This Day In Writing History
On November 27th, 1909, the famous American writer and critic James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident. A year later, he and his younger sister Emma were sent to the first of several boarding schools.
James' favorite boarding school was the Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys in Sewanee, Tennessee. At this school, run by Episcopal monks, Agee met Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye, who would become a lifelong friend.
When he was sixteen, after spending the summer traveling through Europe with Father Flye, James Agee entered Phillips Exeter Academy prep school, where he became president of the Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly, where his first writings were published.
Although he barely passed most of his classes, Agee was admitted to Harvard after graduation, where he became editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at commencement.
After graduating Harvard, Agee married his first wife, Via Saunders, and began writing for Fortune magazine. In 1934, his first and only poetry collection, Permit Me Voyage, was published, featuring a foreword by poet Archibald MacLeish.
While writing for Fortune, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment living with poor sharecroppers in Alabama, but left the magazine before completing his article.
He turned the material into a nonfiction book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book only sold 600 copies before it was remaindered. That year, Agee's second marriage broke up.
The next year, James Agee became the literary critic for Time magazine. At one point, he was reviewing up to six books a week. He left Time to become the film critic for the liberal news magazine The Nation.
By 1948, he had become a freelance writer. An assignment for Life magazine resulted in the publication of an acclaimed article about legendary silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The article is credited with reviving Keaton's career.
Many of Agee's freelance assignments were movie reviews or articles on films, most of which were later published as Agee On Film and Agee On Film II. He championed Charlie Chaplin's classic film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a controversial black comedy that was ahead of its time.
A commercial failure that raised the ire of conservative audiences and the clergy, the movie starred Chaplin as Henri Verdoux, a Parisian bank teller who loses his job to the global depression. So, he comes up with a unique means of supporting his crippled wife and their little son.
Verdoux becomes a professional bluebeard, marrying rich women for their money, then murdering them. The funniest scene finds Chaplin in a rowboat, trying in vain to drown his latest wife, superbly played by comedienne Martha Raye.
When Verdoux is finally captured, tried, and convicted of numerous murders, he gives this memorable speech with a defiant, malicious smile:
As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you ALL very soon. Very soon.
Just before his execution, a priest is sent to Verdoux's cell to counsel him. In a final act of defiant bravado, Verdoux tells the priest, "Who knows what sin is... who knows what mysterious destiny it serves? What would you be doing without sin?"
Monsieur Verdoux proved to be quite a shocker for postwar audiences and would be used against Charlie Chaplin a few years later by the infamous HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) which falsely accused Chaplin of being a communist. He was later banned from re-entering the United States.
In the 1950s, while continuing his work as a freelance writer, James Agee became a Hollywood screenwriter. Before his screenwriting career was derailed by his alcoholism, Agee would co-write the screenplays for two classic films, The African Queen (1951) and Night Of The Hunter (1955).
The African Queen, directed by John Huston, was an adaptation of C.S. Forester's classic novel about British missionary siblings (Robert Morely and Katharine Hepburn) in German East Africa during the outbreak of World War I.
Humphrey Bogart co-starred as Charlie Allnut, the grizzled Canadian boat captain who delivers their mail and supplies and later attempts to rescue Hepburn from the Germans after her brother dies.
Night Of The Hunter, a classic suspense thriller, was directed by Charles Laughton and based on a novel by Davis Grubb. Robert Mitchum starred as Reverend Harry Powell, a preacher and psychopathic killer with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles.
Powell tracks down the two small children of his former cellmate, hoping to get his hands on a fortune in stolen money, after which, he plans to kill the kids. The children find sanctuary with an elderly but tough woman (silent screen legend Lillian Gish) who sings religious hymns and packs a shotgun.
Despite Agee's success, the ravages of alcoholism and chain-smoking took their toll on his health. On May 16th, 1955, James Agee died of a heart attack (his third) while in a cab en route to a doctor's appointment. He was 45 years old.
