This Day In Literary History
On May 25th, 1803, the legendary American poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson's father, Rev. William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister who died two weeks before his son's eighth birthday.
Young Ralph would be raised by his mother and other female family members, all of whom were both intellectuals and devoutly religious. Emerson was especially close to his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. They wrote to each other frequently until her death in 1863.
At the age of 9, Emerson attended Boston Latin School, then at 14, he went to Harvard College, where he was appointed freshman messenger for the president.
During his junior year, he began compiling a list of books he'd read and started keeping a journal in a series of notebooks, which he called the Wide World. In his senior year, he served as Class Poet and recited an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, though by all accounts, he was an average student.
After graduating Harvard, Emerson helped his brother run a school for young women originally run out of their mother's house. Emerson took over the school when his brother went off study divinity.
Emerson hated running the school, as he was very awkward around women. But it gave him the experience that enabled him to work as a schoolmaster for a few years before going to divinity school himself.
Emerson was most likely bisexual. During his Harvard years, he wrote in his journal of being "strangely attracted" to a male classmate by the ironic name of Martin Gay, about whom he wrote sexually charged poems. Emerson also wrote of his other male infatuations, including the legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
However, in 1829, not long after being ordained as a junior pastor at Boston's Second Church, Emerson met a young girl named Ellen Louisa Tucker and fell love with her. He married her when she turned 18 - even though she was stricken with tuberculosis.
When Ellen died two years later, Emerson was devastated and visited her grave frequently. His wife's death forced him to come to terms with his simmering discontent with religion.
In his journal, he wrote, "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He resigned as pastor.
Emerson then toured Europe, writing of his travels in English Traits (1856). During his trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a strong influence, and Emerson would serve as his unofficial literary agent in the U.S., maintaining a lifelong friendship with him.
In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, which is now a historical landmark. He married his second wife Lydia Jackson in September, 1835, and she bore him four children: Waldo, Edith, Ellen, and Edward. Ellen was named after Emerson's first wife at Lydia's suggestion.
The following year, Emerson and some like-minded intellectuals formed the Transcendental Club, which held its first meeting on September 19, 1836. Shortly thereafter, he published his first essay, Nature.
In this essay, Emerson puts forth the foundation of transcendentalism, defining nature - the very universe - as an all-encompassing divine entity that is part of us, rather than a kingdom ruled by a separate divine entity.
In pursuing his new philosophy, Emerson delved into the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedic Texts - all of which are the ancient, sacred writings of the Hindu religion.
A year later, Emerson delivered his famous Phi Beta Kappa Address at Cambridge, where he issued a declaration of literary independence from Europe, urging his fellow American writers to create a literary style all their own, free from European influence.
Around this time, Emerson struck up a friendship with writer Henry David Thoreau and asked him if he kept a journal. Thoreau's fascination with Emerson's journaling practice strongly influenced his own writing. He became Emerson's protege.
On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Harvard Divinity School to deliver the graduation address at Divinity Hall. In what came to be known as his famous Divinity School Address, Emerson disputed biblical miracles and proclaimed Jesus to be neither God himself nor the son of God.
He was simply a great man and spiritual teacher whom organized Christianity had turned into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo." Emerson's address caused considerable outrage. He was denounced as an atheist and a corrupter of young people's minds.
Nevertheless, Emerson remained a popular lecturer in New England and throughout the country. He also toured England, Ireland, and Scotland. By the 1850s, he was giving up to 80 lectures a year. His earnings from the lectures enabled him to buy eleven acres of land near Walden Pond.
In 1845, Emerson published his classic essay The Over-soul, which is clearly influenced by the Vedic Texts and has a distinct tone of non-dualism:
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
In 1847, Emerson published his first book of poetry, simply titled Poems. Among these is Threnody, a heart wrenching, dazzlingly lyrical ode to grief written after Emerson lost his firstborn son Waldo to scarlet fever in 1842. His second book of poetry, May-Day and Other Poems, was published in 1867.
In 1860, Emerson, a ferocious abolitionist, voted for Abraham Lincoln for President, but was greatly disappointed by Lincoln's initial inclination to allow the Southern states to maintain the institution of slavery in order to preserve the Union.
On January 31st, 1862, Emerson gave a public lecture in Washington DC, declaring "The South calls slavery an institution. I call it destitution. Emancipation is the demand of civilization." The next day, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln. He came away with a more favorable opinion of the President.
