This Day In Literary History
On July 18th, 1937, the legendary American writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky. The eldest of three sons, Thompson's father was an insurance adjuster, his mother a librarian.
When Hunter was fourteen, his father died of a degenerative disease called myasthenia gravis. His mother was left to raise her sons alone, a burden that would drive her to drink heavily.
From a young age, Hunter displayed a natural talent for athletics. While he attended middle school, he joined an athletic club that served to prepare boys his age to play sports on high school teams.
Although he excelled at baseball, Hunter didn't play any sports in high school, as he was considered a troublemaker and not a team player. So, he joined the school's literary club instead.
There, he became enamored with classic, controversial novels such as J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man (1955) and Jack Kerouac's On The Road (1957), attracted to their subversive nature.
When he was seventeen, Thompson happened to be riding in a car with a robber when the police pulled them over. Although he had no connection to the crime, Thompson was arrested and charged with being an accessory. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, but only served half that time.
While Hunter was in jail, the school superintendent refused to allow him to take his final exams, so he never graduated. After his release, he joined the Air Force.
Stationed at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, Hunter took night classes at Florida State University. He also landed his first professional writing job for the local Command Courier newspaper. He got the job by lying about his work experience.
Nevertheless, Hunter excelled as a sports writer and editor, covering the local football team, the Elgin Eagles, whom future pro football stars Bart Starr, Max McGee, and Zeke Bratkowski would play for.
After being honorably discharged by the Air Force, Hunter continued his journalism career, which took him East to New York City. There, while working as a copy boy for Time magazine, he typed out copies of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as a means of studying fiction.
Fired by Time for insubordination, Hunter moved upstate to Middletown, where he worked as a reporter for the Middletown Record. He was fired from that job for telling off a local restaurant owner who was one of the paper's advertisers.
In 1961, Hunter, following in the footsteps of his literary idol Jack Kerouac, hitchhiked across the country. While living in Big Sur, California, he published his first magazine article, a piece on the Beat literary and artistic scene in Big Sur.
At this time, Thompson began writing fiction. He wrote two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, which wouldn't be published until the late 1990s. He also wrote many short stories, but found little success as a fiction writer.
In November of 1963, Hunter first coined his famous phrase "fear and loathing" in a letter to his old friend, legendary novelist William Kennedy, expressing his feelings about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (No relation.)
Two years later, Hunter S. Thompson took an assignment that would make his name as both a maverick journalist and as a writer. The editor of The Nation, a prominent liberal news magazine, asked him to write about the notorious Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.
So, Hunter spent a year riding with the gang, which was the most feared motorcycle club in the country, accused of crimes such as drug trafficking and gunrunning. The Hell's Angels hated reporters, but they came to like Hunter S. Thompson.
The relationship ended at a party held to celebrate the publication of Hunter's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The Hell's Angels demanded a cut of the royalties, but Hunter refused.
When Thompson learned that one gang member called Junkie George was a wife-beater, he told the biker off in front of the rest of the gang, saying that "Only a punk beats his wife." The gang beat Thompson severely.
His Hell's Angels book received rave reviews. The New York Times said that it was an "angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book," and that its author was a "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."
In the late 1960s, Hunter wrote many articles for national magazines. One of them, titled The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies criticized the hippie generation for lacking the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic fire of the Beat generation and for only being interested in drugs and free love.
Possessing strong political convictions, Hunter became an activist for the New Left. He signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, a pledge to refuse to pay taxes to support the Vietnam War.
One of his heroes was the legendary Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Though he would rarely label his political beliefs, he would retain his strong anti-capitalist convictions throughout his life.
In the 1970s, Hunter developed his trademark style of "gonzo journalism," which began with his article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. He accepted an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, and ended up writing his most famous book in the process.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) was an autobiographical novel based on Hunter's coverage of both the race and a narcotics officers' convention in Sin City. His alter ego, journalist Raoul Duke, covers the convention along with his "300-pound Samoan attorney" Oscar "Dr. Gonzo" Zeta Acosta.