In 1957, his first and only novel, an autobiographical novel titled A Death in the Family, was published posthumously. A year later, it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Quote Of The Day
"I'm very anxious not to fall into archaism or 'literary diction.' I want my vocabulary to have a very large range, but the words must be alive." - James Agee
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the classic film Night Of The Hunter, co-written by James Agee. Enjoy!
Friday, November 27, 2015
Thursday, November 26, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On November 26th, 1864, the legendary English writer Lewis Carroll gave a copy of the completed manuscript of his classic novel, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, to Alice Liddell, the little girl whom he named the book's heroine after.
Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, had been teaching mathematics at the University of Christ Church, Oxford, when he first met ten-year-old Alice Liddell. The new Dean of the university was Henry Liddell, who had come to Oxford along with his wife and children.
Dodgson became a close friend of the Liddell family, and often took Alice and her siblings out for boat rides. Of all the Liddell children, Dodgson was closest to youngest daughter Alice.
A brilliant mathematician who also possessed an above average talent for wordplay, Dodgson would tell Alice fantastic stories. One day, while they were out alone for a rowing trip, Dodgson told Alice a story about a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange and magical world.
Alice loved all of Dodgson's stories. The one about the little girl was her favorite, so she begged him to write a book of his stories. He promised her that he would. Originally, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland was going to be a 15,500 word novella, but Dodgson expanded it to almost twice that length.
When he completed the manuscript in November of 1864, which included his own illustrations, he made a handwritten copy that he gave to Alice Liddell as an early Christmas present.
The homemade book featured the original title, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, and was inscribed, "A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child, in Memory of a Summer Day." The "summer day" was a reference to the rowing trip he and Alice had taken the previous summer.
The following year, in 1865, Dodgson's novel was published as Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, under his now famous pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. The initial press run of 2,000 copies was held back when illustrator John Tenniel complained about the print quality.
A new edition was soon printed and released. Though it came out the same year, in December of 1865, the publication date was given as 1866. It sold out fast, and Dodgson became an overnight sensation - though he would become more famous in England as photographer than as a writer.
Dodgson wrote several more children's books, including a poetry collection, but none would be as popular or enduring as Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).
Adapted numerous times for the stage, screen, radio, and television, the Alice books continue to enchant new generations of fans - both children and adults - with their magic, humor, and wit.
Quote Of The Day
"Life, what is it but a dream?" - Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Today's video features a complete reading of Lewis Carroll's classic novel, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. Enjoy!
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On November 25th, 1952, The Mousetrap, the classic play by the legendary English mystery writer Agatha Christie, opened in London at the Ambassadors Theatre.
The play, a murder mystery, was Christie's adaptation of her own short story, Three Blind Mice (1950). It was first adapted as a radio play, performed on May 30th, 1947, in honor of the 80th birthday of England's Queen Mary.
For the stage version, Agatha Christie had to change the title because there was another play running at the time called Three Blind Mice. The author of that work, Emile Littler, didn't want Christie's play confused with his.
The title The Mousetrap was suggested by Christie's son-in-law, Anthony Hicks, who observed that it was Hamlet's metaphoric description of the play he uses to "catch the conscience of the King."
In Agatha Christie's deliciously macabre play, a young couple, Giles and Mollie Ralston, have turned the old Monkswell Manor into a successful hotel. One winter day, the Ralstons find themselves snowed in with some guests and a stranded traveler who ran his car into a snowbank.
A policeman, Detective Sergeant Trotter, arrives on skis to warn everyone that a murderer is on the loose and headed for the hotel. When one of the guests (Mrs. Boyle) is killed, the others realize that the murderer is already there. Detective Sergeant Trotter begins an investigation.
Suspicion first falls on the obviously troubled Christopher Wren, but soon it seems that any one of the snowed-in group could be the murderer. As the play progresses, we learn that the murderer's first victim was a woman who served time in prison for abusing the three foster children placed in her care.
