This Day In Literary History
On March 1st, 1921, the legendary English writer E.M. Forster embarked on his second trip to India, (his first had taken place eight years earlier) which would inspire him to write his classic novel, A Passage to India (1924).
Forster, a liberal and humanist, had made his name as a writer by assailing the British class system in such memorable novels as A Room With a View (1908) and Howards End (1910).
In A Passage to India, Forster skewered the colonial mindset of the British in India as he told the story of a respected Indian Muslim doctor who finds himself falsely accused of attempting to rape a white Englishwoman.
Set in the fictional city of Chandrapore amidst the backdrop of the Indian independence movement of the 1920s, A Passage to India opens with respected physician Dr. Aziz dining with some Indian friends and wondering if real friendship between a white Englishman and an Indian man is even possible.
As the novel progresses, he receives a painfully honest answer to his question. During his meal, the doctor is summoned to meet with Major Callendar, his unpleasant superior at the hospital where he works. Delayed en route, Dr. Aziz arrives at Callendar's bungalow and finds that he has left, having tired of waiting.
Later, while walking, Aziz impulsively decides to go to his favorite mosque, a ramshackle yet beautiful house of worship. There, he finds a strange, elderly white Englishwoman at the mosque. Angry, he rebukes her, telling her not to profane the holy place.
To his surprise, he finds that the woman, Mrs. Moore, understands and respects his religion. She had taken off her shoes before entering the mosque, and acknowledges that God is present in the Muslim house of worship. Aziz and Mrs. Moore become friends.
Mrs. Moore has come to visit India with Adela Quested, a young British schoolmistress who is engaged to marry Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop, a city magistrate. When Mrs. Moore tells Ronny how she met Dr. Aziz at the mosque, he becomes indignant, as he shares the racist views of Indians held by the majority of British whites living in India.
Later, at a party held by Mr. Turton, the city tax collector, (instead of open hatred, his racism takes the form of thinly veiled contempt) Adela meets Cyril Fielding, headmaster of the local segregated college for Indian students.
Fielding invites her and Mrs. Moore to a tea party, and at Adela's request, extends an invitation to Dr. Aziz, who decides to attend. He finds Cyril to be respectable and tolerant of Indians (another of his guests is Narayan Godbole, a Hindu-Brahman professor) and the two men become great friends.
Dr. Aziz invites Adele, Mrs. Moore, Fielding, and Godbole to the Marabar Caves, a famous natural attraction. Then Ronny crashes the party and rudely breaks it up. On the day of the Marabar expedition, Fielding and Godbole miss their train.
At the caves, Mrs. Moore is overcome by claustrophobia. Later, Dr. Aziz finds that Adela's guide has let her explore a cave by herself. Angry, he punches the man and searches for her. He finds her talking to another Englishwoman on the other side of a hill.
Then, Cyril Fielding arrives and the two women drive away in his car. Meanwhile, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Fielding take the train home. At the Chandrapore train station, Dr. Aziz is shocked when he's arrested and charged with groping Adela and attempting to assault her.
As his trial date approaches, the simmering racial tensions between the English and Indians reaches the boiling point. Mrs. Moore becomes apathetic; she claims to believe that Aziz is innocent, but does nothing to help him. She takes a ship back to England and dies during the voyage.
When Cyril Fielding strongly proclaims his belief in Aziz's innocence, he is ostracized by his fellow Englishmen and condemned as a race traitor. The Indian community defends him. During the trial, Adela, suffering from fever and hysterical weeping, becomes confused and begins to doubt her own story.
When asked point blank whether or not Dr. Aziz attempted to rape her, she tries to think clearly. That's when she realizes that while inside the cave, she experienced an episode like Mrs. Moore's claustrophobic shock and became temporarily insane.
While in the throes of this psychotic episode, she hallucinated that Dr. Aziz was in the cave with her and tried to attack her. It was all in her mind. The case against Dr. Aziz is dismissed.
The white English community is shocked and infuriated by what they believe is Adela's betrayal of her race. Her fiance, Ronny Heaslop, breaks off their engagement and dumps her. She stays with Cyril Fielding until her passage on board a ship to England is booked.
Meanwhile, although he's now a free man, Dr. Aziz is furious that his friend Fielding would befriend Adela after she nearly ruined his life. When Fielding later returns to England himself, Aziz believes that he's going to marry Adela for her money.
