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."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dewitt Wallace started Reader's Digest

Dewitt Wallace
It is the birthday of Dewitt Wallace (1889), who with his wife Lila, founded Reader's Digest in 1922. Wallace received shrapnel wounds during World War I Army duty in France and spent four months in a hospital recovering. He spent the time reading American magazines.

When he returned home to Minneapolis, he went to the public library each day for six month researching and condensing magazine articles. He created a mock up of a magazine with articles on a wide variety of subjects that were condensed for easy reading.

After he and Lila Bell Acheson were married in 1921, they decided to publish the magazine themselves and market it by direct mail. Their first issue was published in 1922. They hoped they make $5,000 a year profit on the venture.  By 1929, the magazine had 290,000 subscribers and a gross income of $900,000 a year. Wallace proved to have a keen sense of what readers wanted in a mass-circulation magazine. He served as editor of the magazine until 1965.

Wallace was a staunch political and social conservative and the magazine's content reflected his anti-communist perspective. He and his wife contributed heavily to Richard Nixon's campaign for president in 1968, and in 1972 President Nixon presented them with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1950, the Wallaces' company began publishing hardcover anthology collections of condensed versions of best-selling novels (and sometimes nonfiction books) as Reader's Digest Condensed Books (now called Reader's Digest Select Editions). The books were distributed by direct mail. The first edition included work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Elmer Rice, journalist Morton Thompson, South African anti-apartheid activist Alan Stewart Taton, and an autobiography of humorist Will Rogers, edited by Donald Day.

At it's zenith, Reader's Digest was the best-selling consumer magazine in the country, with a circulation of 8 million, though in 2011 it was cut to 5.5 million. It still reaches more well-to-do readers with household incomes of more than $100,000 than Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Inc. combined. Globally it reaches 40 million readers in more than 70 countries, with 49 editions in 21 languages.

The Wallaces were well-known philanthropists, establishing The Wallace Foundation to continue their charitable giving after their deaths in the early 1980s.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

John P. Marquand wrote Mr. Moto novels

John P. Marquand
It is the birthday of writer John P. Marquand (1893), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for his best-selling novel The Late George Apley (1937), a satire of Boston's upper class. The title character is a Harvard-educated Beacon Hill WASP. The book was adapted as a Broadway play in 1944 and later as a film starring Ronald Colman.

It was a distinct departure from Marquand's earlier Mr. Moto spy novels. Mr. Moto was initially a Japanese Imperial agent but was never the central character in the novels. He was a mysterious character who stayed mainly in the background. The plots usually concerned an American with a checkered past who becomes entangled in international intrigue in the Orient. In the process he meets a beautiful American woman. In the end, and always with help from the mysterious Mr. Moto, he overcomes the danger and gets the girl. Mr. Moto was always impeccably dressed and appeared rather benign but could be remarkably ruthless.

The Mr. Moto series originally appeared in Saturday Evening Post, which was looking for stories with an Asian hero following the death of Earl Derr Biggers, who created Charlie Chan. There were six Mr. Moto novels: Your Turn, Mr. Moto (1935); Thank you, Mr. Moto (1936); Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937); Mr. Moto is So Sorry (1938); Last Laugh, Mr. Moto (1941); and Stopover: Tokyo (1957) which was reprinted under different titles in 1963 and 1977.

Beginning in 1937, 20th Century Fox made eight films loosely based on the book series. They starred Peter Lorre as Mr. Kentaro Moto, an Interpol agent with a good relationship with the Chinese rulers, a fondness for Western suits, and an inclination to use judo against the bad guys.

Marquand was a prolific writer whose short stories appeared frequently in the Saturday Evening Post beginning in 1921. He wrote 18 novels, the first of which was The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Emile Gaborieau wrote detective novels

Emile Gaboriau
It is the birthday of 19th century French writer Emile Gaboriau (1832), who was among the first to write detective novels as we know them today. He influenced the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Anna Katherine Green, and seems to have anticipated the Ellery Queen novels of the 1930s.

Gaboriau's first book, L'Affaire Lerouge (1866), is his best known work. It was inspired by a famous murder. In it, a wealthy widow is found brutally murdered in her palatial mansion. A judge, assisted by two policemen study the murder scene, then the judge calls in a wise old amateur detective to help with the case. L'Affaire Lerouge was first published in the newspaper The Age and became a big hit.

Interestingly, one of the policemen, a man known as Monsieur LeCoq (Mister Rooster), becomes the hero in three of Gaboriau's later novels. The character LeCoq was inspired by Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French criminal who became the first private detective and began the discipline of criminology. Vidocq also inspired Victor Hugo, Honoré Balzac and Alexandre Dumas.

Gaboriau also introduced the convention of a wise sidekick who helps the hero figure out the mystery. His character was Jean Tabaret, whose nickname was Pére Tireauclair (Father Bringer of Light). From the comfort of his bed, the old man uses deductive reasoning to help solve the crime.

Gaboriau admired the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was first published in 1841 and is considered the first detective story.

