about Campbell's early life other than the fact that he was born in Pomeroy, Ohio. He died there of pneumonia in 1896, at the age of 28. He was a teacher in Ohio and then served as principal of Langston School in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and as the first president of West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University).

Some scholars suggest that Campbell's work might have served as a model for the poems of his contemporary, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Campbell had been publishing his poetry for several years before Dunbar came to public notice.

Campbell's work appeared in Four O'Clock Magazine, a popular monthly periodical devoted to original writing. It was published five years before it merged into The Philharmonic, a magazine devoted to the modern arts.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Happy birthday, Louis Auchincloss

Louis Auchincloss
It is the birthday of writer Louis Auchincloss (1917), who wrote novels and short stories about the WASP society of New York and New England to which he belonged. He was considered a novelist of manners in the vein of Edith Wharton, about whom he wrote and whom he admired.

Auchincloss wrote about 70 books, the best known of which was The Rector of Justin (1964), a tale of the founding headmaster of an exclusive New England prep school. It was a world with which Auchincloss was intimately familiar, as a graduate of the Groton School in Massachusetts. The book has been called a minor masterpiece of 20th century literature.

Auchincloss was born in Long Island to a privileged family and grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He always claimed that there was no Auchincloss fortune. "Each generation of Auchincloss men either made or married its own money," he wrote. He did what was expected of him, studying at Yale and taking a law degree from the University of Virginia, as his father had done, similarly, before him. He loathed law, and was more inclined toward artistic pursuits like his mother.

Auchincloss worked for a Wall Street law firm for 32 years and was successful at it, limiting his writing to weekends. He tried once, in the early 1950s, to write full time, but went back to a law firm because he was feeling disconnected from "the real world." His law career is made evident, through reference, in much of his work.

Auchincloss' career spanned 70 years and his work reflected his privileged background in the northeast establishment. The Embezzler (1966) examines the life of a Wall Street stockbroker who gives in to opportunity to steal during the Great Depression.

He tells the stories of multiple generations of upper crust families in such works as The House of Five Talents (1960), Portrait in Brownstone (1962), and East Side Story (2004). His last book was Last of the Old Guard (2008).

Most prestigious book awards eluded him, but he did receive the National Medal of Arts in 2005. He was elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1965.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Happy birthday, George Gershwin

It is the birthday of composer George Gershwin (1898) who wrote popular melodies for Broadway musicals such as Lady, Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1927), Funny Face (1927), Show Girl (1929), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931); but he is best known for such orchestral classics as Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris (1928) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Here is his amazing Rhapsody in Blue. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Happy birthday, William Faulkner

William Faulkner
It is the  birthday of writer William Faulkner (1897), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 for work that included The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932); and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice, first for A Fable (1954) and then for The Reivers (1962).

The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August are considered among the best 20th century novels in the English language. Faulkner is regarded among the most important writers in Southern literature, including Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, and Mark Twain.

Faulkner (originally spelled Falkner) grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, the great-grandson of a Confederate colonel who'd excelled at business, law, agriculture, railroading, and writing. After a childhood sweetheart married someone else, Faulkner went to stay with a lawyer friend in Connecticut, where he worked briefly in a firearms factory.

Faulkner tried to join the U.S. Army Air Force during World War I, but was rejected because he was too short. Instead, he lied his way into the Royal Air Force in Canada, claiming to be British. He changed the spelling of his name to Faulkner because he thought it seemed more British. Faulkner went through training in Toronto, but World War I ended before he ever saw duty at the front.

This didn't keep him from obtaining an officer's uniform and returning home to Oxford in December 1918 to a hero's welcome, regaling friends with his wartime adventures, most of them completely untrue. He even invented injuries he did not have, including a plate in his head.

Faulkner's penchant for telling a good story regardless of the facts was evident in his first published novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926), the tale of a wounded flyer who returns home to a small Georgia town after World War I, escorted by a war widow and a war veteran. The aviator's injury has left him blind and dying, and his fiance had been unfaithful. The drama includes the widow's desire to marry him. Some characters in the novel, through circumstance, were robbed of the opportunity to see combat, just as with Faulkner.