The body count continues, the plot thickens, and red herrings abound. Detective Sergeant Trotter plans to set a trap for the killer. Finally, in a shocking surprise twist ending, the murderer is revealed to be...
What, did you think I was going to tell you and ruin the play? Traditionally, after the play ends at the theater, the audience is asked not to reveal the identity of the murderer to those who haven't seen the play. I'm going to observe that tradition. You'll have to see the play for yourself to find out "who done it" and why.
The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 24,000 performances and counting. The original 1952 cast featured Sir Richard Attenborough as Detective Sergeant Trotter and his wife, Sheila Sim, as Mollie Ralston.
In 1974, after 9,000 performances, the production was moved to St. Martin's Theatre, where it still runs today.
Quote Of The Day
"I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest." - Agatha Christie
Today's video features a complete live performance of Agatha Christie's classic play, The Mousetrap. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On November 24th, 1859, The Origin Of Species, the classic scientific textbook by the legendary English scientist Charles Darwin, was published.
Its full title was On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life. When the sixth edition of the book was published in 1872, the title was shortened to The Origin Of Species.
Charles Darwin was a brilliant scientist, a former medical student turned biologist who had previously published textbook studies of subjects such as fossils, volcanic islands, and coral reefs.
With The Origin Of Species, he laid down the groundwork for his theories of evolution, which, although accepted by the scientific community, remain controversial to this day. The main theme is natural selection.
Natural selection is the process of evolution whereby organisms acquire heritable traits that make it more likely that the organisms will survive and reproduce - traits that allow organisms to adapt to their environment.
This was nothing new to science; theories of natural selection go back to the ancient Greek scientists and philosophers, from Empedocles to Aristotle, but Darwin's study of natural selection was revolutionary.
What made it controversial were his theories of evolution concerning common ancestry of species. In the late 18th century, Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, proposed a similar theory of how, through evolution, one species can become another.
In 1809, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck took the idea further with his theory of the transmutation of species. But it was Charles Darwin's landmark study that defined this aspect of evolution as we know it today.
In the mid-19th century, when he published The Origin Of Species, the scientific community in Britain was closely tied to the Church of England. Reactions to Darwin's book were sharply mixed.
Liberal clergymen accepted Darwin's theories, declaring evolution to be God's plan of creation. Conservative (fundamentalist) clergymen decried evolution as blasphemous, taking the Bible's book of Genesis to be the literal truth and scientific fact, calling this "science" creationism.
Creationism and evolution would clash most famously in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher from Tennessee, had been charged with violating that state's Butler Act.
The Butler Act made it unlawful to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" in any state-funded school or university.
Despite a brilliant defense mounted by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, the equivalent of about $1,200 in today's money. The case was appealed to the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction, but threw out the fine on a technicality.
The Butler Act would remain on the books in Tennessee until it was voluntarily repealed in 1967. A year later, in the precedent-setting case of Epperson vs. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state's law forbidding the teaching of evolution unconstitutional.
The hotly contested battle between creationism and evolution, which began with the publication of The Origin Of Species 150 years ago, continues to this day.
Quote Of The Day
"The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic." - Charles Darwin
Today's video features a complete reading of Charles Darwin's classic scientific textbook, The Origin Of Species. Enjoy!
Monday, November 23, 2015
1. My review of Woman with a Blue Pencil, an experimental mystery novel by Gordon McAlpine, has been published by The Internet Review of Books.
2. My review of The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, a mystery novel by Jennifer Kincheloe, has been published by The Internet Review of Books.
Friday, November 20, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On November 20th, 1875, Roderick Hudson, the first novel by the legendary American writer Henry James, was published. James was an American who emigrated to England, where he lived, wrote, and became a British subject.
He had previously written a novella, Watch and Ward (1871), which was published in serial format by the Atlantic Monthly magazine. This early work, overly melodramatic and primitive in technique, would prove an embarrassment to James, and he disowned it.
