Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Landor wrote Imaginary Conversations

Walter Savage Landor
It is the birthday of English poet and writer Walter Savage Landor (1775), whose best-known work, the five-volume Imaginary Conversations (1824-1829), presents imagined dialogue between such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Cecil, the secretary of state; Henry VII and Anne Boleyn; George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and Greek philosophers Diogenes and Plato. He was also known for his poetry, though he was better received by contemporary reviewers and fellow poets than by the general public. He was quick-tempered and headstrong, and given to great feuds and petty squabbles.

Rose Aylmer is his best-known poem. It was written for the sister of a friend Lord Aylmer, a British military officer who commanded forces in British North America, including the American colonies.  In Rose, he found a literary companion. Unfortunately, she died of cholera in India.

Ah what avails the sceptred race,
         Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
         Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
         May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
         I consecrate to thee.

Inspired by a book lent to him by Rose Alymer, Landor produced the poem that set his reputation as a gifted poet. Gebir told the story of a Spanish prince who falls in love with Egyptian Queen Charoba. Critics raved, comparing him with Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge. One critic wrote: "The vividness with which everything in it is presented to sight as well as through the wealth of its imagery, its moods of language — these are characteristics pre-eminent in Gebir."

Landor often wrote in Latin in an effort to veil his biting commentary. Once, while he was living in Como, Italy, he wrote a particularly vindictive piece against an Italian poet, also targeting local officials. He didn't realize that in Italy libel laws applied to anything written in Latin as well as Italian. Whe he was taken to task, he threatened to beat up a local official and was order to leave the city. He and his family settled in Florence, where he produced some of his best work, including the first volumes of Imaginary Conversations.

Some of his humorous epigrams display a biting wit inflicted on contemporary politicians and royalty. He clearly had little use for the House of Hanover.

George the First was always reckoned
Vile, but viler George the Second.
And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third,
But when from earth the Fourth descended
God be praised the Georges ended

He is said to have influenced W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost, among others.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy birthday, Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine
It is the birthday of early American political activist Thomas Paine (1737), whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) credited with inspiring American colonists to embrace the idea of independence from Great Britain. The American Revolution had already started but the work served to spur volunteers for the Continental Army. It was widely distributed throughout the colonies, read aloud in taverns, and unabashedly pirated. Some scholars say it was the first American bestseller.

A pamphlet series, The American Crisis (1776-1783), was first published in December of 1776, and served as inspiration to citizen soldiers fighting the British Army. George Washington had the first in the series read to his troops. That's the one that begins "These are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country …"

Paine, who was born Thomas Pain and evidently added the "e" to the end himself, didn't start out as a revolutionary writer. He trained as a corset maker (his father's trade) and later had a shop of his own. The politics came later. In his mid 30s, while working as a excise officer, Paine wrote his first political piece, a 21-page article making a case to Parliament for better pay and working conditions for those in his profession. 

Eventually, Paine had his own tobacco shop but it went out of business and Paine sold everything to stay out of debtor's prison. He moved to London, where a mutual friend introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. It was Franklin who helped him emigrate to the colonies. He did so in 1774, but the voyage was so arduous that Paine arrived quite ill and had to be carried off the ship. Within a few months, though, he had recovered and he became editor of Pennsylvania Magazine.

In the early days of the republic, Paine took a role in negotiating loans from France to aid the fledgling United States. During his time in Paris, he lived with political activist Nicholas Bonneville and his wife and children. Later, he helped Bonneville's family get to America. Eventually, Bonneville joined them and lived for a time in America. In 1818, Bonneville returned to Paris and opened a bookshop.

Paine also wrote Rights of Man (1791), a treatise in support of the French Revolution. It makes the case that if the government doesn't safeguard the people and their natural rights, then popular political revolution is permissible.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy birthday, Colette, sensation of Paris

Colette as she appeared in Réve d/Egypt.
It is the birthday of the French novelist and performer Colette (1873), who is best known for her novel Gigi (1944), upon which the Broadway musical (1951) and movie (1958) were based. Critics consider Chéri (1920) her best work. It is the story of end of an affair between wealthy young man and his older mistress. The book and its sequel, The End of Chéri (1926) were the basis of a film Cheri (2009).

Colette was a sensation in Paris, known for her affairs with both men and women. She scandalized the city with her infamous performance at the Moulin Rouge with Missy de Morny, the daughter of a French statesman. In 1907, the two presented a pantomime called Réve d'Egypt, in which their onstage kiss caused a riot. Police had to be called in to restore order and the two were banned from ever performing at the Moulin Rouge again.

Colette had a child with Henri de Jouvenel, a newspaper editor, whom she married in 1912. She apparently left the child, whom she named Colette, to be raised by an English nanny.