The decade of the 1870s marked the beginning of the end of Emerson's career. His Concord home burned down in July of 1872, and though his friends collected over $15,000 in donations to help him and his family rebuild, it added to the stress caused by the fact that Emerson's memory was failing.
In 1874, he edited and published a poetry anthology called Parnassus. By the end of the decade, his memory had failed considerably, and in 1879, at the age of 76, he finally retired from lecturing. When asked by friends how he felt, Emerson would reply in classic form "Quite well. I have lost all my mental faculties, but am perfectly well."
On April 19th, 1882, despite having a cold, Emerson went out for a walk and got caught in the rain. His cold turned into pneumonia, and he died eight days later at the age of 79.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the all-time great American intellectuals - a poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator years, if not decades, ahead of his time. He will always have a place in the annals of literary history.
Quote Of The Day
"Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which, by birth and quality, is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today's Video features a complete reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic essay, The Poet. Enjoy!
Friday, May 25, 2018
Thursday, May 24, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On May 24th, 1951, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, the classic short story collection by the famous American writer Carson McCullers, was published. It included the title novella and five other stories.
Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, exploded onto the literary scene in 1940, with the publication of her classic debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Critics were floored by her sad and surreal tale of an intelligent, compassionate deaf-mute man who touches the lives of several unhappy people at the expense of his own happiness. McCullers was only 23 years old when she wrote the profound and moving novel.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, her classic short story collection, was most famous for its title novella. Set in a small Southern town, it told the story of Miss Amelia, a shopkeeper whom the townspeople believe to be a cold and calculating woman who never acts without reason.
Miss Amelia is also known for being masculine, bullying, confrontational, and greedy, and for wanting nothing to do with love, thanks to a rotten marriage that lasted only ten days.
One day, a hunchbacked man called Lymon arrives in town, carrying all of his belongings in one suitcase. He claims to be Miss Amelia's cousin, and has an old photograph that he says proves his claim. When Miss Amelia takes him in, the townspeople are shocked.
Assuming that she has ulterior motives, after not seeing Lymon in town for a while, they suspect that Miss Amelia murdered him for his meager belongings. Then they find him safe and sound in her store.
What the townspeople don't realize is that the lonely Miss Amelia's relationship with her long lost cousin has changed her for the better. Caring for him has opened her heart. She becomes more hospitable to her customers and even serves them food and liquor, turning her store into a cafe.
Lymon the hunchback is kind and grateful for the hospitality shown by Miss Amelia, but he also has faults. He has a dependent personality, he craves attention, he's a gossip, and he enjoys baiting people against each other and then watching them fight.
When Miss Amelia's ex-husband Marvin Macy suddenly shows up, Lymon comes to admire him greatly, not realizing that the handsome, charismatic Marvin is a cruel sociopath out for revenge against Miss Amelia, whom he blames for breaking his heart and unleashing the rage inside him that led to his crime spree and subsequent incarceration.
Marvin manipulates Lymon into helping him carry out his revenge against Miss Amelia, which culminates in the sacking of her store and the theft of her curios and money. Then in a final, crushing blow, Marvin invites Lymon to leave town with him, taking away the only one who ever really loved Miss Amelia.
Carson McCullers got the idea to write The Ballad of the Sad Cafe while out drinking with her friends George Davis (editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine) and British poet W.H. Auden. They were at a bar one night when Carson noticed two particular customers walk in - a very tall, masculine woman accompanied by a small, hunchbacked man.
Around this time, McCullers had been living in a famous boarding house in Brooklyn run by George Davis. In addition to McCullers and Auden, the boarding house had been home to some of the era's greatest bohemian writers, artists, and actors.
Some of Davis' other tenants included Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee. When McCullers lived there, they held evening gatherings where George Davis played piano - in the nude - while a gallon jug of wine was passed around. W.H. Auden loved to play housemother to what he called "our menagerie."
With the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, Carson McCullers once again established herself as one of the greatest writers of her generation. The title novella would be adapted as a stage play by the legendary playwright, Edward Albee.
Albee had intended for Carson to play the role of the narrator, but by the time the play opened in the fall of 1963, her chronically poor health had deteriorated severely. She did attend the play's opening night, but had to do so in a wheelchair. She died four years later at the age of 50.