Though he vows to never again befriend a white person, Dr. Aziz ultimately reconciles with Fielding when he returns to India two years later. But he realizes that it won't be a genuine friendship until India is free from the yoke of British tyranny.
A Passage to India was adapted as a highly acclaimed, Academy Award winning feature film in 1984. Directed by David Lean, the film starred Judy Davis as Adela, Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz, James Fox as Cyril Fielding, Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore, and Sir Alec Guinness as Narayan Godbole.
Quote Of The Day
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
- E.M. Forster
Today's video features a rare recording of E.M. Forster discussing his classic novel, A Passage to India on the NBC University Theatre radio show in 1949. Enjoy!
Friday, March 1, 2024
Thursday, February 29, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 29th, 1996, the legendary actress and writer Joan Collins won a countersuit against her publisher, who had sued her for the return of the advance it paid her. The case would set a world record that holds to this day.
Collins, a famous English film actress best known for her iconic TV role as Alexis Carrington on the American prime time soap opera Dynasty (1981-89), published her first book, Past Imperfect: An Autobiography, in 1978. Within the next ten years, she would write more nonfiction works, including a memoir and self-help books.
Joan's sister, Jackie Collins, was a bestselling novelist, and Joan had appeared in film adaptations of her novels The Stud and The Bitch. So it was inevitable that Joan Collins would try her hand at fiction as well.
By the time she had gotten into a legal battle with her publisher, Random House, she had already published two novels, Prime Time (1988), and Love and Desire and Hate (1990). Then Joan signed a new two-novel contract with Random House for $4 million, with $1.2 million to be paid in advance.
In September of 1991, Joan delivered the nearly 700-page manuscript for one novel, titled The Ruling Passion to her publisher. Random House deemed it unreadable, so she wrote another novel called Hell Hath No Fury and submitted it.
Random House then decided to sue Joan Collins for the return of the $1.2 million advance. She countersued for the full $4 million stipulated in the contract, complaining that Random House breached the contract, which clearly stated that she had to submit complete manuscripts for the two novels, not acceptable manuscripts.
In her countersuit, Joan also accused Random House of failing to provide her with the editorial assistance that she had expected. In her eyes, the company was trying to weasel out of the contract instead of working with her to improve her manuscripts.
The high profile civil suit, which began in February of 1996, would be broadcast live on the Court TV cable channel. The court ruled in Joan Collins's favor, allowing her to keep the $1.2 million advance and awarding her an additional million dollars.
Random House didn't have to pay her the full $4 million because the second manuscript she submitted, Hell Hath No Fury, was basically a rewrite of the first, The Ruling Passion. Neither manuscript would be published.
Joan's victory in her countersuit earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. She still holds the record for retaining the world's largest unreturned payment for an unpublished manuscript.
After winning her case against Random House, Joan signed with rival publisher Dutton, who published her next two novels, Too Damn Famous and Infamous, which received great reviews and became runaway bestsellers. She has written six novels so far.
To this day, Joan Collins's books have sold over fifty million copies and been translated into 30 languages.
Quote Of The Day
"Show me a person who has never made a mistake and I'll show you somebody who has never achieved much."
- Joan Collins
Today's video features a documentary on Joan Collins's legal battle with her former publisher, Random House. Enjoy!
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 28th, 1749, the publication of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, (later shortened to Tom Jones) the classic epic novel by the famous English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding, was announced in the famous London newspaper, The General Advertiser.
This is how the announcement appeared:
THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES,
-- Mores hominum multorum vidit --
By HENRY FIELDING, Esq;
It being impossible to get Sets bound fast enough to answer Demand for them, such Gentlemen and Ladies as please, may have them sew'd in Blue Paper and Boards, at the Price of 16s. a Set, of A. Millar over against Catharine-street in the Strand.
At the time, it was customary for a novel to be published in a serialized format before it appeared in book form. Due to the controversial nature of this particular novel, it was published in book form before the serialized publication was completed.
Although it would be a hot property and sell a lot of copies, most scholars believe that the heavy demand mentioned in the newspaper ad was an exaggeration designed to create a demand for Tom Jones.
The novel, a bawdy romantic comedy / adventure, told the story of its title character. It opens with Squire Allworthy, a wealthy landowner, returning to his country estate in Somerset after a business engagement in London.