During World War I, Colette was asked to write a ballet for Paris Opera. She selected Maurice Ravel to write the music and she wrote the libretto. It became the opera The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts, first performed in 1925.

Colette is also said to have discovered movie star Audrey Hepburn. When a 1952 movie called Monte Carlo Baby was being filmed in southern France in the early 1950s, the star-to-be had a small part in the cast. One day as Hepburn walked across the hotel lobby, Colette spotted her and exclaimed to her companion "There is my Gigi." When the Broadway production of Gigi opened, Hepburn played the title role.

Colette also wrote a series of books about Claudine, an autobiographical story of a brazen 15-year-old girl. The first, Claudine at School (1900), tells of Claudine's difficulties with her headmistress and her fellow students. Sequels continued Claudine's story as a young adult. Colette also wrote The Vagabond (1910), My Mother's House (1922). Ripening Seed (1923), Break of Day (1928), The Other One (1929), The Pure and the Impure (1932), and The Blue Lantern (1949).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy birthday, Robert Burns

It is the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759), who is beloved throughout the world for lyrical spontaneity. This BBC documentary is long but worth the time. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happy birthday, Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton
It is the birthday of writer Edith Wharton (1862), who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), in which she questions the values of the Old New York society to which she was born. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer. Her earlier novel, The House of Mirth (1905) was a much bolder criticism of upper crust New Yorkers than Innocence, in her opinion. In fact, she considered the later book a sort of apology for the earlier one.

At age 23, she married a Boston aristocrat, Edward Wharton, who was 35. They both loved to travel but had little else in common. For several years, he suffered acute depression and eventually was diagnosed with an incurable mental disorder. They divorced after 28 years of marriage.

Wharton lived at The Mount, an estate she designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts. She was an avid interior designer and garden designer, and set the standard for tasteful designs of her era. She wrote (with Ogden Codman) The Decoration of Houses (1897) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904). At The Mount, she delighted in  entertaining such literary friends as Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Gide. F. Scott Fitzgerald was another matter. Famously, she invited Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda to tea. Zelda refused to come, so Fitzgerald went with a Wharton family friend, Teddy Chanler. Afterward Wharton wrote in her diary: "To tea, Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist — awful."

She traveled in Europe extensively, at first with her husband, until his mental condition no longer permitted it, then with her close friend, novelist Henry James. In Paris in 1906, James introduced her to Morton Fullerton, a foreign correspondent for The Times of London. They began a three-year affair. It was a closely guarded secret, though some people close to her suspected. Fullerton helped Wharton get her novel The House of Mirth (1905) published in French. After the affair ended, Wharton wrote to Fullerton asking him to destroy her letters. She didn't want a scandal. Fullerton kept the letters, though, and they were published in a book The Letters of Edith Wharton (1988).

Wharton also wrote Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), The Marne (1918), Old New York (1924), The Buccaneers (1938). Her first novel, Fast and Loose, which was finished in 1877, was finally published in 1938. Wharton also wrote poetry, non-fiction articles and books and short stories.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Poet Derek Walcott won Nobel Prize

Derek Walcott
It is the birthday of St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott 1930), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He is the first Caribbean poet to win the honor. Walcott also received the T.S. Eliot Prize for his book White Egrets (2010). His twin brother is playwright and screenwriter Roderick Walcott. When he was 14, Derek Walcott sent a poem to The Voice of St. Lucia newspaper. The poem's heavily Methodist themes caused quite a stir in predominantly Catholic St. Lucia.

Walcott's mother, a teacher and seamstress, recited poetry around the house.  His father died when his mother was pregnant with him and his brother. His father had painted and written poetry. When he was 19, Walcott borrowed $200 from his mother to have two volumes of poetry published. They were 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949). He sold copies to his friends and made the money back. The works are said to show influences of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.

With a scholarship, Walcott studied at the University of the West Indies and published a volume of poetry, Poems (1951). He then moved to Trinidad, where he founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop. One of his best known works is the play Dream on Monkey Mountain. which is set in the Caribbean. it was published in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970). NBC broadcast the play in 1970. The Negro Ensemble Company did an off-Broadway production, which won an Obie in 1971 as best foreign play.

Walcott taught literature and writing at Boston University, where he founded Boston Playwrights' Theatre. He received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1981. He taught alongside Irish poet Seamus Heaney and Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Walcott later said the three were a band of poets outside the American experience.

Walcott later served as scholar-in-residence at the University of Alberta and Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex. In 2009, he withdrew as a candidate for Oxford Professor of Poetry after his involvement with sexual harassment cases from 1981 and 1996 came to light. It was later revealed that rival poet Ruth Padel, who was elected to the post, had alerted the media to the cases. Padel subsequently resigned the post.