Among Gaboriau's other novels are Baron Trigault's Vengance (1870), The Count's Millions (1870), Within an Inch of His Life (1873), and Other People's Money (1874).  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

We're off to shows in Orlando and Miami

Those maps as well as the Alice in Wonderland book are going with us to the Greater Orlando Antique Festival.

We're on the road again--Orlando this coming weekend and Miami the following weekend.

In Orlando there's a new venue, the Greater Orlando Antique Festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There'll be a booksellers alley with dozens of antiquarian book dealers participating. We're looking forward to seeing many of our friends, both members of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association as well some regulars to the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair who are coming from out of state.

Dali signed title page. Click to enlarge.
We'll be taking children's books, antique maps, and some other special items. One particular delight is a volume from a special limited edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the classic children's tale by Lewis Carroll.

This particular edition is in a traditional European Renaissance presentation with a plain brown leather spine and clasps. It contains twelve illustrations with original woodcuts and an original etching by Salvador Dali. What's more, Dali signed the title page. The illustrations are for each chapter and they are truly amazing. It's a perfect fit. Alice in Wonderland is a surreal story to begin with and Dali adds his own surreal interpretation.

We'll also have some wonderfully colorful antique maps from the era after the American Revolution but before the Westward Expansion when the United States was confined to the territories east of the Mississippi River as well as older ones reflecting the interests of Spain, France and England in the North American continent. Suffice it to say, if you love maps stop by our booth in Orlando.

We're returning this year to the Miami Book Fair International after an absence of a couple of years. The fair actually gets under way this coming Sunday but the Street Fair, which we'll be participating in, starts on Friday, November 16. It is truly a book lover's delight—more than 250 booksellers and publishers gathered for a weekend of literary indulgence.

We're taking shiny picture books (always popular in South Florida) and stacks and stacks of Florida authors like Randy Wayne White, James W. Hall, Les Standiford, and Tom Corcoran. Carl Hiaasen? Yes, we'll have some Hiaasen, too. He's the hometown favorite.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Happy birthday, Albert Camus

It is the birthday of French absurdist writer Albert Camus (1913), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Among his books are The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956), A Happy Death (1971), and The First Man (1995). In 1959, Camus undertook a formidable project to adapt Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book The Possessed for the stage. The play took stamina to watch. It lasted 3½ hours, had 33 actors and 26 set changes. It cost millions to produce. It ran for 180 performances. Here is a television interview with Camus about the production.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

James Jones wrote From Here to Eternity

James Jones
It is the birthday of writer James Jones (1921), whose first published novel, From Here to Eternity (1951), was an instant bestseller and won the National Book Award in 1952. The book was based on Jones' experiences in Hawaii just before the beginning of World War II. It was adapted as a film in 1953 starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Cliff, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, and Donna Reed.

The book was the first part of a war trilogy Jones planned to write. The second book, The Thin Red Line (1962) was based on his combat experiences on Guadalcanal during the war. Jones had killed off one of the four main characters in the first book, so he changed the names of the characters and continued the story. The book was lauded for its realistic portrayal of life on the front lines. The title comes from Rudyard Kipling's poem Tommy. it was adapted for film twice: first in 1964, starring Keir Dullea and Jack Warden, and then in 1998, starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte.

The final book in the trilogy, Whistle (1978), was published after Jones' death. The final chapter was completed by Mississippi writer Willie Morris based on extensive notes by the author and taped conversations with him. Though, once again, the characters have different names, it is the continuation of Jones' narrative from the beginning book. Whistle is set in a fictional veterans hospital in Tennessee and is based on Jones' experience after the war.

Critics brutally attacked Jones' second published novel, Some Came Running (1957), which told the story of an Army veteran who returns to his hometown after World War II. Jones experimented with a colloquial narrative style that apparently didn't sit well with critics. The work was based on an unpublished first novel, They Shall Inherit the Laughter, he had abandoned before starting From Here to Eternity. Still, Some Came Running was adapted as a film as well, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine.

Jones also wrote The Pistol (1959), Go to the Widow-Maker (1967), The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stores (1968), The Merry Month of May (1971), A Touch of Danger (1973), Viet Journal (1974), and WW II (1975).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ida Tarbell exposed Standard Oil monopoly

Ida Tarbell
It is the birthday of pioneer investigative journalist Ida Tarbell (1857), whose book The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) led to the breakup of John D. Rockefeller's monopoly of the early oil industry. It was first published as a magazine series then as a two-volume book which became a best seller.

Tarbell started her career as a teacher but soon gave that up and began writing. She served as a writer and then managing editor of The Chautauquan, a monthly publication that supported the Chautauqua adult education movement.

She went to the Sorbonne in Paris to write a biography of Madame Roland, leader of an influential salon during the French Revolution, who was beheaded. In Paris, she also wrote articles for McClure's Magazine. That led to an editorship at the magazine, where she wrote a series on Abraham Lincoln, which revealed previously unknown details about his childhood in Kentucky and Illinois.  Later, she wrote a popular series on Napoleon Bonaparte. In the process, she became a well-known biographer.