The book received mixed reviews, some writers calling it mediocre and full of uneven characters. Nevertheless, most critics found it worthy of praise. A critic wrote in The New Statesman: "I can remember no first novel of such magnificent achievement in the last thirty years."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Happy birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

It is the birthday of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896), who is best remembered for his Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby (1925), which is considered to be among the best 20th century novels in the English language. The volume is a study of the pursuit of love and money in the Prohibition era, but it was an earlier examination of the same subject that gave Fitzgerald his start.

His first published novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), a tale of a young man and his search for love in the period right after World War I, is partly based on his courtship of Zelda Sayre, whom he met while in the Army and stationed in Montgomery, Alabama.

Zelda came from a prominent Southern family. Her father was a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and her great uncle was a U.S. Senator. Her grandfather was the editor of a newspaper in Montgomery. Zelda was bright, rambunctious, and given to eyebrow-raising antics. She once wore a flesh-colored bathing suit to spur rumors that she swam nude. She started drinking and smoking in high school, along with spending time alone with boys, a practice that was discouraged in proper society at the time.

Fitzgerald was smitten with her and, in fact, changed the main character in his novel to more resemble her. Fitzgerald had written a novel he called The Romantic Egoist and had sent it off to Scribner's before joining the Army. It was returned by editor Maxwell Perkins, with suggestions for revisions.

Zelda was intrigued by Fitzgerald and his notions about achieving fame and fortune through his writing, but she wasn't certain that he could support her. In the summer of 1919, she broke off their relationship. Fitzgerald, now 22, returned home to St. Paul, Minnesota, to finish revising his novel, which he believed would become an instant success and would help him win Zelda's heart. Fitzgerald used about 80 pages from his original story, but heavily reworked it according to Perkins' suggestions.

Fitzgerald worked feverishly on the novel and finished it by September. It was accepted by Scribner's and Fitzgerald rushed back to Zelda in Montgomery, where their relationship resumed. Fitzgerald convinced Zelda to agree to marry him, though her family and friends didn't approve of young Fitzgerald. He drank too much, they thought, and besides, he was Catholic, a fact that gained him no points among her Episcopalian family members.

Still, Zelda agreed to the engagement. This Side of Paradise was published in March 1920 and it sold out its original printing in three days. Fitzgerald sent a telegram to Zelda requesting that she come to New York. They were married in St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 3.

The rest of that year and the following year, the novel went through twelve printings. The Fitzgeralds celebrated in wild flapper style. They became legendary. Their excessive drinking and partying got them kicked out of two hotels. F. Scott and Zelda were iconic — the epitome of youthful success in the Jazz Age.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Philip Stanhope wrote Letters to his Son

Earl of Chesterfield
It is the birthday of Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694), a British statesman who is best remembered in literary circles for a volume he never intended to be published.

Letters to his Son (1774) is a collection of more than 400 letters Stanhope wrote to his illegitimate son over more than 30 years, as instruction on how to conduct himself as a gentleman. They were written in English and French, along with some in Latin. The letters deal with classical literature, history, geography and deportment. They were published by the son's widow after his death.

The volume is generally considered to be full of wit and elegance in style, though some readers find the advice for behaving in polite society in 18th century England a bit stifling. He suggests, for instance, that his son should be seen to smile often but never to laugh out loud (that being a sign of poorly mannered people).

Unfortunately, Chesterfield's worldly wisdom was apparently ignored. When his son died, the earl discovered that he had been married for a long time to a lower class woman, certainly not someone suitable for even the illegitimate son of the Earl of Chesterfield.

Though it has a better reputation these days, when the book came out it received the resounding disapproval of English author and literary critic Samuel Johnson, who wrote that Chesterfield's letters "teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master."

It's not surprising that Johnson might turn his considerable contempt on Chesterfield. Two decades earlier, when Samuel Johnson finally published his seminal work, A Dictionary of the English Language, Chesterfield praised it with two pieces published in The World periodical.

Too little and too late, as far as Johnson was concerned. Chesterfield served ostensibly as patron of the arts and a supporter of Johnson's plan to create a dictionary, but Chesterfield had given him only 10 pounds and no encouragement over the seven years it took to complete the project. So, by the time Chesterfield's praise came, Johnson, through his own efforts, was already well known and had used money from a group of booksellers to make ends meet and pay for publishing his dictionary.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy birthday, H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells
It is the birthday of English writer H.G. Wells (1866), who is best known for the amazing science fiction he wrote, including The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).