Among Walcott's other works is an epic poem, Omeros (1990), loosely based on The Iliad and The Odyssey but set in the Caribbean and Boston.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy birthday, Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon
It is the birthday of English statesman, philosopher, writer Sir Francis Bacon (1561), whose writings are said to have had great influence on modern science, law and society. There is also a school of thought that credits him with some or all of the works of William Shakespeare, though that idea has largely been discredited.

In any case, what is known is that Bacon was, for a time at least, an influential thinker and politician during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, something of a feat in itself, given that the two courts were not on the best of terms with each other. He enjoyed the favor of Queen Elizabeth I, whom he had met while he was a student at Cambridge. The queen seems to have admired his brilliant young mind. Later, he served the queen as prosecutor of his former friend, Robert Devereau, who was convicted of treason and beheaded. Bacon then wrote an account of the whole affair for Elizabeth, which was published after heavy editing from Elizabeth and her advisors.

Still later, Bacon proved adept at navigating the treacherous waters of palace intrigue and found favor with James I, who appointed him to several high positions, including attorney general and lord chancellor. Eventually, he was charged with corruption and removed from office, though not stripped of his various noble titles. Bacon admitted that he took payments from those appearing before him but he said it hadn't influenced his legal decisions. It was only after his failure at public life that Bacon devoted himself to writing and study.

Bacon advanced the theory  of gathering empirical evidence to arrive at scientific principles. He is credited with developing the first ideas about the use of the scientific method for investigating scientific ideas. He wrote Novum Organum (1620) on the subject. Bacon advanced the idea that scientific study ought to have practical application in the betterment of mankind. In Of Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human (1605), Bacon laid out a plan for modern education, making a case for advanced learning and defining disciplines of study. He also envisioned a utopian society on an island somewhere between Peru and Japan in New Atlantis (1627). In this land, the people were honest, chaste, and pious.

Only a few scholars still cling to the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The notion arose in the late 1800s, when an American writer, Delia Bacon, promoted the idea that Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Edward de Vere, and others secretly wrote plays containing codes in an effort of combat the despotism of Elizabeth and James I. Modern scholars suggest that Delia Bacon had a revolutionary agenda of her own, seeking to dash the myths of America's founding fathers.

Famously, Francis Bacon is said to have died of pneumonia after spending too much time out in the snow studying the effects of cold to preserve meat. It's clear in hindsight that Bacon should have stayed out of the cold. Instead, he relentless pursued a scientific experiment. As the story goes, he was traveling outside London to Highgate with the king's physician when they hit upon the idea that snow could preserve meat. They bought a chicken from a woman and had it cleaned and then stuffed it with snow. The exposure to the cold got Bacon sick and he couldn't travel so he took refuge at the home of Lord Arundel nearby, got worse and died there days later.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy birthday, Placido Domingo

It is the birthday of Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (1941), who is best known as one of the Three Tenors (along with Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) whose series of performances during the 1990s and early 2000s thrilled opera lovers and reenergized the art form. Not only were the concerts well attended but the recordings made from them produced The Three Tenors in Concert, a record breaking best-selling album in classical music. Subsequent albums were also quite popular. Today Domingo is general director of the Los Angeles Opera. Here is Domingo performing the area No puede ser from the Spanish opera Romance Marinero.

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Friday, January 18, 2013

A.A. Milne created Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne
It is the birthday of British writer A.A. Milne (1882), whose collection of stories about an anthropomorphic teddy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, have delighted children for generations. The first Pooh book, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), was followed by The House at Pooh Corner (1928). In the meantime, Milne also wrote children's poetry, which was published in the volumes, When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927). The first one included a poem about a teddy bear named Mr. Edward Bear. It is considered to be the first appearance of Winnie-the-Pooh. The poem was first published in Punch magazine.

After he graduated from Cambridge in 1903, Milne pursued a writing career, submitting poems and essays to Punch magazine, and eventually becoming an assistant editor there. Meanwhile, he was writing. He produced three novels and 18 plays. His murder mystery The Red House Mystery (1922) was popular, and critic Alexander Woollcott said it was one of the three best mysteries of all time. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler didn't agree. He said it was agreeable and amusing but had an illogical plot. In any case, it was the only mystery Milne ever wrote.

After his son, Christopher Robin Milne, was born in 1920, Milne began the Pooh books and the poetry. All the famous characters in the Pooh book — Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Owl and Rabbit — were inspired by Christopher Robin's stuffed animals. The Hundred Acre Wood, where Pooh and his friends lived — came from Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest near the Milne home in East Sussex southeast of London. Tigger was introduced in the The House at Pooh Corner. He is known for his pronouncement that "bouncing is what Tiggers do best."

