Saturday, August 31, 2013

Happy birthday, educator Maria Montessori

Italy's 1000-lire bill honors Dr. Maria Montessori.
It is the birthday of Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870), who developed an early childhood educational system that mirrors natural human development and emphasizes hands-on discovery, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and use of specialized educational materials. She was a physician, and she developed her ideas about education while working with mentally disabled children in Rome. Montessori wrote extensively about education, beginning in 1909.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Happy birthday, Mary (Frankenstein) Shelley

It is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797), who created one of the most beloved monsters of all time in her gothic novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). Shelley also wrote Mathilda (1959), a story of incest and suicide. She also edited the works of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here is the story of how Frankenstein got written, delightfully told by Jack Perkins.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Happy birthday, Edward Carpenter

It is the birthday of English Socialist poet Edward Carpenter (1844), who is best remembered for his philosophical treatise Civilization, Its Cause and Cure (1891), in which he advances the idea that civilization is a disease that human societies go through before expiring. He proposed that humanity seek a closer association with the land and inner being to survive. He was instrumental in establishing the socialist Fabian Society in England. Carpenter also was an early gay activist. He wrote The Intermediate Sex (1908). He influenced D.H. Lawrence and inspired E.M. Forster's novel Maurice (1971).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Happy birthday, Roger Tory Peterson

Photograph of Roger Tory Peterson by Alfred Eisenstadt
It is the birthday of ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson (1908), who created the first modern field guide with his first book, A Field Guide to the Birds (1934). Inspired by his seventh-grade teacher, an ardent birding enthusiast, Peterson studied, painted and photographed birds throughout his life. Peterson guides to plants and animals are considered essential for those pursuing study of the natural world. He is credited with setting the stage for the worldwide environmental movement.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Earl Derr Biggers wrote Charlie Chan series

Biggers finished The House Without a Key after a vacation in Hawaii. Inset: Charlie Chan of the movies.
It is the birthday of writer Earl Derr Biggers (1884), who created the Charlie Chan detective series. His six novels became the basis of a popular series of films that even achieved a following in China. Biggers based the Charlie Chan character on a Honolulu police detective who investigated opium smuggling and gambling. Biggers was on vacation in Hawaii and read about the detective, Chang Apana, in newspaper reports. Biggers was inspired to insert the Chan character halfway through the book he was working on, House Without a Key (1925). Chan was so popular with readers that Biggers featured him in the subsequent novels in the series, which include The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind That Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), and Keeper of the Keys (1932).

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A.K. Tolstoy was censored in Russia

It is the birthday of Russian writer A.K. Tolstoy (1817), older second cousin of novelist Leo Tolstoy, and best known for his dramatic trilogy, The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1866), Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870). All three were banned in Russia when they were first published. Tolstoy poked fun at Russian leadership with the poetic parody History of the Russian State from Gostomysi to Timashev (1886), which was also banned. His gothic novella, The Vampire (1841), wasn't even published under his name. It passed the censors but critics didn't think much of it. His historical novel, Prince Serebrenni (1874), is also known as The Silver Knight. It is set in 16th century Russia. It passed both the censors and the critics. Tolstoy was the first Russian writer to portray Ivan the Terrible as a complex, intelligent, remorseful, humorous, and yet, sadistic man.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Happy birthday, humorist Will Cuppy

It is the birthday of humorist Will Cuppy (1884), who is best remembered for a book he didn't even finish before he died. A biting satire on history called The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950) was finished by Cuppy's friend, writer and filmmaker Fred Feldkamp, who also compiled and published a satirical almanac by Cuppy, How to Get from January to December (1951). For 23 years, Cuppy wrote a literary column for the New York Tribune (later the New York Herald Tribune). He also wrote How to be a Hermit (1929), based on his eight-year experience living in a shack on unpopulated Jones Beach off Long Island in the 1920s. Cuppy's columns for The New Yorker were compiled into two books, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931) and How to Become Extinct (1941).