When actor/director Orson Welles interviewed Wells after having caused such a stir with his radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, Wells thanked him for   increasing sales of one of his more obscure titles.

Wells was a self-avowed socialist, and for a long time was associated with the socialist Fabian Society, but when Wells' political outlook grew beyond the group, he became very critical of it, accusing adherents of having little understanding of education and economic reform.

Wells was a futurist whose best-selling non-fiction book, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1901), correctly predicted what life would be like at the turn of the next century, including the development of a European Union, the defeat of German militarism, the contribution of cars and trains to the growth of the suburbs, and greater sexual freedom among men and women.

Wells wasn't accurate in all his predictions, though. He didn't think anybody would be flying airplanes before mid century and he didn't think submarines would ever work.

In a lesser known novel, Tono-Bungay (1909), Wells satirizes English society in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, with its greed and obsession with pleasure. The book's protagonist helps his uncle develop a patent medicine, Tono-Bungay, that he believes to be a swindle. It is a semi-autobiographical work, whose protagonist has affairs with two women (as Wells did).

Wells died in London 1946 at age 79. The cause of death was not clear, though some suggested it was a heart attack. In any case, Wells had already said his epitaph should read: "I told you so. You damned fools."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

See you at the Georgia book fair

We're off to the Georgia Fine and Collectible Book Fair this Saturday and Sunday in Marietta, Georgia. Marietta is a northern suburb of Atlanta. We'll be at the Cobb County Civic Center there.

We'll be joining some 40 dealers from throughout the country. We're looking forward to seeing our friends Tom Brennan of T. Brennan, Bookseller, Cliff Graubart of Old New York Book Shop and Jim Strawn of Smythe Books, all regulars at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in March.

We're taking a van load of great volumes, among them choice selections from southern literature, and, of course, leather-bound books, a popular genre in Georgia.

If you're in the area, stop by and see us. Otherwise, we'll see you when we get back.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rare Book Moment: Chromolithography

No. 9: Mike discusses book collecting and the development of a special kind of color printing called chromolithography. 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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy birthday, Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey
It is the birthday of author Ken Kesey (1935), whose novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's News (1962) is considered among the best English language novels in modern times. It was the basis of a Broadway play in 1963 and an Oscar-winning film in 1975.

Kesey wrote the book after working the night shift as an orderly at a mental hospital in California. He earned a degree in speech and communication from the University of Oregon and later studied creative writing at Stanford University, where he was taught by novelist Wallace Stegner, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

While at Stanford, Kesey volunteered for a CIA project to study the effects of LSD and other psychedelic drugs being conducted at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. Kesey wrote extensively about the experiment and his experiences with the drugs and at the hospital. The experiences were the inspiration for Cuckoo's Nest.

Kesey's second published novel, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964), tells the story of an independent logging clan that helps break a strike at an Oregon sawmill. It is considered a masterpiece in Western American literature.  The book was adapted as a 1971 film starring Paul Newman.

When Kesey had to travel to New York for the publication of his second book, his friend Beat writer Neal Cassady organized a cross-country trip in a psychedelic-painted school bus with a group of hangers-on called The Merry Pranksters. Tom Wolfe wrote about the trip in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Kesey also wrote about the trip in his play The Further Inquiry, named after the bus' nickname,

Further. The Merry Pranksters also took the bus to Woodstock in 1969 without Kesey but it was worn out after that so Kesey parked it in a swamp on his Oregon farm in 1989 and bought a new bus, which was painted like the original and also called Further. In 2005, Kesey's son, Zane, pulled the original out of the swamp, and he and a group of original Pranksters have plans to restore it. Both buses remain parked a Kesey's farm.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Happy birthday, James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper
It is the birthday of writer James Fenimore Cooper (1789), who was among the most popular 19th century American authors. His Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is his most well-known work.

The Last of the Mohicans was the second in a series of five novels focused on the character Natty Bumppo, a white man who grew up among Native Americans and became a fierce warrior. He was a sure shot with his flintlock rifle, living by the rule, "One shot, one kill."