Winnie-the-Pooh is named after a Canadian black bear that served as a military mascot during World War I. The bear, who was called Winnie for the Canadian city of Winnipeg, stayed at the London Zoo during the war. The Pooh part came from a swan with that name.

Milne also wrote films for British actor Leslie Howard's company, Minerva Fiims. Milne met Howard when the actor was starring in a London production of his play Mr Pim Passes By. Milne was determined to write whatever he wanted to despite the popularity of his children's stories and verse. His agent told him he ought not to write detective fiction and other genres. "I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others," Milne wrote.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Happy birthday, Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov
It is the birthday of Russian playwright and writer Anton Chekhov (1860), who is best remembered for his numerous short stories as well as four plays, The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), which continue to be produced by theater companies around the world. Chekhov is considered a master of the modern short story. He pioneered use of stream-of-consciousness, abandoning tradition story structure.

The comedy The Seagull concerns four characters, an ingenue, a fading star, a playwright and a writer, all of whom speak in subtext that suggests their inner turmoil. The play was such a departure from the melodrama popular at the time that the audience booed on opening night. Chekhov declared that night that he was finished writing plays. Later performances, however, were well received, though Chekhov did not attend them. Friends told him later that subsequent performances were more successful but he did not believe them.

The great Russian director Stanislavski eventually did a production of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski produced a detailed outline for actors with actions that sought to reveal the inner action hidden beneath the characters' lines. Later, when he saw the play, Chekhov suggested that Stanislavski's outline be published with his play. The collaboration of the two artists is said to have been a key factor in the creative development of both of them.

The Lady with the Dog (1899) may be Chekhov's best short story. Writer Vladimir Nabokov said it was among the greatest short stories ever written. The story is set in Yalta and Moscow and tells of an affair between a woman from a small town and a Moscow banker who meet on vacation in Yalta.

Chekhov also wrote the novellas The Shooting Party (1884), The Steppe (1888), The Duel (1891), The Anonymous Story (1893), Three Years (1895), and My Life (1896). He also wrote a travelogue, A Journey to Sakhalin (1895). Many of Chekhov's letters to family and friends have been collected into several books.

Among his admirers were James Joyce (who emulated his stream-of-consciousness style), George Bernard Shaw (who noted the similarity between the Russian gentry about which Chekhov wrote and the English gentry), Tennessee Williams (who adapted The Seagull for a work of his own, The Notebook of Trigorin), and Ernest Hemingway (who called him an amateur but credited him with writing "about six good stories.")

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Happy birthday, poet Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service
It is the birthday of poet Robert W. Service (1874), whose verses about prospecting life during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s earned him the sobriquet the Bard of the Yukon.

Service, who was born in England, was a young banking employee in Canada when he was sent to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory in 1904. For years, Service had been writing verses for his own amusement. Social life in the town consisted of concerts in which people recited poems from memory. Such works as Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din and Ernest Thayer's Casey at the Bat were popular.

One day the local newspaper editor suggested to Service that he write something for one of the evenings. Service had heard a miner from Dawson tell a gold rush tale about a prospector who cremated his friend. Service composed The Cremation of Sam McGee as he walked in the woods one evening and wrote it down from memory the next day. His friends loved it.

Later, after he had written enough poems for a book, he sent them to his father in Toronto to get them self-published. His father took the manuscript to a publisher, who produced a book and sent Service's printing money back, instead offering him a royalty. Songs of a Sourdough (1907) was an instant success.

Later is was published in the United States under the title The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (1907). Sixteen volumes of Service's poetry were published during his lifetime. He also wrote six novels and two autobiographies. Here is a recording of Service reading The Cremation of Sam McGee. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Happy birthday, Ernest J. Gaines

It is the birthday of writer Ernest J. Gaines (1933), whose best-known novels are The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993), which won the National Book Award. He was born on a plantation in Louisiana, in the fifth generation of a family of sharecroppers that lived in old slave quarters. He was raised by a handicapped aunt. When he was 15, Gaines moved to California to live with his parents. Later in life, he came back to the plantation where he was born, bought part of it and had an old church he grew up with restored and moved to his land. Here is an interview with him about A Lesson Before Dying.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hugh Lofting wrote Doctor Dolittle stories

Hugh Lofting
It is the birthday of English writer Hugh Lofting (1886), whose numerous stories about Doctor Dolittle and the animals with whom he conversed have delighted children for generations. He originally wrote them in letters to his children when he was stationed at the front in France and Flanders during World War I. He said later that the war was too horrible (and, at times, too dull) to write in letters to his children so he chose the fanciful stories instead.

As a boy, Lofting's proclivity for collecting all sorts of little creatures in the yard and bringing them inside (and keeping them in his mother's linen closet), might have foreshadowed his later career. Lofting was born in Maidenhead, England, west of London. His father was English and his mother was Irish. He was educated at a Jesuit boarding school, Mount St. Mary's, and decided to become a civil engineer, mainly so that he could travel the world. He enrolled for a year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology but finished his education at London Polytechnic.

