Friday, May 31, 2013

Happy birthday, Walt Whitman

It is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman (1819), whose first poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, was an immediate success, and became his best-known work, and also his lifelong project. Whitman published the first thin volume himself, setting the type for most of it and paying for the printing. The second edition was 384 pages. There were at least six editions, maybe as many as nine. (Scholars can't agree on the count.) At the end of his life, Whitman lay ill in bed still working on a new edition. He declared it "At last complete – after 33 y'rs of hacking at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Happy birthday, Countee Cullen

It is the birthday of poet Countee Cullen (1903), one of the most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His name was pronounced "Coun-tay." One of his best known poems is Yet Do I Marvel, the last line of which reads: "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/To make a poet black, and bid him sing!" Cullen published several poetry collections, including Color (1925), Harlem Wine (1926), Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Cullen wrote a novel, One Way to Heaven (1932)  and an autobiography of his cat, My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942). Cullen emulated John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and was influenced by William Wordsworth and William Blake.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

T.H. White wrote King Arthur series

It is the birthday of English novelist T.H. White (1906), who is best remembered for his King Arthur series, The Once and Future King (1958), which included the novels The Sword in the Stone (1939), The Queen of Air and Darkness (also titled The Witch in the Wood) (1940), The Ill-Made Knight (1941) and The Candle in the Wind (1958). They were adaptations of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1485), the first written collection of tales about King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. White also wrote an autobiographical volume, England Have My Bones (1936). The Once and Future King was the basis of the Broadway musical (1960) and subsequent film (1967) Camelot. After White's death, a fifth in the King Arthur series was discovered among his papers and published as The Book of Merlyn (1977).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ian Fleming created James Bond series

It is the birthday of English writer Ian Fleming (1908), creator of the James Bond spy novel series. Fleming drew on his experiences as a naval intelligence officer during World War II to create the Bond character, a British Secret Service agent known as 007. Fleming said his character was a composite of several agents he knew during his intelligence career. He took the name from the American bird expert who wrote Birds of the West Indies (1936). Fleming wrote the series while on vacation at his own Jamaican estate. The first was Casino Royale (1952). Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels and two short-story collections. His last two books, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) and Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966), were published after his death. Several writers have continued the James Bond franchise, including Sebastian Faulks [Devil May Care (2008)] and Jeffery Deaver [Carte Blanche (2011)]. Fleming also wrote the children's story Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Why we celebrate Memorial Day

Originally Memorial Day was Decoration Day, a designated ritual of decorating the graves of war dead. It began more or less informally before the Civil War, but after the war it became a more institutionalized but still unofficial observance, usually held on May 30. The name Memorial Day was first used in 1882. Not all the states joined in. It wasn't until 1967 that Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday and put it on the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend. [Congress also created three-day weekends with Washington's Birthday (February), Columbus Day (October) and Veterans Day. (October)] The law took effect in 1971. [In 1978, Veterans Day was moved back to November 11.] An early annual Memorial Day-like observance was Reunion Day in Boston, The 1896 celebration was depicted in Henry Sandham's painting The March of Time (above), in which nationally known Civil War-era figures were shown, including General William Tecumseh Sherman, Colonel Benjamin Harrison, and Julia Ward Stowe. The artist was a Canadian but he lived in Boston and painted many American historical scenes. Happy Memorial Day!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Happy birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is the birthday of writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803), who is best remembered as the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, which revered the individual over the institution in society and culture, particularly organized religion and political parties. Emerson espoused the idea that people are at their best when they are independent and self-reliant. Emerson's essay Nature (1836) is considered a key document in expressing Transcendentalist ideas. In it, he suggested that mankind can only understand reality by studying nature. In a speech titled The American Scholar (1837), Emerson declared: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds … A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which inspire all men."