Allworthy is shocked to find an abandoned baby boy sleeping in his bed. A young woman named Jenny Jones - servant girl to the local schoolmaster and his wife - later confesses to being the baby's mother, but refuses to name the father.
The kindhearted Squire Allworthy decides to take in the baby, called Tom Jones, as his ward. Sophia Western, the neighbor's daughter, becomes Tom's childhood sweetheart.
Unfortunately, her father and Squire Allworthy have no intention of allowing Sophia and Tom to marry when they grow up. That's because Tom is illegitimate, and thus beneath a girl of Sophia's class.
Tom Jones grows up to have both a healthy appetite for women and a good heart like Squire Allworthy. The novel's liberal attitudes toward sexual promiscuity and prostitution made it quite controversial in its day.
Moralists denounced the novel as obscene, decrying its depiction of a hero who proves himself to be both noble and promiscuous. In reality, Tom's sexual exploits are played mostly for laughs, as the author's sense of humor played a huge part in his fiction.
The most controversial (and funniest) part of the novel finds Tom witnessing a half-naked woman being beaten by a man. Tom rescues her and brings her to an inn.
The woman, Mrs. Waters, is the wife of an army captain. She thanks her handsome young hero by making love to him. Later, Squire Allworthy reveals to Tom the horrible truth about Mrs. Waters - her maiden name is Jones. Jenny Jones. Tom just slept with his long-lost mother!
His childhood sweetheart and first great love, Sophia Western, whom he has tried to keep in touch with, goes through her own trials and tribulations, including the prospect of marriage to a man she detests - Lord Fellamar, a vile young nobleman who lusts for her.
Fellamar hatches a plan to trick Sophia into thinking that Tom Jones has been killed so that she'll agree to marry him. Rather than wait until their wedding night, Fellamar attempts to rape Sophia. Thankfully, her father arrives on the scene before he can.
True love triumphs in the end, as Tom and Sophia are reunited and another shocking secret is revealed: Jenny Jones was not Tom's mother. His real mother was Squire Allworthy's sister, Bridget.
Bridget had been seduced by a young man named Summer - the son of Allworthy's clergyman friend. Now a respectable gentleman, Tom declares his love for Sophia and she agrees to marry him, with the blessings of her father and Squire Allworthy.
Tom Jones would be adapted several times for the screen, stage, and television. The most famous adaptations were the 1963 British feature film starring Albert Finney in the title role, and the opera by French composer François-André Danican Philidor.
Quote Of The Day
"There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true."
- Henry Fielding
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry Fielding's classic novel, Tom Jones. Enjoy!
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 27th, 1807, the legendary American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. A child prodigy, he began his schooling at the age of three. At six, he was studying Latin and reading Miguel Cervantes' classic epic novel, Don Quixote.
Longfellow was thirteen when his first published poem, The Battle of Lovell's Pond, appeared in the Portland Gazette. Two years later, he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There, he met legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became his lifelong friend.
After graduating in 1825 at the age of eighteen, he was offered a job as professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, on the condition that he travel to Europe to learn more languages. So, he embarked on a three-year European tour, where he became fluent in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese.
While in Madrid, Longfellow met legendary American writer Washington Irving, who encouraged him to become a professional writer. Longfellow based his second book, a travelogue called Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835), on his European tour.
Back in America, when he wasn't teaching at Bowdoin, he translated French, Spanish, and German textbooks. His first book, published in 1833, was a translation of the works of medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique.
In 1831, Longfellow married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Storer Potter. She died three years later from illness following the miscarriage of their only child. Her husband was devastated. At the time, he had been teaching languages at Harvard and had become fluent in Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic.
After losing his wife, Longfellow threw himself into his work, mostly to escape his grief. He worked on more translations and began publishing the poetry collections that would make him famous, such as Voices in the Night (1839) and Ballads and Other Poems (1841).
To escape his loneliness, Longfellow socialized with fellow writers and scholars. In 1839, five years after he'd lost his wife, he found himself falling love again, with Frances "Fanny" Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. She wasn't interested in him.
Nevertheless, Longfellow determined to win her heart, writing to a friend, "Victory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion." After a tumultuous seven year courtship, Fanny's dogged admirer won her heart.
It almost didn't happen when Longfellow published Hyperion, a Romance (1839), a novel inspired by their early courtship. The protagonist, Paul Flemming, a grief stricken American wandering through Germany, meets an Englishwoman named Mary Ashburton and determines to win her heart.