The two men traveled together in a car loaded with an ample supply of drugs of all sorts, and were frequently stoned. A major theme of the novel was the ultimate failure of the late 1960s American counterculture, which would vanish by the mid 1970s.
In 1972, Thompson covered the presidential election in a series of articles for Rolling Stone that would be published in book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. He loathed then President Richard Nixon.
He described Nixon as a man who "could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time... an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it."
Thompson later accepted an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the last days of the Vietnam War. He traveled to Saigon and found the country in chaos. When publisher Jann Wenner canceled the assignment without notice, Thompson found himself trapped in Vietnam without an expense account or health insurance.
In the 1980s, Hunter covered such famous events as the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the scandalous Roxanne Pulitzer divorce. In the 1990s, he wrote two noted fictional pieces. One was based on his interview with Bill Clinton, the other a protest against Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court.
By then, he had become a something of a recluse. His popularity soared again with the release of the acclaimed 1998 feature film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo.
Hunter's long lost novel The Rum Diary was published, along with two collections of letters. In 2003, a new book, Kingdom of Fear, was published, which contained new writings and classic pieces, serving primarily as an angry attack on post 9/11 America.
After suffering from numerous medical problems, including illnesses and a hip replacement, Hunter S. Thompson was left in poor health and chronic, often severe pain. Unable to stand it any longer, he committed suicide in February of 2005 at the age of 67.
At the private funeral ceremony attended by nearly 300 people and paid for by Johnny Depp, Thompson's ashes were shot out of a cannon to the tune of Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky and Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man.
Quote Of The Day
"Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives... and to the good life, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be." - Hunter S. Thompson
Today's video features a 1978 BBC documentary on Hunter S. Thompson. Enjoy!
Thursday, July 18, 2019
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On July 17th, 1889, the legendary American mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts. After graduating high school in 1909, he entered the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana.
Gardner later dropped out and moved to California, where he became a self-taught attorney and passed the California state bar exam. He opened his own law practice, but later gave it up and went to work for a sales agency for five years before returning once again to practice law in 1921.
Creative and restless by nature. Gardner was bored by routine legal practice. He enjoyed trial work, especially planning his strategy for defending his clients.
He took up writing as a hobby and sold short stories to pulp magazines, cutting his teeth just as his fellow mystery writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler had done.
In his short stories, Gardner created many popular series characters, including gentleman thief Lester Leith and crusading lawyer Ken Corning. But they weren't his most famous characters.
In 1933, Gardner's first novel was published. The Case Of The Velvet Claws was also his first novel to feature a character who would become one of the greatest literary icons of all time - Perry Mason.
A brilliant and cunning defense attorney and sleuth, in his first adventure, Mason crosses paths with the spoiled, philandering wife of a rich and powerful man.
The amoral woman is determined to keep her affairs a secret and retain her life of luxury - even if she has to frame Perry Mason for murder to do it!
The Case Of The Velvet Claws became a huge success. By 1937 - four years after it was published - Erle Stanley Gardner quit his law practice to write full time.
Many of his Perry Mason novels were published in serialized form in The Saturday Evening Post, then in book form. Sixteen of them appeared in condensed form in the Toronto Star Weekly.
Gardner wrote over 80 Perry Mason novels during his career, which would sell over 300,000,000 copies combined. He also published mystery novels featuring other characters such as Terry Clane and Gramps Wiggins, short story collections, and a series of nonfiction books.
Perry Mason remains Gardner's most popular character to this day. Always determined to see justice done, while defending his clients, Mason worked tirelessly to solve the crimes of which they were accused.
Mason made his feature film debut in the 1930s. In 1943, a Perry Mason radio mystery series premiered and ran for twelve years. Fourteen years later, Perry Mason made the jump to television
The acclaimed TV series starred Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, defending his clients and solving crimes with the help of his private investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper) and his secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale).