Friday, May 24, 2013

Arthur Wing Pinero knighted for theater work

It is the birthday of English playwright Arthur Wing Pinero (1855), who was immensely popular during the Victorian era and is best remembered for his comedies, including The Schoolmistress (1866), The Magistrate (1885), Dandy Dick (1887), The Cabinet Minister (1890), The Amazons (1893), and Trelawny of the 'Wells' (1898). He also wrote social dramas such as His House in Order (1906), The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893), and The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith (1895). He was one of only two Englishmen (the other was William S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) to be knighted solely for their contributions to the theater.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Margaret Fuller: America's first feminist

It is the birthday of writer Margaret Fuller (1810), who is considered the first American feminist. She wrote Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which is regarded as the first major feminist work published in the country. It was first published in The Dial Magazine, for which Fuller had served as founding editor before turning those duties over to co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the book, Fuller argued that mankind would evolve to understand divine love and that women alongside men would share in divine love. Fuller was a favorite in the New England Transcendentalist community. Among her friends were Bronson Alcott (Louisa May's father), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Horace Greeley, for whom she worked as first literary critic of the New York Tribune. She served as foreign correspondent for the Tribune, touring Europe and setting in Rome, where she married. She was returning to the United States in 1850 but drowned, along with her husband and young son, when her ship hit a sandbar and sank off New York. She was 40 years old.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Happy birthday, Peter Matthiessen

It is the birthday of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927), whose hefty Shadow Country (2008), a semi-fictional account of the murder of a Southwest Florida sugar cane plantation owner in 1910, won the National Book Award for fiction in 2008 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 2010. The book was a reworking of his trilogy on Edgar Watson, an alleged fugitive who settled in the Chokoloskee area in the early  part of the 20th century, which included Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997), and Bone By Bone (1999). With Shadow Country, Matthiessen finally achieved his original vision for the story. His first manuscript was 1,500 pages but was eventually trimmed and edited into the three original books. Matthiessen also wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), Far Tortuga (1975), The Snow Leopard (1978), and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983).

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Happy birthday, Dante Alighieri

It is the celebration of the birth of Italian medieval poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265), though scholars don't really know his exact birth date but have concluded from his writings that it must have been under the astrological sign of Gemini (more or less between May 11 and June 11). Dante (as he is known) wrote the epic poem Divine Comedy (1481), which is considered to be a masterpiece in world literature. The work describes the writer's imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante draws on the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas and early Christian theology. It is interpreted as an allegory representing the soul's journey to God. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Happy birthday, Honoré de Balzac

It is the birthday of French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799), whose multi-volume collection of short stories, The Human Comedy (1815-1848), is renowned for his realistic depiction of life in France after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. His influence on literature is considerable. Among later novelists who considered him an inspiration were Proust, Zola, Dickens, Poe, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Henry James. Faulkner, Kerouac. Balzac wrote of life in France after the Revolution, money, power and social success, family relationships including motherhood and fatherhood, women in society and sex. His writing included elements of historical novels, popular novels,  fantasy novels, gothic novels, and metaphysical novels. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Patrick Dennis wrote Auntie Mame

It is the birthday of writer Patrick Dennis (1921), who wrote the bestselling novel Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (1955) and its sequel, Around the World with Auntie Mame (1958). Patrick Dennis was a pseudonym for Edward Everett Tanner III, who also wrote under the name Virginia Rowans. By far his most successful book was Auntie Mame, which told the story of a boy raised by his eccentric aunt. The book was inspired by Patrick Dennis' Aunt Marion. The book spawned a Broadway play, Auntie Mame (1957), starring Rosalind Russell, a movie based on the play (1958), a Broadway musical, Mame (1966), starring Angela Landsbury and Beatrice Arthur, and a movie based on the musical (1974) starring Lucille Ball, Beatrice Arthur, and Robert Preston. In later years, the author worked as a butler using his real name. His employers never knew their butler, Tanner, was actually the famous writer Patrick Dennis.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Happy birthday, Dorothy Richardson