Other books in the series  are The Pioneers (1823), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). They are known as the Leatherstocking Tales for Bumppo, who was called Leatherstocking by European settlers.

Cooper was admired throughout the world. Among his fans were transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau (who was a student at Harvard when Cooper's books came out), French novelist Honoré de Balzac, and Austrian composer Franz Schubert (who read Cooper's novels on his deathbed.) French novelist Victor Hugo said Cooper was the master of modern romance.

He had his detractors, too, among them Mark Twain, who thought Cooper's characters were shallow and his plotting flawed. Cooper also incurred the wrath of the Whig-leaning press, who attacked his politics and made scurrilous remarks about him. Cooper sued for libel and won.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hamlin Garland won Pulitzer for biography

Hamlin Garland
It is the birthday of novelist Hamlin Garland (1860), a well known and popular writer in his lifetime who won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922 for his autobiography A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921). The book was a sequel to his popular A Son of the Middle Border (1917).

The books chronicle his experiences as a writer in New York and Boston, and his struggle with reconciling that life with his Middle America roots growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. Much of his writing offered realistic glimpses of Midwestern farm life.

Garland also spent time in the American West and wrote The Book of the American Indian (1923) and a series of fiction western romances, including The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop (1902).

Garland also wrote a biography of Ulysses S. Grant that was published as a series in McClure's Magazine before it was published as a book in 1898. He traveled to Alaska to learn about the gold rush in the Klondike region. His book The Trail of the Gold Seekers (1899) was based on his experiences there.

In 1929, Garland moved to Hollywood. He became interested in psychic phenomena and spent considerable time studying the subject and defending psychic mediums. He wrote Forty Years of Psychic Research (1936). His last book was The Mystery of the Buried Crosses (1939).

He was a prolific writer who produced 46 books as well as short stories, magazine articles, essays, and poems.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Happy birthday to four authors

From left, Sherwood Anderson, Alain Locke, J.B. Priestley, Roald Dahl.
It is the birthday of writers Sherwood Anderson (1876), Alain Locke (1885), J.B. Priestley (1894), and Roald Dahl (1916).

Novelist Sherwood Anderson is best remembered for his collection of short stories Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life (1919), which were based on Sherwood's childhood. It is ranked among the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and is considered one of the earliest examples of Modernist literature. The stories focus on the loneliness and isolation of the people in the fictional town. When he was 36, Anderson was settled with a wife and three children in Ohio. He ran a mail-order business and a paint manufacturing firm. Then he had a nervous breakdown and disappeared for four days. When he was found, he left his family and his previous life and set out to be a writer. He encouraged William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe.

Writer and educator Alain Locke was the first African American Rhodes scholar. He is considered the dean of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, Locke served as editor of one issue of the magazine The Survey Graphic, which focused on life in Harlem. Later, he expanded it into an anthology, The New Negro. The book became a declaration of the principles of the movement that grew into the Harlem Renaissance. He is credited with encouraging Zora Neale Hurston's development as a writer. Locke earned a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard University and taught for many years at Howard University.

Novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley is best remembered for his novel The Good Companions (1929), which tells the stories of a troupe of traveling performers between World War I and World War II. Priestley also wrote theatrical pieces. His best known play is An Inspector Calls (1945), the story of a young working-class woman who commits suicide after exploitation, abandonment and social ruin by members of a prosperous middle-class family. During World War II, Priestley served as a broadcaster for the BBC and became nearly as popular as Winston Churchill.

Novelist and screenwriter Roald Dahl wore for children as well as adults. Among his children's books, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, George's Marvellous Medicine, and The BFG, the amazing story of a Big Friendly Giant who collects good dreams and distributes them to children. He also wrote the screenplays for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Dahl served as a fighter pilot for the RAF in World War II, and later as an intelligence officer. He was married to actress Patricia Neal for 30 years. They had five children. Blood vessels burst in Patricia Neal's brain and she could no longer walk or talk. Dahl directed her rehabilitation and eventually  she regained her health was able to resume her acting career. Dahl wrote the screenplay for the film The Patricia Neal Story, which starred Glinda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde. Dahl and Neale divorced in 1983. He died in 1990.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Happy birthday, H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken
It is the birthday of writer H.L. Mencken (1880), who wrote a syndicated column for The Baltimore Sun for more than four decades, in which he voiced opinions on bigotry, Fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, anti-intellectualism, organized religion, and more. His most enduring book is The American Language (1919), a study of English as it is spoken by ordinary people in the United States.