The Perry Mason TV series ran for nine years. Erle Stanley Gardner made an uncredited appearance in the final episode, playing a judge. Raymond Burr would return for a whopping 30 Perry Mason made-for-tv movies that aired between 1985 and 1995.
When he wasn't writing about him, Erle Stanley Gardner became a real life Perry Mason in his spare time, donating thousands of hours to a project called The Court of Last Resort.
The project was dedicated to helping those suspected of being wrongly convicted of crimes as the result of poor legal representation or careless or malicious police work or prosecutorial misconduct.
The Court of Last Resort focused mostly on forensics, specifically the mishandling and misinterpretation of forensic evidence due to ineptitude or malice on the part of investigators or prosecutors.
Gardner was assisted in his project by his many friends in the forensic, investigative, and legal communities. In 1952, Gardner published a nonfiction account of his work for The Court of Last Resort, which won him an Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category.
Five years later, in 1957, Gardner produced a TV series based on his work with The Court of Last Resort. Unfortunately, it would only run for one season.
Erle Stanley Gardner died in 1970 at the age of 80. His famous character Perry Mason remains a major iconic figure in popular culture.
In his 1995 album Ozzmosis, the legendary English rock singer Ozzy Osbourne paid tribute to Gardner's attorney and sleuth in the song Perry Mason, which became a hit single:
On his way to dinner
when it took him by surprise
and with one pull of the trigger
he would vanish overnight
Dancing by the roadside
holding on for dear life
then a gun from out of nowhere
made a widow of his wife
I don't mind
single file down the runway
and I'll see you my friend
over and over again
Who can we get on the case?
We need Perry Mason
Someone to put you in place -
calling Perry Mason again...
Quote Of The Day
"It's a damn good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check." - Erle Stanley Gardner on his first Perry Mason novel, The Case Of The Velvet Claws.
Today's video features a complete reading of Erle Stanley Gardner's classic first Perry Mason novel, The Case Of The Velvet Claws. Enjoy!
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On July 16th, 1951, The Catcher in the Rye, the classic novel by the legendary American writer J.D. Salinger, was published. Salinger's poignant coming-of-age story opens with teenage student Holden Caulfield being expelled from Pencey Prep, his boarding school in Pennsylvania.
Highly intelligent but mentally disturbed, the angry, alienated Holden believes that his fellow students and his teachers are all a bunch of phonies. After an altercation with his roommate, Holden packs up and leaves school in the middle of the night.
He takes a train back to New York City, but doesn't want to go home to his parents, so he checks into the shabby Edmont Hotel instead. There, he dances with some tourist girls, has a clumsy encounter with a prostitute, and is beaten by her pimp when he refuses to pay her more than the agreed upon amount.
Holden spends the next two days wandering around the city, drunk and lonely. He sneaks into his parents' apartment while they're out so he can visit his precocious ten-year-old little sister Phoebe - the only family member that he can communicate with.
He shares with her a fantasy (a misinterpretation of Robert Burns' Comin' Through The Rye) where he watches over children playing in a rye field near the edge of a cliff. He must make sure that they don't wander too close to the edge; he must become a "catcher in the rye" and protect them from falling off the cliff.
After leaving his parents' apartment, Holden visits his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him a place to sleep and gives him a speech about life - while guzzling highballs. He compliments Holden's good looks.
Later that night, Holden is awakened to find Mr. Antolini stroking his head in a "flitty" way. Holden describes this as "something perverty." Mr. Antolini's marriage may be a sham to conceal his true nature.
When Holden tells Phoebe that he plans to move out West, she wants to go with him. He refuses to take her, which upsets her greatly, so he tells her that he won't move. The book ends with Holden taking Phoebe to the Central Park Zoo.
Watching with melancholy joy while she rides the carousel, he alludes to possible future events, including "getting sick" and being committed to a mental hospital, and attending another school in September. That's just a bare outline of The Catcher in the Rye.
You must read this novel for yourself. One of the greatest American novels of the 20th century and one of the most controversial, the American Library Association (ALA) has listed it as the 13th most challenged book from 1990 to 2000 and one of the ten most challenged books of 2005.