It is the birthday of English author Dorothy Richardson (1873), who is credited with writing the first stream of consciousness novel published in English, predating James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The complete work is called Pilgrimmage. it is 12 volumes, the first of which is Pointed Roofs (1915). The autobiographical work chronicles the development of a young woman coming into her own as an adult. She married Bohemian illustrator Alan Odle, and supported him with her writing. She was associated with the Bloombury Group and she watched W.B. Yeats writing by candlelight across the alley from her flat. She died alone in obscurity and poverty in 1957, largely forgotten by the literary world.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Happy birthday, Studs Terkel

It is the birthday of writer Studs Terkel (1912), who wrote The Good War (1985), an oral history of World War II through people in battle, on the home front and survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Terkel specialized in what he called guerrilla journalism, oral histories of ordinary Americans. He wrote more than 18 books, including Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), and Working, People Talk About What They Do All Day and How they Feel About What They Do (1974) Here is an appearance Terkel made on The Daily Show in 2006.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Happy birthday, L. Frank Baum

It is the birthday of author L. Frank Baum (1856), whose children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) was an immediate success and has since become a classic of American literature, with Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion taking their place in American popular culture. Because of the demand of his youthful readers, Baum wrote 19 sequels. Although he wrote other children's stories under pseudonyms, the Oz books were by far his most successful efforts. A 1902 Broadway musical helped spread the success of the Wizard of Oz franchise as did the popular 1939 Judy Garland film. The story has been translated into many foreign languages and there are millions of copies and numerous editions in English. Baum wrote sequels until his death in 1919. Ruth Plumly Thompson wrote 21 authorized sequels after that. Baum was initially reluctant to continue with the Oz series but finally gave in to requests of youthful readers. In a note to his sister, Baum explained why: "To please a child is a sweet and a lovely thing that warms one's heart and brings its own reward."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hal Borland wrote When the Legends Die

It is the birthday of outdoor writer Hal Borland (1900), who is best remembered for his novel When the Legends Die (1963), which became a young adult classic and was adapted for a 1972 film starring Richard Widmark and Frederic Forrest. The book tells the story of a Ute indian youth who leaves the reservation and enters the rodeo circuit and is befriended by a drunken old former rodeo star. It examines the clash between the traditional tribal ways and the 20th century. Borland was born in Nebraska and grew up in Colorado. His father was a rural newspaper editor. Borland graduated from Columbia University and later wrote for the Denver Post, Audubon Magazine, and The New York Times, where he produced a popular Sunday outdoor column for 37 years. Borland wrote numerous nature books and novels.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Happy birthday, Daphne du Maurier

It is the birthday of English writer Daphne du Maurier (1907), who is best remembered for her novels Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938), which is considered her best work, and Frenchman's Creek (1941). Her father was the well-known actor-manager Gerald du Maurier and her mother was actress Muriel Beaumont, so it's little surprise that Daphne also wrote a stage version of Rebecca. The story was adapted many times for both stage and screen, the most notable version being the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film. Hitchcock also directed adaptations of Jamaican Inn (1939) and her short story The Birds (1963). Daphne du Maurier had a difficult time with Rebecca, suffering from terrible writer's block. Finally, after accompanying her military officer husband to Egypt, her story began to gel. Scholars say it was because she found Egypt a harsh departure from her beloved mansion in Cornwall that became the setting for Rebecca.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy birthday, Irving Berlin

It is the birthday of composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (1888), who gave the nation such popular songs as Easter Parade (1933), God Bless America (1938), White Christmas (1940), Happy Holiday (1942), This is the Army, Mr. Jones (1942), There's No Business Like Show Business (1946). He is widely considered to be one of the greatest American composers ever. Composer Jerome Kern put it succinctly: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music." His first international hit song was Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911). Here's a version of it by the Andrews Sisters, another American musical icon.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Happy birthday, U2 singer Bono