Mencken covered the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Tennessee in which a small town school teacher was on trial for teaching evolution. Mencken's satirical columns were read throughout the country. Orator William Jennings Bryan spoke for the prosecution. Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow defended the teacher. The trial was immortalized in the Broadway play (1955) and Hollywood movie (1960) Inherit the Wind. In the movie, Gene Kelly portrayed the Mencken character.

Mencken was a lifelong contrarian. He was sympathetic to the Germans during World War I and afterward and was skeptical about the British propaganda. He did, however, overcome his bias and call Hitler and his minions "ignorant thugs."

Mencken was a fierce critic of fakery, Christian radicalism and religious belief in general. He was a self-described agnostic, whose view colored his writing. Still, he left the door open in case he was wrong. "In every unbeliever's heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal. This is his punishment for his unbelief. This is the agnostic's Hell," he wrote.

Mencken could also be an energetic advocate. He lavished praise on Ayn Rand's first novel, We the Living (1936). He championed James Branch Cabell, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, Alfred Knopf, and Sinclair Lewis, among others. He was a big fan of the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, and Mark Twain.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Happy birthday, D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence
It is the birthday of English writer D.H. Lawrence (1885), who was reviled as a pornographer in his lifetime but is today considered a visionary thinker and imaginative novelist. Lawrence's frank sexual themes were shocking at the time of their publication.

Lawrence is best known for The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), novels which tell the story of the Brangwen sisters and their relationships, and for Sons and Lovers (1913) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928).

Sons and Lovers was Lawrence's third novel and deals with a young man who is becoming an artist and his relationships with his mother and two women with whom he has relationships. The protagonist is devoted to his mother, whom he believes has married beneath her class. The book is autobiographical. A heavily abridged version was published in 1913. A complete version was finally published in 1992.

Lawrence's last novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, tells the story of a young upper-class woman whose paralyzed husband is also emotionally detached. She engages in a physical relationship with her gamekeeper. The book was so explicit that it had to be published privately in Italy and smuggled into Great Britain and the United States. When it was finally openly published in Britain in 1960 it became the subject of an obscenity trial. However, a jury of three women and nine men found it not to be obscene.

In the United States, the book (along with Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer  and John Cleland's Fanny Hill) helped establish the principle that redeeming social or literary value could be used as a defense against obscenity charges.

After traveling extensively around the world in self-imposed exile, Lawrence and his wife Frieda settled in New Mexico. Lawrence traded the original manuscript for Sons and Lovers for a ranch near Taos. They were there only a short time before moving back to Italy, where he had Lady Chatterley's Lover printed.

Lawrence died in Italy in 1930 and was interred there but after his death Frieda arranged for his ashes to be buried in a small chapel in New Mexico. She lived at the ranch until her death in 1956. Today the ranch is known as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch.

Lawrence had a lifelong interest in oil painting, which he pursued in earnest in the last years of his life. Nine of his paintings are on permanent display at the La Fonda Hotel in Taos. As with his books, the paintings fall into the Not Suitable For Work category.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy birthday, Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould
It is the birthday of paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1941), who wrote more than 20 popular books on such subjects as evolution, philosophy, and science history. He was also an avid collector of antiquarian books.

He taught for 30 years at Harvard University, and also at New York University. He often appeared on CNN, NBC and the syndicated Charlie Rose show. Gould, a lifelong Yankees fan, appeared in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Baseball. He also appeared on the PBS series Evolution, as well 3-2-1 Contact, the Children's Television Workshop show. He served on the CTW Board of Advisers.

Among his best known books are Ever Since Darwin (1977) and The Panda's Thumb (1980), collections of essays he wrote for Natural History magazine. The title article in The Panda's Thumb makes the case that poor design is a better argument for evolution than good design, since the panda's appendage is not a thumb at all and seems to have been pressed into service for a use (holding bamboo shoots) that a better design could perform more effectively.