For her work on Standard Oil, Tarbell interviewed industrialist Henry H. Rogers, one of Rockefeller's associates at the company. Apparently Rogers thought Tarbell's piece would be complimentary and he was surprisingly candid about the company's unfair business practices. Tarbell's detailed research drew on company documents from throughout the nation (an unusual practice at the time), as well as interviews with former employees and competitors. It set the standard for investigative journalism of later years.

Her 19-part series appeared in McClure's Magazine beginning in November 1902.  It revealed how the company engaged in spying and predatory pricing, struck cozy deal with railroads, and bought up competitors at bargain basement prices to create a monopoly over production, transportation, refining, and marketing of petroleum products. From Rockefeller, the series earned Tarbell the epithet Miss Tarbarrel.

In 1911, amid much public agitation about trusts, (Upton Sinclair's exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, had been published in 1906), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil's practices violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered the breakup of the company.

Tarbell's autobiography, All in Day's Work (1939) recounted her muckraking days (a term she abhorred) and other details of her life. Tarbell had a personal interest in the Standard Oil story. Her father was an early oilman, at first in the oil tank business, and later an oil producer and refiner, but was forced out of business by Standard Oil's unethical practices.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Two poets who rivaled the powerful

Lucan, William Cullen Bryant
It is the birthday of two poets, one who lived in ancient Rome and the other who lived in 19th century America. Both did their best to rile the Powers That Be with their poetry.

Lucan (39 AD) was a close friend of the emperor Nero but at some point had a falling out with the tyrannical ruler. It is not clear what led to the feud but scholars think that a poem On the Burning of the City, in which Lucan wrote of "unspeakable flames of the criminal tyrant roamed the heights of Remus" might have contributed to the rift.

In any case, historians tell us that Lucan became part of a conspiracy against the emperor and when his treachery was discovered he committed suicide at the age of 25. He slit open a vein and lay bleeding to death, recalling a poem he had written about a wounded soldier who similarly lay dying. He died reciting his poem.

William Cullen Bryant (1794) was never a close friend of President Thomas Jefferson, and, at the age of 13 published a brutally critical poem, The Embargo, which satirized Jeffersonian democracy. The young Bryant was an Alexander Hamilton Federalist.

Bryant lived considerably longer than Lucan, and didn't commit suicide, politics having become a bit more civilized. Bryant served as editor of the New York Evening Post for 50 years, and remained active in politics, supported Andrew Jackson, and became an advocate of the New Soil Party, forerunner of the Republican Party.

Bryant was once known as America's leading poet. His most well known poem is Thanatopsis (1817), which is translated from the Greek as "Meditation Upon Death." He died at age 83 from complications from a fall in New York's Central Park.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rare Book Moment: Illustrating the classics

Here's edition No. 12 of Rare Book Moment. Mike discusses the various illustration styles in classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Also, watch for the new segment For What It's Worth, a discussion of the values of books mentioned in the program.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Happy birthday, Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice, legendary sportswriter
It is the birthday of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice (1880), who contributed significantly to sports journalism and dominated it during the Roaring Twenties with elegant prose and thoughtful poetry. He was the first to call the 1924 Notre Dame backfield the Four Horsemen and the first to broadcast a World Series on the radio.

Rice interviewed all the major sports figures of the era and made heroes of many of them, including Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Knute Rockne, Babe Ruth, and Babe Zaharias. His writing raised sports events to a new mythical level, comparing the contests to ancient quests of strength and courage.

Of the 1924 Notre Dame-Army game he wrote, "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."

The 1921 World Series was the first Subway Series, with the New York Giants facing off against Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Grantland Rice covered the games live, broadcasting on KDKA, the legendary Pittsburgh radio station. The game was rebroadcast on Boston's WBZ. The Giants won five games to the Yankees three.

Rice often expressed his ideas in verse. One of his most often quoted lines is from a poem titled Alumnus Football. "For when the One Great Scorer comes/To mark against your name,/He writes—not that you won or lost—/But how you played the Game."

When Babe Ruth died in 1948, Rice drew on prose he had written in 1910 to compose a poem to honor the great slugger. "Game Called by darkness—let the curtain fall./No more remembered thunder sweeps  the field./No more the ancient echoes hear the call/To one who wore so well both sword and shield:/The Big Guy's left us with the night to face/And there is no one who can take his place."

Rice's biography, The Tumult and the Shouting (1945), was well received by critics and the public. It was syndicated into 15-minute radio segments in 1955 and broadcast throughout the country in 52 parts.

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Michael F. Slicker, is one of about 450 qualified members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, Inc., and its affiliate the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Condition of the book, demand for it and history of comparable sales are among the factors considered in evaluating the value of a book. Other factors may apply as well.

Please contact us for more information regarding our certified appraisal services. We encourage you to visit our website, Lighthouse Books, ABAA

Florida Antiquarian Book Fair

Michael Slicker was the founding president of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association and has served as chairman of its annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair since its inception.

The 36th annual book fair is set for April 21-23, 2017 at The Coliseum in St. Petersburg.

The fair is the oldest and largest antiquarian book fair in the Southeast. Learn more about the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair and the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

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