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Happy birthday, composer Josef Strauss

It is the birthday of Austrian composer Josef Strauss (1927), the middle brother of the Viennese musical dynasty that included Johann Strauss II (1825) and Eduard Strauss (1835). Their father, Johann Strauss I (1804), was a composer, too, and encouraged his sons' talents, though he wanted Josef to become an engineer. Johann II, also known as the Son, was called the Waltz King. He wrote The Blue Danube and Tales of the Vienna Woods and other of the most well-known Strauss waltzes. He once said of brother Josef, who was called Pepi in the family, "Pepi is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

M.M. Kaye wrote The Far Pavilions

It is the birthday of writer M.M. Kaye (1908), who is remembered for her best-selling epic novel The Far Pavilions (1978), the story of an English officer during the British rule of India. The book drew on Mary Margaret Kaye's experiences as a child and young adult in India and is partly based on her grandfather's writings. It sold millions of copies. Kaye also wrote Shadow of the Moon (1957) and Trade Wind (1963) as well as an autobiographical trilogy The Sun in the Morning (1990), Golden Afternoon (1997), and Enchanted Evening (1999). Her Death in … series was set in various duty stations of her British army officer husband, including Berlin, Cyprus,  Kashmir, Kenya, and Zanzibar. The Far Pavilions was adapted as HBO's first miniseries (1984) and as a British stage musical (2005).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Happy birthday, Jack Teagarden

It is the birthday of jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden (1905), who was known as the father of the jazz trombone and the best trombone player in the world. He created an innovative self-taught playing style, expanded the role of the trombone in jazz bands, and injected a blues element to nearly everything he played. He was an accomplished vocalist, composer and bandleader as well. He recorded with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy McPartland. He appeared in the movies The Birth of the Blues (1941), The Strip (1951), The Glass Wall (1953), and Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), a documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. This 1956 TV program Stars of Jazz features Jack Teagarden.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Happy birthday, aero pioneer Orville Wright

It is the birthday of aviation pioneer Orville Wright (1871), who is credited, along with this brother Wilbur, with building the world's first successful airplane because they concentrated on designing a three-axis control to allow the pilot to steer the flying machine. After years of the brothers' experimenting, Orville finally piloted the first powered aircraft on December 17, 1903 on sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The world took little note. There were only five witnesses. It was not until Wilbur's flight in August 1908 in Paris the public acclaimed the Wright brothers' achievement. The following month, Orville flew their flying machine for more than an hour for U.S. Army officials in Virginia. Despite the caption, the video is from a later demonstration, not 1903.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Happy birthday, Gene Stratton-Porter

It is the birthday of writer Gene Stratton-Porter (1863), who is remembered for her best-selling novels Freckles (1904) and A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), both set in Indiana's Limberlost Swamp, a vast wetlands area where she lived. Stratton-Porter was also a naturalist and wildlife photographer. Some of her favorite subjects were the birds and moths of Limberlost Swamp. Stratton-Porter also wrote The Song of the Cardinal (1903), At the Foot of the Rainbow (1907), The Harvester (1911), Laddie (1913), Michael O'Halloran (1915), A Daughter of the Land (1918), Her Father's Daughter (1921), The White Flag (1923), The Keeper of the Bees (1925), and The Magic Garden (1927). Many of Stratton-Porter's books were adapted for film.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Maxwell: The New Yorker fiction editor

It is the birthday of editor and writer William Maxwell (1908), who was fiction editor for The New Yorker magazine from 1936 to 1975, and in that position served as mentor to such literary luminaries as John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, John O'Hara, J.D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike, and Eudora Welty, who said of him, "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters." Maxwell also wrote six novels and numerous short stories. His novels include Bright Center of Heaven (1934), They Came Like Swallows (1937), The Folded Leaf (1945), Time Will Darken (1948), The Chateau (1961), and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980). Maxwell was still contributing to The New Yorker at 91. He died within a year.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Happy birthday, Thomas de Quincey

It is the birthday of English writer Thomas de Quincey (1785), who is best remembered  for his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). De Quincey, raised by  a single mother after his father died, ran away from boarding school, struggled and starved in life on the road, was accidentally found by friends and taken home, went to Oxford where he became a loner and strung out on drugs, finished his studies but didn't take the final exam to get a degree, lived in a lake cottage formerly occupied by a successful poet and settled down to do serious literary work to earn a living, became a newspaper editor but was fired because he couldn't meet deadlines, then wrote a tell-all about his earlier drug-addled life and became famous. He did this 200 years ago. The poet was William Wordsworth.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Happy birthday, legend Doc Holliday