In 1991, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film by producer Ismail Merchant of the Merchant-Ivory film production company. It starred Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Amelia, Cork Hubbert as Lymon, and Keith Carradine as Marvin Macy.
Quote Of The Day
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing." - Carson McCullers
Today's video features a complete reading of A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., a short story from Carson McCullers' collection, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works. Enjoy!
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On May 23rd, 1910, the famous American children's book writer Margaret Wise Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York. The second of three children, she and her siblings suffered from their parents' rotten marriage. When Margaret had the opportunity to go to boarding school, she readily accepted.
Margaret graduated from Hollins College in 1932 with an English degree. She became a teacher, and in her spare time, an art student. But her true passion was writing, and she decided to write children's books. Her first, When the Wind Blew, was published in 1937.
Margaret Wise Brown would author dozens of children's books and work with different illustrators. Her most famous illustrator was Clement Hurd, who drew the pictures for her most famous book, a classic first published in 1947.
Goodnight Moon featured a story in the form of a rhyming poem which told of a bunny's unusual bedtime ritual: saying goodnight to various objects in his room. The story takes place entirely in the bedroom, and the incredibly detailed illustrations change slightly from page to page.
The subtle but noticeable changes in the same basic images were deliberately included so that the attentive child (or adult) reading the book would catch them.
The changes included socks that disappear, different numbers of books on the bookshelf, different stripes on the bunny's nightshirt, and the hands on the two clocks moving.
The gentle story and unforgettable pictures would make Goodnight Moon an all-time favorite. Parents still read it to their young children at bedtime. The book would be adapted for cable TV in 1999 as part of the animated HBO special, Goodnight Moon and Other Sleepytime Tales.
Over the years, new editions of Goodnight Moon would be published with different illustrations, but the original edition, with Clement Hurd's memorable illustrations, is still in print. The most recent edition was digitally altered for being politically incorrect.
Unlike other classic children's books where the text or illustrations were cut or altered, it was the photograph of Hurd that was digitally altered to remove the cigarette he held, leaving his fingers extended, but holding nothing.
Other classic children's books by Margaret Wise Brown include The Little Island (1946), which won a Caldecott Honor recognition, and Little Lost Lamb (1947), which won the Caldecott Medal. She also wrote several books for the famous Little Golden Books line.
The extremely prolific Brown would write dozens of children's books. She once claimed that every morning, she would wake up with a "head full of stories" that she had to put on paper. She fought hard for royalties at a time when most publishers would only pay writers a flat fee for their manuscripts.
As a writer, she employed a pioneering "here and now" philosophy, believing that children would rather read stories based on their own lives than read fairy tales and fables.
Brown enjoyed a flamboyant personal life. An early feminist and openly bisexual, she once dated Prince Juan Carlos of Spain. Later, she began a relationship with poet, playwright, and actress Blanche Oelrichs.
Oelrichs was best known by her pen name, Michael Strange, and most famous for being the ex-wife of legendary actor John Barrymore, who had starred in her play, Clair de Lune.
In 1952, after her relationship with Oelrichs had ended, Margaret met John Stillman "Pebbles" Rockefeller Jr. at a party and it was love at first sight.
They became engaged, but sadly, while on a book promotional tour in France, she died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism - a complication from emergency surgery for an ovarian cyst. She was 42 years old.
After Brown's death, her will revealed that she had bequeathed the royalties for many of her books to Albert Clarke, a neighbor boy who was nine years old when she died. Clarke was a troubled boy who grew up to be a troubled adult. He squandered the millions he made from Brown's royalties.
Clarke once claimed that he was Brown's illegitimate son, a claim that was widely dismissed. However, since Brown was cremated and her ashes scattered in the sea near her home in Maine, the claim couldn't be disproved by a blood test.
Brown's sister, Roberta Brown Rauch, later discovered a cache of over 70 unpublished manuscripts that Margaret had written. Unable to get them published, Roberta kept them in a cedar trunk for decades. They were rediscovered by Amy Gary of the publishing firm WaterMark, Inc. in 1991.
Quote Of The Day
“In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child's need for quietness is the same today as it has always been - it may even be greater - for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.” - Margaret Wise Brown
Today's video features the animated adaptation of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's book, Goodnight Moon - narrated by Susan Sarandon. Enjoy!
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On May 22nd, 1859, the legendary English writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The son of a drunkard, his father's only accomplishment in life was siring an intellectually gifted child.