In his The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Gould argues that mistakes in statistical methods and bias of scientists led to the theory of biological determinism or the notion that inherited factors alone dictate the likely behavior and intelligence of any group of human beings. Gould examined the work of renowned researchers and called into question their findings.

In Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996), Gould reiterates his idea that evolution isn't necessarily headed toward progress, that organisms are as likely to simplify as they are to become more complex. He also argues that focus on the extreme value in any statistical data leads to misunderstanding. He uses the example of baseball, a favorite subject for him. The disappearance of the .400 batting average, he suggests, is not because players are getting worse. it is, rather, that players are getting better. There is less variation between the batting skills of players now than in the early days of baseball but that means it is less likely, statistically speaking, that there will be players at the extremes: in other words, .400 hitters.

Gould survived abdominal cancer in 1982, and wrote an article about it when he discovered that people with his type of cancer had a median lifespan of eight months. That meant, he wrote, that half the people would die before eight months. The other half would live longer. He determined that he would be in the second half, and after chemo treatments, made a full recovery.

Twenty years later, Gould developed lung cancer and it moved to his brain. He died in 2002 at home in a bed set up in his library, surrounded by his family and his beloved collection of antiquarian books.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Happy birthday, Antonin Dvorak

It is the birthday of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841), who is known for featuring folk music of Moravia and Bohemia in his work. In 1892, Dvorak moved to New York City and became director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. He returned to Prague in 1895. While in America, he composed the New World Symphony, his most popular work.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Taylor Caldwell wrote historical fiction

Taylor Caldwell
It is the birthday of prolific novelist Taylor Caldwell (1900), who wrote popular historical fiction and family sagas for four decades. Her first book, and among her best known, was Dynasty of Death (1938), the sweeping saga of two families who develop their small Pennsylvania munitions factory into a huge international company.

Two other books, The Final Hour (1944) and The Eagles Gather (1949) continue the story of the Bouchard family. There was quite a stir among the reading public when it became known that Taylor Caldwell was a woman.

Her editor was Maxwell Perkins, the famed literary editor who nurtured the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Caldwell wrote many of her earliest books with her second husband, who was a colleague with her at the Department of Justice in Buffalo, New York. Her husband, Marcus Reback, did the research for her historical novels. She wrote mostly at night, sometimes from 12 to 24 hours at a stretch.

Caldwell was an outspoken conservative and contributed to the John Birch Society's magazine, American Opinion. She believed that the income tax was unconstitutional and created by international bankers to destroy dissidents. She thought that President John F. Kennedy revealed that he knew too much when he spoke of "the Gnomes of Zurich."

Some critics have suggested that Joseph Armagh, the hero in Captains and Kings: The Story of an American Dynasty (1972), was modeled after Joseph Kennedy. The book tells the story of a penniless Irish immigrant who comes to America in the mid-1800s and becomes a wealthy business leader. Captains and Kings and several other Caldwell books were adapted into TV miniseries.

Caldwell wrote more than 43 novels over 43 years. Many of them became bestsellers. She suffered a stroke in 1979, the same year she signed a two-novel deal for $3.9 million. She couldn't speak but she could still write. She died in 1985.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Happy birthday, Robert Pirsig, author of
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig
It is the birthday of writer Robert M. Pirsig (1928),  who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991).

He was a child prodigy with an IQ of 170. He skipped several grades, graduated from high school at age 14 and was just turning 15 as he entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. The possibility of endless hypotheses in science left him befuddled, and he lost interest in his studies, thus earning expulsion from the university.

He enlisted in the Army and served two years in South Korea, returned to the United States and earned a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy, did post graduate work in philosophy and journalism, taught creative writing in Montana, had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression.

Pirsig's first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) is a philosophical novel dealing with the metaphysics of quality. In the introduction, Pirsig cautions that the book shouldn't be associated with orthodox Zen Buddhism. "It's not very factual on motorcycles, either," he writes.

It is, instead, an account of a 17-day motorcycle road trip from Minnesota to California with his son Chris, and for awhile, with a couple who are close friends, John and Sylvia Sutherland.

John represents the Romantic view of life, being in the moment and not delving into the details. He doesn't learn to maintain his motorcycle and become frustrated when things go wrong, often having to seek professional help. The narrator represents the Classical view of life, seeking to understand how things work and immersing himself in details. He uses rational problem solving skills to diagnose and repair problems with his older motorcycle.