It is the birthday of Doc Holliday (1851), the colorful dentist turned gambler and gunfighter of the Old West. His legendary prowess with a six-shooter may have been more fiction than fact but his friendship with another legend, lawman Wyatt Earp, was not. Scholars document at least one occasion when Holliday's quick trigger saved Earp's life, but other accounts are largely fictional. In any case, the two are remembered for the Gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, a 30-second shootout that left Holliday wounded and three outlaws dead. The incident became well known after the publication of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), a mostly fictional biography by Stuart Lake, who had been a professional wrestling promoter and a press aide to Teddy Roosevelt when he ran for president in 1912. Holliday died of tuberculosis in Colorado in 1887.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

William Caxton printed first book in English

Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry,Westminster (1851)
It is the birthday, more or less, of Englishman William Caxton (c. 1422), who was the first English book publisher and bookseller in England. (Scholars don't really know when Caxton was born.) He published the first book in the English language, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Torye  (c. 1475),  a French romance novel that Caxton translated. Caxton printed it in the Flemish city of Bruges on the presses of Colard Mansion, a well-known calligrapher. In 1476, Caxton set up a press in Westminster. There he printed the first dated book in English, Dictes and Sayenges of the Phylosophers, on November 18, 1477. Caxton also printed Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (c. 1478) (and a second edition c. 1484), The Myrrour of the World (1481), an encyclopedia that was the first illustrated English book, John Gower's Confessio amanitas (1483), and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'arthur (1485). Caxton published about 100 books, some of them special commissions for wealthy merchants, nobles and kings.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Thomas Bewick improved wood engraving

It is the birthday of English engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick (1753), who is remembered for pioneering a new technique of engraving boxwood across the grain that allowed for more detailed illustrations. His technique made wood engraving the printing method of choice for a hundred years. Bewick also wrote, illustrated and published A History of British Birds (two volumes, published in 1797 and 1804), the prototype of modern field guides. Bewick's shop also produced bookplates, letterhead stationery, shop advertising cards, and fine art prints. He illustrated Select Fables (1776) for bookseller/publisher Robert Dodsley and contributed to later volumes by Dodsley. He also published a three-volume The Fables of Aesop and Others (1818), using some of the earlier illustrations.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hieronymus Praetorius composed chorals

It is the birthday of German Baroque composer Hieronymus Praetorius (1560), who wrote Masses and other choral pieces using many voices divided into several groups in the then-progressive Venetian polychoral style. He also wrote pieces for accompaniment by organ as he was an organist as well a choral director. His father Jacob was a composer as was his son, also named Jacob. Hieronymus is particularly remembered for 10 settings of the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary (eight of which survive). Here is a presentation of his Magnificat II.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy birthday, the real Mary Poppins

It is the birthday of writer Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899), who created the magical English nanny Mary Poppins, and wrote seven sequels after the initial success of her first novel Mary Poppins (1934). While working in the British Ministry of Information in New York during World War II, Roy Disney contacted her about adapting the story for a Disney film. She was not pleased with the results, especially the animation, and never allowed another Disney production. In the 1990s, she agreed to a British stage version as long as no Americans were involved. She died in 1996 at the age of 96. Here is a fascinating British television program about Pamela Travers.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Happy birthday, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

It is the birthday of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her novel The Yearling (1938), the beloved coming-of-age story set in the Florida backwoods in the late 1800s. This video from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tells about Rawlings' arrival in Florida in 1928.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dancer Mata Hari was executed as a spy

It is the birthday of Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari (1876), who was convicted in a secret French military trial of espionage during World War I and executed by firing squad in 1917. She was accused of being a double agent for France and Germany, and the prosecutor proclaimed her the world's greatest woman spy, but recent scholarship suggests she was convicted on evidence as flimsy as her costumes and that she was far more successful as a risqué dancer and courtesan than as a spy. She had many military officers as lovers, she spoke four languages fluently, traveled alone throughout Europe, and had plenty of money, all factors that probably led to her arrest. She faced her executioners without a blindfold or being bound to a stake. A silent Mata Hari film was made in 1927, Greta Garbo starred as Mata Hari in a 1931 and Sylvia Kristel starred in a 1985 version.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Judah P. Benjamin was CSA cabinet member