When Fanny learned that she was the inspiration for the character of Mary Ashburton, she was neither flattered nor amused. Longfellow wouldn't give up. When in a letter she finally agreed to marry him, he walked 90 minutes to her home rather than wait for a carriage.
The couple would remain together for eighteen years and have six children before tragedy struck again. In July of 1861, Fanny was trying to seal an envelope with hot wax when her dress caught fire. Her screams woke Longfellow from his nap, and he tried to save her.
Severely burned, Fanny was tended by a doctor who administered ether to her throughout the day and night. She died the next morning. Longfellow had been burned as well, but he would recover physically, growing a beard to hide his facial scars. Emotionally, he was destroyed.
Longfellow had used laudanum (a tincture of opium) to ease the pain of his burns; now physically healed, he used the drug to ease the pain of his depression. He feared that he might go insane and begged his family not to send him to an asylum. He determined to write again.
By now, Longfellow had become the most famous poet in America, and one of the richest writers as well. He continued to write poetry collections and novels. In 1867, he published his greatest work as a scholar - a translation of Dante Alighieri's classic poem, The Divine Comedy.
Longfellow also devoted his later years to social causes. A prominent abolitionist, he protested slavery and supported the Union during the Civil War. He opposed a prewar compromise to allow slavery to preserve the union, but hoped that the Northern and Southern states could reconcile after the war ended.
As a poet, Longfellow was known as a master of lyric poetry. A versatile poet, he experimented with both traditional and free verse, using anapestic and trochaic forms, heroic couplets, ballads, sonnets, and blank verse - unrhymed iambic pentameter.
His greatest poems include Paul Revere's Ride, The Village Blacksmith, The Wreck of the Hesperus, and his classic epic poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, which was based on Ojibwe tribal legends.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died of peritonitis in 1882 at the age of 75.
Quote Of The Day
"The tragic element in poetry is like Saturn in alchemy — the Malevolent, the Destroyer of Nature; but without it no true Aurum Potabile, or Elixir of Life, can be made."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Enjoy!
Friday, February 23, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 23rd, 1633, the famous English writer Samuel Pepys was born in London, England. His father, John Pepys, was a tailor. His father's cousin, Richard Pepys, was an elected Member of Parliament who would later become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
Samuel Pepys was the fifth of eleven children, but because of the high child mortality rate of the time, several of his siblings died, making him the eldest. He lived with a nurse in Kingsland, north of London.
Around the age of eleven, he began his formal education at Huntingdon Grammar School. He attended St. Paul's school in London from 1646-50.
In 1649, at the age of sixteen, he witnessed the execution of Charles I, following the end of the English Civil War. This paved the way for the rule of Oliver Cromwell.
Enrolling at Cambridge University in 1650, a year later, he transferred to Magdalene College, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1654. A year after that, he came to live with another of his father's cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, who would become the first Earl of Sandwich.
That same year, Pepys married Elisabeth de St Michel, first in a religious ceremony, then in a civil ceremony. She was fourteen years old at the time.
From a very young age, Samuel Pepys suffered from painful kidney stones and hematuria. By 1657, his condition was so severe that he decided to undergo a risky procedure to surgically remove a large kidney stone.
The operation took place at the home of Pepys' cousin, Jane Turner, and was a success. However, he did suffer from complications late in life. After he recovered from the operation, Pepys took a job working as a teller in the exchequer under George Downing.
On January 1st, 1660, Samuel Pepys embarked on an endeavor that would make him famous to this day: he began keeping a diary. Like most diaries, he used it to record the personal details of his daily life, including his business dealings.
He also recorded meetings with friends, his trivial concerns, jealousies, insecurities, his troubled marriage, and his extramarital affairs. These personal details would be intertwined with detailed commentary on the politics and national events of the time.
Within the first few months of entries, Samuel Pepys' diary chronicled General George Monck's march on London and Pepys's trip (he was a clerk for the Navy Board) with Sir Edward Montagu to the Netherlands to bring Charles II back from exile.
Over the next ten years, Pepys' diary would provide the most detailed account of the history of late 17th century England, including the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The diary also painted a revealing portrait of Pepys the man. He loved the theater. He was a connoisseur of good wine, literature, and music. He enjoyed the company of friends. He would often evaluate his life and finances, promising to work harder and abstain from wine and the theater, then later, he'd record his lapses.