Pirsig's theory is that a balance of the two approaches will reward a person with a much higher quality of life.

The book holds the Guinness world record for a best-seller that was initially rejected. Some 121 publishers said no before William Morrow & Company finally decided to publish it. The book has sold more than five million copies in multiple editions.

Lila (1991) is a second philosophical novel framed on a sailing trip down the Hudson River and a chance encounter with a woman very near a nervous breakdown.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Happy 100th birthday, John Cage

It is the 100th birthday of composer John Cage (1912), who might have perpetrated the greatest hoax on the music world with his best known work, 4'33" (1952), except that he was perfectly serious. For four minutes and 33 seconds, the orchestra sits silently, playing nothing. What the audience experiences is the sounds of the environment—people rustling, coughing, breathing. (Here's a recording of a performance by the BBC Orchestra.)

When he was in high school in 1928, Cage gave a speech in which he suggested a national day of silence. "By being hushed and silent," he said, "we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think." (In this election season, what a marvelous thought!)

Though his consideration of silence as music came to him early, he may have been spurred to act on his idea after reading the I Ching, the Chinese classic text that helps identify order in chance events. Also, Cage is said to have viewed a series of paintings by his friend Robert Rauschenberg called White Paintings in 1951. They were four canvases covered with white house paint. Cage thought they were like looking at silence. In different light they appeared differently. Shadows and dust changed them, too. Cage seems to have translated the idea to his own medium.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Richard Wright wrote Native Son

It is the birthday of writer Richard Wright (1908), who is best known for his short story collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938) and his novels Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Wright wrote on racial relations in America. Much of his work is marked by incidents of anger and violence.

Wright grew up Mississippi, raised by his maternal grandmother and his aunt, who insisted that he pray and find God. Instead, he rebelled and held a lifelong aversion to organized religion. He moved to Chicago when he was 19 and fell in with Communists, later joining the Communist Party.

He wrote poems and short stories, and eventually found work writing and editing Communist Party publications. By 1936, though, he had fallen out with the Communists and was accused of being a Trotskyite.

He moved to New York the following year and worked on the WPA Writers' Project guide book for the city. He wrote the essay on Harlem for New York Panorama (1938). He was an editor at the Daily Worker, and wrote for various publications. His collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), gained him national attention. The stories are full of tales of brutality and mob violence.

Native Son (1940) tells the story of a 20-year-old poverty stricken black man who commits violent crimes in order to make a living in the slums of Chicago. The novel drew both praise (as an effort to explain racial divides in America) and criticism. Friend James Baldwin's dismissal of the book as protest fiction led to a falling out with Wright.

Black Boy (1945) was based on Wright's childhood experiences growing up in the South and his eventual move to Chicago as a young man.

Wright moved to Paris in 1946 and never returned to the United States. He came to know existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as black expatriates James Baldwin and Chester Himes. He wrote The Outsider (1953) about a black Communist in New York and the racism he experiences among fellow travelers. It appeared at the beginning of the Cold War and the height McCarthyism and the Red Scare, factors that helped make it successful.

Wright died from a heart attack in Paris in 1960. He was 52.

Among his literary influences were Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, H.L. Mencken, Marcel Proust, and Gertrude Stein.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy 118th Labor Day!

Americans have been celebrating Labor Day for 118 years. Congress made it a national holiday in 1894. The official Labor Day stamp was first issued in 1956. Enjoy your Labor Day!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Burroughs created Tarzan, John Carter

It is the birthday of fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875), who created the African jungle hero Tarzan, one of the best known characters in literature, in 1912.  Burroughs wrote 22 books featuring the ape man, but more Tarzan books (some authorized, some not) have been published since his death in 1950. Tarzan is a cultural icon, and has been featured in comic strips, movies, radio, television, on Broadway, in video games, and as action figures.

Burroughs also created a hero John Carter, a Civil War soldier who ends up on Mars. Though less well known until recently, the character was popular when he was introduced in 1912. Burroughs wrote the 11-book Barsoom series featuring Carter. In March, Walt Disney Pictures released a live-action film based on Burroughs' character. It bombed in the United States but was a hit in Russia.

Here is a short video about Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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