It is the birthday of Irish singer Bono (1960), who is known as the lead singer for the rock band U2. Bono, whose real name is Paul David Hewson, formed the Dublin-based rock band with fellow students while in secondary school (high school). Bono has received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts in Africa. Critics have dubbed the group's hit song I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1987), one of the greatest tracks in music history. The song was decidedly a group effort but the lyrics were contributed by Bono, who recalled a line he had written in a notebook as a possible song title. Bono acknowledges influences of songwriter Bob Dylan and gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Fisher wrote during Harlem Renaissance

It is the birthday of writer Rudolph Fisher (1897), who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist and short-story writer. He is best remembered for his novel The Walls of Jericho (1928), which realistically depicted black urban life, and for writing the first detective novel with all black characters, The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), which includes a mysterious murder, hidden identities, and exotic African rituals. He was considered the most gifted short-story writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writing of Southern blacks adjusting to urban life in Harlem. Among his short stories are City of Refuge, High Yaller, The South Lingers On, Blades of Steel, and Miss Cynthie.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gary Snyder, the Thoreau of the Beats

It is the birthday of poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930), who became associated with the Beat generation of San Francisco in the 1950s and won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for his poetry collection Turtle Island. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called him the Thoreau of the Beat Generation. He is described as the poet laureate of deep ecology. Writer Jack Kerouac was inspired by Snyder's dedication to backcountry living to make Snyder the main character in The Dharma Bums (1958). Snyder studied Japanese and Chinese culture, Buddhism, rural life, naturism, and Native American culture. He traveled extensively in Japan and China. He is 83 years old and lives on a hundred acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. "Nature is not a place to visit," he told an interviewer from the London Review of Books last year, "It is home."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy birthday, Archibald MacLeish

It is the birthday of writer Archibald MacLeish (1892), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice, for his collection Conquistador (1933), and for his collection Collected Poems 1917-1952 (1953) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1959 for his free-verse play J.B., a modern version of the biblical story of Job. JB also won a Tony Award for best play. MacLeish was greatly influenced by poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and is considered a traditional modernist. His best-known poem is Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). It includes a line that states the modernist poetic philosophy: "A poem should not mean/but be." As a young man, MacLeish left the law firm he worked for and went to Paris in 1923, joining literary and artistic expatriates such as John Dos Passos, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, John O'Hara, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939. He reorganized the library, making it more efficient and enabling it to meet the needs of the nation. He expanded the library's budget and helped focus its mission to collect materials expressing the life an achievements of the people of the United States. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was the target of such anti-Communists as Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. To detractors he said, "No one would be more shocked to learn I am a Communist than the Communists themselves."

Monday, May 6, 2013

Allan G. Odell wrote Burma-Shave rhymes

Burma-Shave signs on U.S. Route 66 in Mohave County, Arizona | Photo by Ken Koehler
 It is the birthday of shaving cream executive Allan G. Odell (1904), who wrote the Burma-Shave rhymes that entertained travelers on America's highways for four decades. Odell was just out of college in 1925 when he joined his father's patent medicine company in Minnesota. Sales were sagging and Odell came up with the idea to advertise the company's brushless shaving cream product. He convinced his father, Clinton, to spend $200 on signs. He bought wood from a reclaimed lumber company to make the first signs, which were hand-stenciled. The first signs were placed 100 feet apart on straight stretches of U.S. 61 and U.S. 65 near Red Wing and Alert Lea, Minnesota. Each group ended with the Burma-Shave logo. Sales soared and the campaign was expanded. By the 1950s, there were 7,000 sets of signs in 45 states. The signs were discontinued after Odell, who eventually became president, retired, and the company was sold to Phillip Morris in 1964. Here are a few of the witty rhymes:

* Is he lonesome or just blind, the guy who drives so close behind?
* Better try less speed per mile. That car may have to last a while.
* Five star generals, privates first class look the same in a looking glass
* Spring has come, the grass has ris' where last year's careless drivers is.
* If Crusoe'd kept more tidy his chin, he might have found a lady again.
* She put a bullet through his hat, but he's had closer shaves than that.
* Substitutes are like a girdle; they find some jobs they just can't hurdle.
* These signs are not for laughs alone. The face they shave may be your own.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Happy birthday, Thomas Huxley

It is the birthday of English biologist Thomas Huxley (1825), who became a well-known advocate of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, earning him the nickname Darwin's Bulldog. He was self-trained and did early study on invertebrates, contributing to the wider understanding of relationships between various groups. Later, he studied vertebrates, including humans and apes. His study of contemporary birds and small dinosaurs led him to the theory that the birds evolved from dinosaurs. He advocated energetically for scientific education. Famously he debated with Anglican Bishop Samuel Wilberforce about humans being descended from apes. Other scientists also participated in the debate, too, but the Wilberforce-Huxley exchange was said to be the most heated. Huxley's grandson was author Aldous Huxley.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Happy birthday, William Inge

It is the birthday of writer William Inge (1913), whose drama Picnic (1953) won a Pulitzer Prize. The story is set on Labor Day in a small Midwestern town and concerns the loves and yearnings of several college-aged men and women. The characters were inspired by people who stayed at his mother's boarding house when he was a child. Despite its remarkable run on Broadway, its selection as best play by the New York Drama Critics Circle and its adaptation as a successful Hollywood movie, Inge never felt he fulfilled his original intentions with Picnic, so he reworked it. The result was Summer Brave, which was produced on Broadway in 1975, after his death. Inge also won an Oscar for his screenplay, Splendor in the Grass (1961). Among his best known plays are Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Inge wrote two novels, Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1970) and My Son is a Splendid Driver (1971).    

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Happy birthday, lyricist Lorenz Hart

It is the birthday of Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart (1895), who teamed with composer Richard Rodgers, wrote songs that have become standards, including Mountain Greenery (1926), With a Song in My Heart (1929), The Lady is a Tramp (1937), Where or When (1937), My Funny Valentine (1937), Falling in Love with Love (1938), and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (1940). One of the most popular songs the team wrote was Blue Moon (1935). Hart wrote four sets of lyrics before it finally was successful. Under contract with MGM, he and Rodgers wrote the song for a 1934 movie called Hollywood Party but it was never recorded. Hart rewrote the lyrics twice more for other MGM movies. It was cut once and, with more new lyrics, flopped. Finally, as Blue Moon, it was released commercially and licensed to a radio program, Hollywood Hotel, as a theme song. After that it was featured in seven more MGM films and covered by numerous recording artists. Here is Nat King Cole's version.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Happy birthday, Joseph Heller

It is the birthday of writer Joseph Heller, (1923), whose satirical novel Catch-22 (1961) skewered bureaucratic inefficiency and absurd circular reasoning, and became an idiomatic English-language phrase representing a no-win situation. The novel was set during World War II and concerned a fictional bomber squad stationed off the coast of Italy and conducting bombing raids. The Catch-22 of the title referred to a non-existent military rule applied to justify bureaucratic actions. One key instance was a pilot who sought to be excluded from flying the missions because it was too dangerous and anybody who flew them would be crazy to do so. However, Catch-22 said that if the pilot was concerned for his own safety that proved he was rational and, therefore, was not too crazy to fly missions. At first, Heller called his book Catch 18, because the number 18 had special meaning in Judaism, which at first played a larger role in the novel. His agent thought it would be confused with Mila 18, Leon Uris's 1961 novel. Catch-11 was suggested but seemed to conflict with the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven. Catch-17 wouldn't work because of the World War II movie Stalag 17 (1953). The publisher didn't think Catch-14 was a funny number. Catch-22, it was. It had a duplicated digit like 11 and the 2 represented the déja vu events in the book.

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