Early in his engineering career, Lofting worked on projects in Canada, West Africa, and Cuba. Then he decided to become a writer. He moved to New York, got married and had two children and wrote magazine articles. When World War I began, Lofting worked for the British Ministry of Information in New York but then became a lieutenant in the Irish Guard and was sent to the front. He was severely wounded in the war and sent to England, where he was joined by his family. Lofting's wife encouraged him to turn the Doctor Doolittle letters into a book.

After he recovered, Lofting and the family returned to New York. On the ship, they met an English journalist and novelist, Cecil Roberts, who was delighted with Lofting's stories and subsequently showed them to publisher. After the first Doctor Dolittle book was published, Lofting sent Roberts an inscribed copy. The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts, Never Before Published (1920) was the first in the series. It was instantly popular and young readers in Britain and America clamored for more.

The series also includes The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922), Doctor Dolittle's Post Office (1923), Doctor Dolittle's Circus (1924), Doctor Dolittle's Zoo (1925), Doctor Dolittle's Caravan (1926), Doctor Dolittle's Garden (1927), Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928), Doctor Doolittle's Return (1933), Doctor Dolittle's Birthday Book (1936), Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948), Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary (1950), and Doctor Dolittle's Puddleby Adventures (1952). Lofting also wrote a book of poetry and other children's books.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Charles Perrault created fairy tale genre

Charles Perrault
It is the birthday of French writer Charles Perrault (1628), who is credited with creating the fairy tale literary genre and the Mother Goose stories. He didn't actually make up the tales themselves. They were already part of folklore tradition. Perrault was just the first to write them down. Among his best known tales are Bluebeard, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and The Sleeping Beauty. The German Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) rewrote many of the tales.

Perrault grew up in a wealthy Parisian family, was well educated and studied law. He became a civil servant. His brother Pierre hired him as an assistant when Pierre became tax collector of Paris. Perrault helped establish the Academy of Sciences and restore the Academy of Painting. In 1663, he became secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belle-Lettres, the French humanities society. In that capacity, he served King Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, and advised him on matters regarding the arts. Quite the insider, Perrault got his brother hired as the designer of a new section of the Louvre that was begun in 1665.

Perrault influenced the design of Louis XIV's famous gardens at Versailles, suggesting that 39 fountains be included, each representing one of Aesop's fables. When he was 41, Perrault, by then a member of the Academie francaise, led a famous literary debate called the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Perrault defended the Moderns after a friend's opera (a new genre) was roundly criticized for departing from classical theater (as defined by the ancient Greeks). Perrault suggested the superiority of the artistic works i the age of Louis XIV over that of the ancient Greeks. 

After a career in Parisian artistic circles, Perrault was forced out of his government  positions and turned to writing children's stories. At the age of 69, he published Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals, subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (1897) under the name of his 19-year-old son, Pierre, possibly to avoid stirring up things again with the defenders of the Ancients.

Perrault also wrote an epic poem about St. Paulinus of Nola, a Latin poet who renounced wealth and position (he could have been a Roman Senator) and devoted himself to Christianity, philanthropy, and simple pious living. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Alan Paton wrote Cry, The Beloved Country

Alan Paton
It is the birthday of South African writer Alan Paton (1903), whose best known novel, Cry, The Beloved Country (1948), brought international attention to the problems in South African society that led to apartheid. Published just before that system of racial segregation was established in the country, the book sought to raise awareness of the breakdown of the tribal system, destruction of native lands, native crime, and other conditions that resulted in national legislation relegating South African black natives to the status of non-citizens.

The book was a bestseller, with some 15 million copies in print. Paton had been working as principal of a reform school for African boys when he was writing the novel. The book's success gave him the financial freedom to leave his job and devote full time to writing.

Cry, The Beloved Country was adapted for film twice, first in 1951 (starring Canada Lee) and then in 1995 (starring James Earl Jones). Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Maxwell Anderson collaborated on the Broadway production Lost in the Stars, based on Paton's book. 

Paton became an anti-apartheid activist and helped found the Liberal Party of South Africa to try to stop apartheid. He served as the party's president until 1968, when the organization was dissolved by law. In 1960, Paton traveled to New York to receive the Freedom Award. When he returned, authorities confiscated his passport and didn't return it for 10 years.