A talented singer and musician, he played the lute, violin, viola, flageolet, recorder, and harpsichord, with varying levels of proficiency. As a singer, he performed at home, at coffee houses, and at Westminster Abbey.
Pepys also chronicled, sometimes in surprisingly graphic detail, his extramarital affairs. In one entry, he described how his wife Elisabeth caught him in a compromising position with her friend, Deborah Willet.
He wrote that Elisabeth, "coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also...." When he wrote about his affairs, Pepys was always filled with remorse - but that didn't stop his philandering.
Samuel Pepys kept his diary for nearly ten years. By 1669, his health began to suffer from all the work he put into it. He eyesight deteriorated, and he feared he might go blind, so for a while, he dictated his diary to his clerks before ending it altogether.
After he ended it, he would become an elected Member of Parliament and Secretary to the Admiralty. He also helped found the Royal Mathematical School at Christ's Hospital and was made its Governor. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1665 and served as its president from 1684-86.
Pepys was attacked on and off by his political enemies and arrested twice on unsubstantiated charges of being a Jacobite - a radical plotting to restore the Stuart kings to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
He was released both times, as no charges brought against him could be proven in court. After his second release in 1690, he retired from public life at the age of 57. He died in 1703 at the age of 70. Having no children, he willed his estate to his nephew, John Jackson.
Samuel Pepys's diaries would remain unpublished until 1825. He'd used tachygraphy to write his diary entries - one of many forms of shorthand employed at the time. This required translation into standard English.
The first to translate Pepys's diaries was Reverend John Smith. He didn't know that the key to the tachygraphy system was stored in Pepys's library a few shelves above the diaries. So it took Smith several years, from 1819-1822, to finish his translation.
It was an incomplete translation; the clergyman refused to translate the salacious sections of Pepys's diaries - especially the entries about his extramarital affairs.
A complete and definitive edition of Samuel Pepys's diaries was translated by Robert Latham and William Matthews and published in nine volumes, along with companion and index volumes, between 1970 and 1983.
Quote Of The Day
“Saw a wedding in the church. It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition.”
- Samuel Pepys
Today's video features a reading of Samuel Pepys' diaries. Enjoy!
Thursday, February 22, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 22nd, 1892, the legendary American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine. Her unusual middle name, St. Vincent, was given to her in honor of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where her uncle's life had been saved shortly before she was born.
Edna and her two sisters were raised by their mother to be independent and outspoken feminists. Edna's strong feminist convictions developed at a very young age. She was often angered when she or other girls received unequal treatment compared to boys.
In elementary school, she often angered her principal with her frank opinions on gender inequality. When she asked him to call her Vincent - a boy's name - he refused, but instead of calling her Edna, he called her by girls' names that began with the letter V.
After several years of separation, when Edna was twelve, her mother divorced her father for his financial irresponsibility. The family lived in poverty and moved from place to place. When she started high school, Edna began developing her writing talent.
Soon, her poetry appeared in her high school magazine and in other literary magazines. At the age of 14, she was awarded the Gold Badge for her poetry by St. Nicholas Magazine, a then famous and progressive literary and art magazine for children.
Around this time, Edna came to understand and accept her bisexuality, and she would remain openly bisexual throughout her life. In 1912, when she was twenty years old, Edna St. Vincent Millay first became famous - for losing a poetry contest.
She had entered her classic poem Renascence in a poetry contest held by The Lyric Year magazine and was awarded fourth place. The decision proved scandalous for the magazine. Its readers were shocked.
The other poets who had entered the contest were also shocked - and embarrassed - as they considered Renascence to be the best poem. The first place winner, poet Orrick Johns, said of his first prize, “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." The second place winner offered to give Edna his $250 prize.
Not long after the contest debacle, Edna gave a poetry reading and piano recital in Camden, Maine, at the Whitehall Inn. Among those attending the event was Caroline Dow, director of the New York YWCA National Training School. She was so impressed that she offered to pay for Edna's tuition at Vassar College. So, at the age of 21, Edna began her college education.
After she graduated in 1917, Edna moved to New York City's Greenwich Village and took up the life of a bohemian poet, having affairs with paramours of both sexes, immersing herself in the culture of the Village, and writing some of her best poetry.
Her classic first poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920, courted controversy with its feminist themes and meditations on female sexuality.