The complaints range from profanity - including words such as goddamn and fuck - to blasphemy. Opponents of the book have also complained about the undermining of family values - Holden Caulfield being a poor role model who promotes rebellion, smoking, drinking, lying, and promiscuity.
In 1989, Shelley Keller-Gage, a high school teacher in Boron, California, was fired after some disgruntled parents complained about her placement of The Catcher in the Rye on her students' assigned reading list. She was later reinstated.
Throughout his life, J.D. Salinger rebuffed attempts at adapting his classic novel for the stage and screen. When his short story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was adapted as a film called My Foolish Heart, great liberties were taken, and the film bore little resemblance to Salinger's story.
The movie, which Salinger hated, turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. He vowed that no more of his works would be adapted. In 1961, Salinger denied legendary film and stage director Elia Kazan permission to adapt The Catcher in the Rye as a Broadway play.
Acclaimed filmmakers from Billy Wilder to Steven Spielberg expressed great interest in directing a feature film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, and many famous actors have expressed great interest in playing Holden Caulfield.
Big name actors from Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio have coveted the role of Salinger's antihero. John Cusack said that after he turned 21, he regretted that he had become too old to play Holden.
Ever since J.D. Salinger died in January of 2010 at the age of 91, speculation has run rampant that a feature film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye will finally be made. Until then, everyone should read the novel, which is one of the all-time classic works of literature.
Quote Of The Day
“An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” - J.D. Salinger
Today's video features a reader's guide to J.D. Salinger's classic novel, The Catcher In The Rye. Enjoy!
Monday, July 15, 2019
Steven K. Smith
Embark Literary Journal has posted their July Issue online, which includes the beginning of my novel, "The Great Disruption." Once again, thank you to everyone who helped me get here. You're the greatest.
Friday, July 12, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On July 12th, 1817, the legendary American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts. The Thoreau family had their own business - a pencil factory founded by Henry's grandfather.
Henry David Thoreau graduated from Harvard University in 1837. According to legend, his first act of rebellion was refusing to buy one of the honorary Master's degrees that Harvard would bestow on its graduates.
To receive one of these degrees, one would give a $5 (the equivalent of $135 in today's money) donation to the university. It was a long held tradition that graduates bought these worthless degrees.
At the time of Thoreau's graduation, the employment opportunities for college graduates were typically limited to business, medicine, and the church. None of these interested Thoreau.
He became a schoolteacher, but his first teaching job only lasted three weeks. He resigned in disgust rather than carry out his superiors' order to administer corporal punishment to his students.
Thoreau and his brother John then founded their own school. It was a progressive elementary school where they introduced a new, then revolutionary activity to their educational curriculum - the field trip.
Students would partake in everything from nature hikes to visits to local shops and businesses and see the real world in action. Sadly, the school would close in four years, following the sudden death of John Thoreau from tetanus.
When he wasn't running the school with his brother, Henry David Thoreau spent time with legendary poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had become not only his close friend, but also his literary mentor and father figure.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was a ferocious abolitionist and had no use for organized religion. He followed Emerson's Transcendentalist philosophy. When he became fascinated with his idol's practice of keeping a journal, Emerson encouraged him to keep a journal of his own.
After Thoreau lost his brother and closed their school, he tried to begin a literary career. With Emerson's encouragement and assistance, he began publishing essays, poems, and journal excerpts.
For a time, he lived with Emerson, tutored his children, and served as his assistant, editor, gardener, and handyman. Later, he worked at his family's pencil factory, where he perfected a graphite recycling process.
Thoreau would make good pencils from inferior, reject graphite by using clay as a binder. He would later produce plumbago at the factory - a type of graphite used for typesetting machine ink.
By the spring of 1845, after a period of restlessness, Thoreau decided to write full time. To do this, he required solitude, a quiet place away from the rest of the world.
He began an experiment in simple living, building a cabin on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson near Walden Pond, a beautiful wilderness that would inspire him to write his most famous book.