Paton also wrote Too Late the Phalarope (1953), a novel about  an Afrikaner policeman' crisis of conscience; Hofmeyr (1964), a profile of a prominent South African statesman; Towards  the Mountain (1980), the first volume of his autobiography; Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (1981), a fictional story based on his political activist years; and Journey Continued (1988), the second volume of his autobiography, which was published after his death.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happy birthday, poet Robinson Jeffers

It is the birthday of poet Robinson Jeffers (1887), who came to prominence in the 1920s and became one of the best-selling American poets of all time, was featured with a cover story in Time magazine in 1932, wrote an acclaimed adaption of the Greek tragedy Medea that played on Broadway in 1947 with Dame Judith Anderson in the title role, and was widely criticized for his vehement and vocal opposition to America's entry into World War II. His volume Hungerfield and Other Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. Here he reads his poem Wise Men and Their Bad Hours.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Simone de Beauvoir wrote She Came to Stay

Simone de Beauvoir
It is the birthday of French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908), who is best known for her novels She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954) as well as her feminist writings, including The Second Sex (1949).

She met existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he was a student at Ecole normal superleure, a Paris university. De Beauvoir was not enrolled but sat in on classes anyway. Sartre proposed to her saying, "Let's sign a two-year lease." She didn't marry him but they had a close relationship for the rest of their lives. De Beauvoir never married and never had children. She had many lovers, both men and women. De Beauvoir and Sartre lived together for a time, and in 1935, two Russian sisters who were students came to live with them.

She Came to Stay is a highly fictionalized account of that episode in their lives. In the book the sisters, Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz, are combined as one character, Xaviere. The story begins in Paris just before World War II, and concerns the open relationship of Francoise and Pierre, and their younger friend Xaviere when they form a menage a trios. It examines jealousy, freedom and angst.

The Mandarins is set in Paris at the end of World War II and into the 1950s. It is based on De Beauvoir's life with Sartre, and other intellectuals and writers in their circle, including Albert Camus, Nelson Algren, and Arthur Koestler. The title comes from the imperial Chinese civil servants. De Beauvior's group sometimes saw themselves as ineffectual Mandarins trying to discover their role in post-war society.

The Second Sex examines the role of females in other species, throughout human history and in mythology. It also covers the growth of girls into women in modern times and the conditioning of women to believe they are the inferior gender. It was considered required reading among feminists during the 1960s.

De Beauvoir also wrote Must We Burn Sade? (1955), Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Force of Circumstance (1963), The Woman Destroyed (1967), When Things of the Spirit Come First (1979), and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Wilkie Collins, popular Victorian writer

Wilkie Collins
It is the birthday of Victorian writer Wilkie Collins (1824), who is best remembered for his novels The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866),  and The Moonstone (1867). He was one of the best paid and most popular 19th century writers. He is credited with creating the sensation novel genre, which dealt with then-shocking subject matter, such as murder, seduction, adultery, kidnapping, and bigamy. Scholar see his work as a precursor of the mystery and crime novels of later generations. For many years, Collins was a close friend of Charles Dickens, though they had a falling out in later years.

Collins' father was well-known Royal Academy landscape artist William Collins. The elder Collins wanted his son to follow him in the profession but when it became clear that Wilkie wouldn't pursue that career, the father wanted him to study law so he would have a steady income. Wilkie completed law studies but never practiced law.

As a student in boarding school, young Wilkie discovered his talent for storytelling when a classmate bullied him into telling him a story before going to sleep. Wilkie said if it hadn't been for the bully, he might never have been aware of his hidden power. His first published story appeared in a magazine when he was 19 years old. It was based on his experience as an apprentice clerk to a tea merchant. His first novel, a romance set in Tahiti, was rejected because, in his youthful exuberance, he had created scenes no respectable English publisher could print.

At 28, when he was still a law student, Collins met Charles Dickens, who was nearing 40 at the time, and was well established as a popular literary celebrity. Dickens published many of Collins' short stories and serialized some of his novels, first in Household Words (which Dickens edited) and later in All the Year Round (which Dickens owned). Dickens and Collins collaborated on theatrical productions and acted in plays together. They first appeared in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's work Not So Bad As We Seem right after they met in 1851. Dickens amateur theater company produced some of Collins' plays as well.

In his mid-30s, Collins began living with a widowed woman, Caroline Graves  and her daughter. Though they were never married, Collins once listed the woman as his wife on a census report. Dickens serialized Collins' mystery novel, The Woman in White,  beginning in 1860. The title character was based on Graves. Collins later married someone else, but returned to Graves (who had also married and left her husband). Collins maintained a home with Graves and a separate one with his wife for the rest of his life.