Watch and Ward would not be published in book form until 1878, in a revised version. Thus, Roderick Hudson is considered by the author to be his first published novel.
The novel opens with Rowland Mallet, a wealthy patron of the arts, visiting his cousin Cecilia before leaving on a trip to Europe. He becomes enamored with a bust he sees. Later, he meets the sculptor, Roderick Hudson, a poor young law student and aspiring artist.
The two men strike up a friendship. Rowland offers to take Roderick to Italy, where he can concentrate on his art. He visits Roderick's mother and explains his intentions. She agrees to let him give up his law studies and go to Rome.
After a rough start, Roderick's technique improves and his artistic development takes off. Unfortunately, despite his talent, Roderick is an immature man-child who has trouble coping with his artistic genius. He is also distracted by the women around him.
Engaged to one woman, (Mary Garland) but attracted to another, (Augusta Blanchard) Roderick's romantic entanglements get worse when he meets Christina Light, a coquettish flirt who becomes his muse.
Although she likes Roderick, he's poor, and Christina is interested in marrying for wealth and position. She eventually marries a prince, and Roderick's life plunges into a downward spiral.
Roderick Hudson is considered to be Henry James' most accessible novel, though it does contain his trademark complexities and erotic overtones - in this case, homoerotic overtones in the relationship between Rowland and Roderick.
Christina Light - one of James' favorite creations - would return as the title character in his novel The Princess Casamassima (1886).
Henry James would go on to become of one of the greatest writers of his generation, famous for his masterful novels and novellas such as The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1878), Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Bostonians (1886).
His most famous work was the classic horror novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). He also wrote plays, literary criticisms, travelogues, biographies, and memoirs. He died in 1916 at the age of 72.
Quote Of The Day
"The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant — no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes." - Henry James
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry James' classic horror novella, The Turn Of The Screw. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 19, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On November 19th, 1942, the famous American poet Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco, California, to an extremely religious "hellfire Calvinist" family. She would reject her religion and become a poet.
After graduating Stanford with an English degree, she moved East to attend Columbia University, where she earned her Ph.D. By the age of 30, Sharon had spent nearly a decade writing poems, none of which satisfied her. She felt she was just imitating the styles of her favorite poets.
So, she sought out her own poetical voice, and at the age of 37, her first poetry collection, Satan Says (1980) was published. It won her the very first San Francisco Poetry Center Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her second poetry collection, The Dead and the Living, (1984) won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lamont Poetry Prize. It sold over 50,000 copies. One of my favorite poems from this book is The Connoisseuse Of Slugs:
When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the
ends, delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
Sharon's style of confessional poetry uses raw, often profane language and striking imagery within a plainly spoken narrative to convey truths in subjects such as family relationships, sexuality, the body, domestic violence, and political oppression.
She would continue to publish poetry collections; memorable volumes include The Gold Cell (1987), The Father (1993), and The Wellspring (1996).
Sharon's work has been anthologized in over 100 collections and has been translated into seven languages for international publication. From 1998-2000, she served as New York State Poet Laureate.
In 2005, Sharon became famous for a publication that had nothing to do with her poetry. First Lady Laura Bush had invited her to the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. She declined the invitation.
In an open letter published by the prominent liberal news magazine, The Nation, Sharon explained her reason for declining the invitation:
I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness--as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing--against this undeclared and devastating war.
But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.
What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition:" flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.
So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.
In addition to her career as a poet, Sharon Olds is also a teacher of English and creative writing. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at New York University.
Her most recent poetry collection, Stag's Leap, was published in 2012. It made her the first American woman to win the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. The collection also won her a Pulitzer Prize.
Quote Of The Day
"The older I get, the more I feel almost beautiful." - Sharon Olds
Today's video features Sharon Olds giving a poetry reading. Enjoy!