At the age of eight, Arthur Conan Doyle was sent to a Jesuit prep school called Hodder Place. From there, he attended a Jesuit university, Stonyhurst College, but after graduating in 1875, he cast off the yoke of Christianity and became an agnostic.
For the next five years, Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. During this time, he began writing short stories. He sold his first story to Chambers's Edinburgh Journal before his 20th birthday.
In 1882, he joined his classmate George Budd in a Plymouth medical practice, but their relationship soon soured. Conan Doyle left for Portsmouth, where he set up his own medical practice. Unsuccessful at first, he began writing stories again while waiting for patients.
After many rejections, his debut novel A Study In Scarlet was published, first in 1887 by Beeton's Christmas Annual magazine, then in book form a year later, with illustrations by his father, Charles.
The novel's main character was a detective called Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant, analytical, and laid-back Holmes was assisted by his friend, Dr. John Watson, who also served as narrator for the duo's adventures.
When he wasn't solving crimes, Holmes' passions included playing the violin and enjoying a good game of chess. He also used cocaine and morphine to escape from "the dull routine of existence."
As a detective, Holmes wasn't above deceiving the police or concealing evidence if necessary to solve the crime. His main nemesis was the evil Professor Moriarty, who possessed an intellect comparable to Holmes.
A Study In Scarlet was the first of four novels and 56 short stories to feature Sherlock Holmes, who would become one of the greatest iconic literary characters of all time.
Conan Doyle himself would later become a real life sleuth, investigating closed cases where he believed that the defendants had been wrongfully convicted.
In 1906, his first case, that of a half-English, half-Indian lawyer named George Edalji convicted of writing threatening letters and mutilating animals, led to the establishment of England's Court of Criminal Appeal a year later.
In addition to the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Conan Doyle's large body of work also included a series of science fiction writings featuring the character of Professor Challenger.
Though he possessed a brilliant mind like Sherlock Holmes, he was far from laid-back and described as "a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science." Conan Doyle's first work to feature Professor Challenger, a novel called The Lost World, was published in 1912.
In it, Professor Challenger claims to have discovered a South American plateau where dinosaurs still exist. A skeptical reporter, Edward Malone, accompanies Challenger on an expedition and finds that the irascible scientist was right. Not only are there dinosaurs in the Lost World, but a race of ape-men as well.
Conan Doyle was a believer in the supernatural world and wrote two nonfiction books on the subject, The Coming Of The Fairies (1921) and The History Of Spiritualism (1926).
In the 1920s, he became friends with the legendary American magician Harry Houdini, but Houdini's work as a prominent debunker of spiritualism soon led to a bitter falling out between the two men.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, an honor he believed was bestowed as the result of The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, a pamphlet he had written justifying England's role in the Boer War to an outraged world.
He later wrote a non-fiction book on the subject called The Great Boer War. He died in 1930 of a heart attack at the age of 71. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest mystery writers of all time.
Quote Of The Day
"My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Today's video features the only filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle known to exist - an early talkie shot in October of 1928 for a Movietone News newsreel. Enjoy!
Monday, May 21, 2018
Allen Itz, poet, photographer and friend, has included my poem, "Father and Son," on his blog, Here and Now. Mine is the second poem as you scroll down.
Friday, May 18, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On May 18th, 1593, a warrant was issued by the Queen's Privy Council for the arrest of the legendary English playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe. The warrant accused Marlowe of spreading "blasphemous and damnable opinions."
Five days earlier, Marlowe's friend, roommate, and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been arrested and charged with the same crime. During an interrogation in which Kyd was horribly tortured, he claimed that offending documents found in his possession really belonged to Marlowe.
Marlowe was subsequently arrested. He was released on bail while the prosecutors prepared their case. The day before Marlowe was scheduled to appear in court, he was killed in a drunken brawl when a dagger was driven through his eye. He was 29 years old.
Although in life, he had been a controversial personality - he was known to be a hot-tempered alcoholic frequently in trouble with the law - he proved to be far more controversial in death.
The same Privy Council that had charged Marlowe with blasphemy had intervened on his behalf six years earlier to explain to Cambridge University why Marlowe frequently cut classes.
Pleading that he not be expelled, they claimed that Marlowe wasn't a miscreant student - he had cut classes to be of service to the Queen in "matters touching the benefit of his country."