Collins' writing career made him wealthy and well known in England and America. But success brought other problems. Collins gained weight and suffered from gout. In seeking relief from pain, he became addicted to opium. Scholars say Collins unconventional domestic arrangements and his addiction led to a split with Dickens after many years of friendship.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Happy birthday, Zora Neale Hurston

It is the birthday of Florida folklorist, anthropologist, and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891), whose best known novel was Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a story of a teenager's transition into womanhood set in central and south Florida in the early 20th century. One of the key events in the book is the Hurricane of 1928 that hit the Lake Okeechobee area. It is considered one of the best English language novels written since the 1920s. Here is an excerpt about Their Eyes Were Watching God from a documentary, Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, by Tampa Bay area filmmaker Kristy Anderson. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco
It is the birthday of Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932), who may be best remembered for his handful of bestselling novels, beginning with The Name of the Rose (1980), though he is well respected in academia for his work in the study of medieval philosophy and his development of the discipline of semiotics or the study of signs and signification in various cultures. His family name came from his grandfather, who was an abandoned child, and was given the name by an official. It is an acronym of the Latin phrase ex caelis oblates, meaning a gift from the heavens.

Eco grew up in a small town in the mountains in northern Italy and was educated in a Roman Catholic school for boys. Though his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Eco studied medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin. He wrote a thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas. While he was in school, Eco left the Catholic Church and stopped believing in God.

Eco worked as the cultural editor for an Italian state radio station, and began a career of lecturing. Later, he taught at Harvard University, and received an honorary degree from Indiana University at Bloomington for his work with the school's Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies. He also has received honorary degrees from Rutgers University and University of Belgrade. Eco's first non-fiction book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was an extension of his thesis. Eco has a massive collection of more than 50,000 books.

The Name of the Rose takes place in an Italian monastery in 1327. It deals with a Franciscan friar's investigation of a series murders. The bestseller is full of literary and historical references. The friar, for instance, is William of Baskerville, who is described in terms reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The friar's name is a reference to the Holmes mystery Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a blind monk whose name, Jorge of Burgos, is a reference to Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom Eco counts as a major influence on his work. The book was adapted as a 1986 film starring Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham.

Eco also wrote Foucault's Pendulum (1988), a thriller about three idle book editors who make up a conspiracy theory about the Knights Templar and spur a modern-day quest for lost treasure; The Island of the Day Before (1994), about a man marooned on a ship in the 17th century; Baudolino (2000), about a heroic knight who saved a Byzantine historian during the Fourth Crusade and later, recounting his exploits, reveals himself to be a gifted teller of tall tales, raising the question about how much he told was true; and The Prague Cemetery (2010), about 19th century hoaxes that have contributed to present-day antisemitism.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Max Eastman was left before he was right

Max Eastman
It is the birthday of writer Max Eastman (1883), who was a prominent political activist, first for left-wing causes, then later for right-wing, anti-Communist movements. In later life, he described himself as a radical conservative. He was an avid supporter of the Harlem Renaissance. When he was 30, Eastman became editor of the socialist magazine The Masses. In his late 50s, he became a roving editor for Reader's Digest. In his 70s, he was a contributing editor to the conservative National Review.

Eastman was born in upstate New York to parents who were protestant ministers. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1915 and pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University but withdrew before accepting it. He studied under pragmatic philosopher John Dewey. Eastman lived in Greenwich Village with his sister and became active in the women's suffrage movement.

As editor of The Masses, he published the work of novelist Sherwood Anderson, Marxist Louise Bryant, poets Amy Lowell and Carl Sandburg, and Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. He advocated free love and birth control, denounced America's participation in World War I, and supported socialist Jack Reed's trip to Russia to report on the Bolshevik Revolution. He created, with his sister, The Liberator magazine and published the work of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and Helen Keller. He lived for almost two years in the Soviet Union and watched the power plays between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. He became Trotsky's friend. But his views of socialism began to change after his visit to Soviet Russia.

During the Depression, Eastman became critical of such socialist thinkers Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He became friends with British economist Friedrich Hayek and arranged for his book The Road to Serfdom (1943) to be serialized in Reader's Digest. At first, he supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist activism, but later criticized him as being too reactionary. Nevertheless, he grew to believe the Bolshevik Revolution had produced tyranny instead of freedom. Eastman was among the first contributing editors for the National Review and served on its Board of Associates but he eventually resigned because the magazine's pro-Christian leanings didn't jibe with his atheism. Eastman opposed the Vietnam War.

Among his books and articles are Enjoyment of Poetry (1913), The Sense of Humor (1921), Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (1925), Since Lenin Died (1925), Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1927), Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), Reflections on the Failure of Socialism (1955), and Seven Kinds of Goodness (1967).

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cicero's ideas influenced Europe, America

It is the birthday of the Roman philosopher Cicero (106 BC), one of ancient Rome's greatest writers and orators. He had a profound influence on European literature and thinking as well as the writings that lead to the French Revolution and American Revolution. His work is considered a primary source for the study of the last days of the Roman Empire. He excelled as a lawyer and an orator but he considered his political career to be his greatest achievement. He put down a plot to overthrow the government and had five of the perpetrators executed without a trial.