In 1923, Edna won the Pulitzer Prize for her poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. That same year, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, with whom she had fallen in love. She was 31 years old and he 43. His late wife, Inez Millholland, was a labor lawyer and war correspondent whom Edna had known in Greenwich Village.
Edna and Eugen would remain together for 26 years, until his death in 1949. Eugen supported his wife's career and took care of the household. They maintained an open marriage, each having lovers on the side. One of Edna's lovers was George Dillon, a young poet 14 years her junior for whom she would write several sonnets.
In 1925, Edna and her husband bought Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York. The 500-acre estate had been a blueberry farm. They built a barn, a writing cabin, and a tennis court on their new estate, and Edna started a garden where she grew her own vegetables.
During World War II, Edna found herself criticized for the pacifism in her poetry. Years before, she had written Aria da Capo (1921), a one-act antiwar play in verse.
Now, as critic Merle Rubin observed, "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism." Edna had also written poems about Nazi atrocities committed during the war.
In 1943, Edna became the sixth person (and the second woman) to be awarded the Frost Medal, a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to American poetry. Her husband died of lung cancer in 1949.
A year later, Edna St. Vincent Millay fell down her staircase at home and was found dead eight hours later. The autopsy revealed that she actually died of a heart attack, which had caused her to fall down the stairs. She was 58 years old.
After Edna's death, her sister Norma and her husband, painter Charles Ellis, moved into Steepletop. In 1973, they set aside some of the estate's vast acreage and established the Millay Colony for the Arts, which they would run until Norma died in 1986.
One of Norma's closest friends was Mary Oliver, a teenage poet who had moved into Steepletop and lived there for seven years. A huge fan of Norma's sister Edna, whose papers she would help organize, Mary would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, as her idol did before her.
Edna St. Vincent Millay remains a major influence on American poetic voice.
Quote Of The Day
"You see, I am a poet, and not quite right in the head, darling. It’s only that."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Today's video features a rare recording of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her classic, Pulitzer Prize winning poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Enjoy!
Wednesday, February 21, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 21st, 1903, the legendary French writer Anaïs Nin was born. She was born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.
Her father, Joaquin Nin, was a Cuban pianist and composer. Her mother, Rosa Culmell, was a classically trained singer of French and Danish descent. She had two younger brothers, Thorvald and Joaquin.
When Anaïs was a young girl, her family traveled throughout Europe. They lived for a time in Spain and in America, then moved back to her mother's French homeland. There, they lived in an apartment rented from an American friend who had gone away for the summer.
Anaïs, then in her teens, stumbled across the man's collection of French erotic paperbacks and read them all. By then, she had already determined to become a writer, and had begun keeping the diaries for which she would become most famous.
At sixteen, she completed her primary education and became an artist's model. She had begun learning English while her family was living in America; soon she became fluent in English, though French would remain her primary language.
In March of 1923, at the age of twenty, Anaïs married her boyfriend, Hugh Parker Guiler, a banker who years later would reinvent himself as an experimental filmmaker named Ian Hugo. The couple settled in Paris and would maintain an open marriage.
While her husband was preoccupied with his banking career, Anaïs took up writing and flamenco dancing. Her first book, published in 1932, was an acclaimed work of nonfiction titled D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. She wrote it in just over two weeks.
At the time of its publication, literary critics had begun turning their backs on Lawrence, the legendary English writer best known for his classic and controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Anaïs' masterful, scholarly study of Lawrence's works was an eyebrow raiser - no woman had dared praise his controversial writings before.
At the time she wrote her first book, Anaïs Nin was living the bohemian life in Paris. She met the legendary American writer Henry Miller, then a down-and-out expatriate trying to start his own career as a novelist. She let him read her diaries; they were a revelation to him.
Her writing had the poetry and passion that his lacked. With Anaïs as his muse, Miller wrote his classic debut novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934), which made his name as a writer. Meanwhile, Anaïs worked on her own fiction.
While they tried to keep their writing careers going, Anaïs and Henry struggled to make ends meet, as France had also fallen victim to the Great Depression. They and their writer friends soon discovered they could make a dollar per page writing pornographic literature for an anonymous private collector.
At first, they did it more for their own amusement than for the money, but soon it became an important source of income during the hard times of the Depression, as a dollar per page back then is equivalent to about $20 per page in today's money.