That was actually true. Christopher Marlowe had been recruited as a secret agent while at university, and it now appears that he died not at a pub, but at a government safe house, while in the company of other spies and their associates.
With Marlowe's volatile personality and controversial libertine philosophy, his housemates undoubtedly had motive to kill him, especially if he'd flown into one of his drunken rages.
Conspiracy theories continue to follow the death of Christopher Marlowe. Some believe that Marlowe's death was faked to protect him from enemy agents.
What became of him afterward? Well, some believe that while the rest of Britain thought that he was dead, Marlowe continued to write plays.
One conspiracy theory claims that Marlowe hired an actor named William Shakespeare to be the front for his plays. Another theory claims that William Shakespeare was Marlowe's pseudonym and that an actor with the same name decided to take credit for his work.
According to this theory, the fake Shakespeare either knew or hoped that the real author wouldn't (or couldn't) reveal himself and dispute the false claim. Both theories, while intriguing, have yet to be proven. Most scholars regard them as nonsense.
One thing is definitely true: as a playwright, Christopher Marlowe's talent was on a par with Shakespeare. For centuries, scholars have agreed that Marlowe's plays, such as Tamburlaine the Great, Edward II, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus were in the same league as Shakespeare's classic tragedies.
Quote Of The Day
"I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance." - Christopher Marlowe
Today's video features a complete performance of Christopher Marlowe's classic play, Edward II - starring Sir Ian McKellen! Enjoy!
Thursday, May 17, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On May 17th, 1873, the legendary English writer Dorothy Richardson was born in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England. When she was seventeen, her father's financial problems threatened to plunge the family into poverty, so she left school to work.
A few years later, Dorothy's father went bankrupt, and her mother fell into a deep depression. Dorothy quit her job as a governess to take care of her mother, but the distraught woman committed suicide later that year.
After her mother's death, Dorothy moved to Bloomsbury, London, and took a job as receptionist, secretary, and assistant to a dental surgeon. When she wasn't working, she earned extra money writing essays and reviews and hung out with the Bloomsbury Set.
The Bloomsbury Set was a famous circle of libertine writers, artists, critics, and intellectuals who lived and / or worked in Bloomsbury. The group included such legendary writers as Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and H.G. Wells.
Dorothy struck up a close friendship with H.G. Wells, which culminated in a brief and torrid affair with the married writer. She became pregnant with his baby. He offered to help her raise the child.
Dorothy, a determined feminist, broke ties with Wells and decided to raise the baby herself - a daring, controversial act for an unmarried woman in Edwardian England. Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage.
After losing her baby, Dorothy moved to Sussex, where she continued with her writing career, earning her living as a freelance writer and journalist. She began work on a novel - a huge epic autobiographical novel that would be published in a series of thirteen volumes.
She also found a new love, marrying Alan Odle, a surrealist painter fifteen years her junior best known for his illustrations for Voltaire's classic novel Candide and Mark Twain's notorious, raunchy comic tale, 1601.
The first volume of Dorothy Richardson's classic novel Pilgrimage, titled Pointed Roofs, was published in 1915. It was a breakthrough novel that bent the established rules of grammar, punctuation, and sentence length to the breaking point.
In a review of Painted Roofs published in 1918, the English writer and critic May Sinclair coined a new term to describe Dorothy Richardson's innovative writing style: stream of consciousness.
Dorothy didn't care for that term. The term she used to describe her writing style was interior monologue. Although her Pilgrimage wouldn't make her famous during her lifetime, it has since been recognized as one of the all time great works of early 20th century English literature.
Pilgrimage would not only inspire her contemporaries such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust, but future generations of writers as well. Her pioneering stream of consciousness writing style is still employed today.
Dorothy Richardson continued working as a freelance writer, as her novel wasn't a huge commercial success. She also wrote short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. Her marriage would be a happy one; she remained with Alan Odle until he died in 1947. She died in 1957 at the age of 84.
She may have been the least famous writer in the Bloomsbury Set, but her contribution to modern literature was legendary.
Quote Of The Day
"You think Christianity is favorable to women? On the contrary. It is the Christian countries that have produced the prostitute and the most vile estimations of women in the world." - Dorothy Richardson
Today's video features a complete reading of Pointed Roofs, the first volume of Dorothy Richardson's epic multi volume novel, Pilgrimage. Enjoy!