A talented student, Cicero translated Greek philosophical tracts into Latin, thus attracting attention of Rome's elite. He studied to become a lawyer. Cicero was a great admirer of the Greek philosopher Plato, and studied under the head of Plato's school who visited Rome. A fellow student, Pomponius (nicknamed Atticus) became a lifelong friend. Cicero's letters to Atticus are among the most studied documents of ancient Rome. Cicero was a fearless young lawyer. In his first case, he defended a man accused of killing his father. Cicero risked being murdered by accusing an ally of the then-dictator of Rome of the crime. Nevertheless, Cicero's client was acquitted. However, Cicero subsequently went on an extended trip abroad, possibly to avoid retribution.

Later, in a series of dramatic trials, Cicero successfully prosecuted the governor of Sicily for plundering, and in the process became admired as the greatest orator in Rome. He was a staunch defender of the Roman Republic and even resisted an offer from Julius Caesar to form a triumvirate to rule the empire. In 63 BC, Cicero was elected to Consul, Rome's highest elected office.

During his one-year term, Cicero foiled a conspiracy to murder him and overthrow the republic. His vociferous speeches before the Roman Senate led to the hasty exodus from the city by a rival politician who was behind the conspiracy. The politician's allies were detained, and Cicero argued for a decree from the Senate declaring martial law, which he was granted. Under martial law, Cicero had the conspirators strangled. Five years later, another rival successfully sponsored a law threatening to exile anyone who had killed a Roman citizen without due process. Cicero knew the law was aimed at him and he left Rome, exiling himself in Greece. While he was in exile, he wrote to his friend Atticus about his ordeal.

Upon is return to Rome, Cicero became a popular leader in the Senate once again, but eventually made a bitter rival of Mark Antony, who argued to have him declared an enemy of the state. Cicero was hunted down as he tried to escape to Macedonia, and murdered. His head and hands were cut off and displayed in the Roman Forum. Mark Antony's wife is said to have pulled Cicero's tongue out of his severed head and jabbed it with a hairpin to revile his talent as an orator.

Cicero's speeches, writing in rhetoric and philosophy, and letters to friends and relatives have been preserved. Among the best known are On the Commonwealth (six books published between 54 and 51 BC), On The Laws (publication year unknown), On Duties (44 BC), and letters to Atticus (68-43 BC). Cicero was admired during the Dark Ages by Medieval philosophers, and his ideas led to the Renaissance. His On Duties was the second books (after Gutenberg's Bible) to be published after the invention of the printing press. John Adams wrote of him: "As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Philip Freneau edited Jefferson's newspaper

Philip Freneau
It is the birthday of early American poet and newspaper editor Philip Freneau (1752), who was known as the poet of the American Revolution. He wrote poems and essays critical of the British rulers before the Revolutionary War. He served on an American privateer that attacked British ships. At the request of Thomas Jefferson, Freneau served as editor of the National Gazette, a partisan newspaper aimed at Alexander Hamilton's Federalists.

Freneau's father was a French Huguenot wine merchant, whose family settled in America after fleeing religious persecution in France. His mother was Scottish. Freneau was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from College of New Jersey (later Princeton College) in 1771. He was a friend and classmate of James Madison, who was an unsuccessful suitor to his sister Mary. Aaron Burr was another classmate.

While he was a student, Freneau cowrote with Hugh Henry Brackenridge (later to become a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court), Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca, a satire about a clergy who is commanded by an apparition to go to Mecca after plagiarizing the work of Lucian, the Assyrian satirist who wrote in ancient Rome and Greece. The book was said to be a novel about actual events and was one of the first novels published in America. As graduating seniors, he and Brackenridge also wrote A Poem, On the Rising Glory of America for their Commencement Day. (Freneau published his own version in 1786).

In 1776, Freneau went to the West Indies (where he wrote the poems The Beauties of Santa Cruz and The House of Night), but returned within two years and acquired ownership of a privateering ship, Aurora. He served on its crew, and when a British man-of-war captured the Aurora, Freneau was held on a British prison ship for six weeks. His poem The British Prison-Ship (1780) details the harsh treatment he received aboard the ship.

Ten years later, Freneau became assistant editor of a newspaper in New York. By then, Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State and James Madison was active in national politics. They persuaded Freneau to become editor of a weekly Democratic-Republican newspaper they were creating to counter the views of The Gazette of the United States that carried the Federalist writing of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John Adams. Jefferson and Madison's National Gazette regularly lambasted the Washington administration.

Freneau's first two collections of poems were Poetry (1786) and Miscellaneous Works (1788). He also produced collections published in 1795, 1809, and 1815. He wrote such poems as The Wild Honey Suckle (1786) and The Indian Burying Ground (1787).

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