Benjamin appeared on the CSA two-dollar bill. Top left: Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, where Benjamin hid.
It is the birthday of Judah P. Benjamin (1811), who served in several cabinet positions for the Confederate States of America. He was born in the West Indies but came with his family to the United States and became a citizen. While serving as U.S. senator from Louisiana, Benjamin felt insulted by something Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi said about him on the Senate floor so he challenged Davis to a duel. Davis apologized and the two became close friends. When Louisiana seceded from the Union, Benjamin resigned his post. CSA President Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin Attorney General, then later Secretary of War and then Secretary of State. When the Confederacy collapsed, Benjamin and other cabinet members fled to escape prosecution. Benjamin took refuge at the Gamble Mansion in Ellenton near Bradenton and eventually escaped to the Bahamas and traveled to England, where he became a successful corporate lawyer. Benjamin wrote Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property (1868), still considered an important work in commercial law in England.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Happy birthday, Elephant Man

It is the birthday of the Elephant Man (1862), whose severe deformities made him more than a curiosity in Victorian England and throughout Europe. Unable to find conventional work, Joseph Merrick hired himself out to be exhibited as a human novelty. Showmen promoted him as "Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant." He made money from a biographical pamphlet that was published under his name, The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick (1884). Though his ailment was never fully diagnosed, Merrick fell under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves and lived at the end of his life at London Hospital. He died at the age of 27. Treves wrote The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923). Other books on Merrick include Ashley Montegu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971), The True Story of the Elephant Man (1992), and Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and his Interpreters (1992). Merrick's story was told in a Broadway play, The Elephant Man (1979) and a film of the same name in 1980.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Happy birthday, poet Rupert Brooke

It is the birthday of English poet Rupert Brooke (1887), who is remembered for his stirringly patriotic poetry during World War I, especially The Soldier (1914), which contains the lines: "If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England." He was a boyishly handsome young man and quite popular. Virginia Woolf told a friend she went skinny-dipping with him in the moonlight. He was considered a member of the Georgian Poets, whose work featured hedonism, romanticism and sentimentality, and was notable for bridging the period between the Victorian era and Modernism. He died from an infected mosquito bite while on a naval expedition in the Aegean Sea. He is buried on the Greek island of Skyros.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Happy birthday, artist John French Sloan

In the Wake of the Ferry (1907) was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp honoring Sloan in 1971.
It is the birthday of artist John French Sloan (1871), who is best known as one of the founders of the Ashcan school of art, so called for the painters' penchant for depicting realistic urban scenes in New York City's working-class neighborhoods. It was developed around Robert Henri, Sloan's friend and mentor, and flourished briefly among newspaper illustrators in Philadelphia in the first decades of the 20th century. Sloan's work evolved over the years. For 30 years, he spent summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, painting landscapes and scenes in the small Spanish town. Here is a sideshow of Sloan's work:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dana, Melville share birthday, love of the sea

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and Herman Melville
It is the birthday of writers Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815) and Herman Melville (1819), who were contemporaries. They not only shared a birthday but also a love of the sea.

Dana, though born into an educated, upper class New England family, decided to take time off from his studies at Harvard to sign on as an able-bodied seaman on a merchant vessel bound for California. He returned to Boston, finished school and became a lawyer. He published Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and then wrote a handbook for seafarers, The Seaman's Friend (1841). Dana pursued a lucrative career as a lawyer.

Melville, who was four years younger, was enthralled with Dana's book, though scholars doubt that he was spurred to go to sea because of it. Melville spent much longer time at sea. He was born in New York City to an established family with Boston roots, but his father went bankrupt and then died when Herman was 12. As a youth, he first worked on a ship bound for Liverpool. Later he worked aboard a whaler, jumped ship in the South Pacific, lived among island natives, became a beachcomber, worked on other ships, lived in Hawaii and eventually returned to Boston and wrote about his adventures.

In 1850, he wrote to Dana that he was halfway through writing Moby-Dick (1851). They exchanged letters but scholars say the younger Melville was much more open and detailed in his. Dana seemed stilted and reserved, though he did apparently help Melville find a publisher in London. Melville was a far more prolific writer, and critics say, a far better one. Moby-Dick is considered to be among the greatest American novels and a fine example of world literature.

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