Believe it or not, for Henry Miller, writing decent erotica in those days was a struggle. Anaïs Nin, however, was brilliant at it. Her erotica, told from a woman's perspective, was dazzling, poetic, sensual, and even philosophical at times, while also surprisingly graphic.
She explored all the known sexual taboos, including male and female homosexuality, sadomasochism, and incest. Though she retained her original manuscripts for these stories, she never intended to have them published.
Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller became close friends and ultimately lovers. When Miller's wife June arrived in Paris, the relationship would become something of a ménage à trois. Though Anaïs came to love June and found herself attracted to the woman, she preferred men.
In 1936, Anaïs published her first novella, House Of Incest, which would prove to be one of her most famous works of fiction. The Nin family had feared that it was going to be an expose of a recent incestuous affair between Anaïs and her father.
Instead, it was a novella filled with surrealist prose poetry, metaphors, and psychological symbolism, based on a series of dreams she had. Anaïs would later chronicle the actual incestuous affair in her famous diaries.
Shockingly, one of her therapists had encouraged her to seduce, then abandon her father as an act of revenge for his abandonment of her when she was a young girl. The therapist believed that this would leave Anaïs feeling empowered. It didn't.
In the summer of 1939, with the winds of war brewing, Anaïs and her husband left Paris and moved to New York City. She would remain in America for pretty much the rest of her life. In 1947, she met Rupert Pole, an ex-actor sixteen years her junior, in an elevator while on her way to a party. They began dating, then ran off together.
The couple married in Arizona before moving to California. While Anaïs would live with Rupert until her death in 1977, she annulled their marriage in 1966 for tax reasons - and because she had never formally divorced her first husband.
Anaïs continued to write fiction and maintain her diaries. In 1958, she began publishing Cities of the Interior, her classic "continuous novel" which appeared in a series of five volumes. The most famous volumes were the third, The Four-Chambered Heart, and the fourth, A Spy in the House of Love.
While living in California, Anaïs struck up friendships with experimental filmmakers and appeared in a few films. Her most famous film role was of the goddess Astarte in Kenneth Anger's classic film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956). She also appeared in Maya Deren's classic experimental film, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).
Over the years, Anaïs' famous diaries would be published in a series of eleven volumes. They would also appear as collections of excerpts, the most famous of which was Henry and June: From a Journal of Love (1986).
Henry and June: From a Journal of Love contained excerpts from Anaïs' diaries chronicling her relationships with Henry Miller and his wife, June. This memorable volume would be adapted by director Philip Kaufman as the highly acclaimed and controversial 1990 feature film Henry & June.
Starring Fred Ward as Henry Miller, Uma Thurman as June, and, in a bravura performance, Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin, it was the first movie to be rated NC-17, which had replaced the X rating.
Bowing to pressure groups, most theaters banned NC-17 rated pictures as they had X-rated films, and Henry & June played on only a few hundred screens nationwide. It earned most of its profits in video sales and rentals, which were unaffected by the NC-17 rating.
Still, film critics, most famously the legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, decried the film's rating as undeserved and protested the NC-17 rating in general as unnecessary and continuing the X rating's tradition of imposing censorship on filmmakers.
(Since most theaters, especially shopping mall multiplexes, refused to play X or NC-17 rated movies, filmmakers were forced to cut their pictures to obtain a lower rating in order to get a wider distribution and hopefully make a profit.)
By 1976, Anaïs was losing her battle with cancer when a publisher approached her about releasing a volume of her famous erotic short stories, which everyone knew about but nobody had seen - except for the anonymous patron who had paid her to write them.
She still didn't want to publish them, but her ex-husbands Hugh Parker Guiler and Rupert Pole, both of whom she still loved, had fallen into poverty. She figured that the money could be used to help them out. She died in January of 1977 at the age of 73. Six months later, Delta of Venus was published.
As the publisher had expected, the short story collection became a huge hit, though Anaïs Nin had considered the stories an embarrassment because they were more caricature than serious writing and had been penned for a private patron's money rather than written for publication.
Nevertheless, they provided a memorable exhibition of Nin's talent for erotic literature. They also added to her legacy as a feminist icon. With the success of Delta of Venus, a second erotic short story collection, Little Birds, was published in 1979.
Quote Of The Day
"If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it."
- Anaïs Nin
Today's video features Anaïs Nin reading from her famous diaries. Enjoy!