The following year, Thoreau ran afoul of the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who demanded that he pay six years of back poll taxes. The poll tax was a tax one paid for the privilege of voting in federal elections.
Some state and local governments imposed additional poll taxes for their elections. The poll tax was hugely controversial; it took away the voting rights of poor people who couldn't afford to pay the tax.
It was another way for the wealthy elite to maintain their power and oppress the working class. After the Civil War, the Southern states imposed steep poll taxes to prevent freed blacks from voting. The poll tax wouldn't be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1937.
Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes for a different reason: he refused to pay any taxes to support a federal government that allowed slavery to remain legal. He also refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War.
That unpopular conflict, which took place from 1846-1848, was instigated by President James K. Polk and fought to allow Americans to expand into the West. We wanted land that belonged to Mexico, so we decided to take it by force.
War was declared on Mexico, bolstered by a recent, successful armed insurrection by American settlers living in a Mexican territory that would become the state of Texas. The insurrection was waged so the settlers could keep both their stolen land and slaves to work it. The Mexican government had banned slavery.
During the Mexican-American War, heavy American casualties and the skyrocketing cost of the conflict drove the government to sign an armistice with Mexico which called for certain territories to be sold to the United States.
These territories, which would become the states of New Mexico and California, were turned over to the United States in exchange for $18 million (the equivalent of $580 million in today's money) and the forgiveness of all Mexico's debts.
For Henry David Thoreau and other abolitionists, achieving the goals of the Mexican-American War meant that the new territories would be built on the backs of slaves. This is why Thoreau refused to pay his taxes.
He was taken to jail, but released a day later when his aunt paid his taxes, which infuriated him. The entire ordeal would change Thoreau forever. He would develop an anarchist philosophy of which he would become a noted and popular lecturer.
In January of 1848, Thoreau gave a lecture at the Concord Lyceum that was attended by writer and philosopher Bronson Alcott, the father of legendary writer Louisa May Alcott.
Bronson wrote that he "took great pleasure" in Thoreau's lecture. Thoreau would become a close friend of the Alcott family. He would also rework his lecture material into a classic essay, Civil Disobedience.
Civil Disobedience (1849) was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's classic political poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819) and by Thoreau's anger at legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act was a Congressional compromise to appease the South. It prohibited all people - even those living in free states - from helping runaway slaves. Thoreau opined:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.
If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.
When he wasn't lecturing or doing odd jobs to pay his bills, Henry David Thoreau lived in his beloved wilderness, kept up his journal, and worked on the book that he would become most famous for.
Walden, or Living in the Wilderness (1854) was a memoir of the two years that Thoreau spent living in his cabin in a wilderness located about two miles away from his family home.
The purpose of his experiment was to see if he could live a simple life under minimal conditions and away from what he called "over-civilization." He did not, however, intend to become a hermit. He received many visitors and would leave his cabin to make visits of his own. He summed up his objectives this way:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Steeped deep in philosophy, spirituality, and satire, and featuring some of the finest writings about nature, Walden became an all-time classic nonfiction book. The legendary poet Robert Frost said of it, "In one book... [Thoreau] surpasses everything we have had in America."
The experience would kindle within Thoreau lifelong interests in natural history and botany. He came to admire the work of naturalists William Bartram and Charles Darwin.
Henry David Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835. Amazingly, the disease would come and go, and he suffered from it only sporadically. This enabled him to conduct his Walden experiment.
Unfortunately, in 1859, after getting caught in a rainstorm one night, Thoreau contracted a bad case of bronchitis which brought his tuberculosis back with a vengeance. His health began to decline until he was bedridden.
Realizing that he was dying, Thoreau spent his last years revising unpublished manuscripts, writing letters, and keeping up his journal until he was too weak to do so.
Henry David Thoreau died in May of 1862 at the age of 44. His old friend Bronson Alcott planned the funeral service. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the eulogy.
Quote Of The Day
"Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience." - Henry David Thoreau
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry David Thoreau's most famous book, Walden. Enjoy!
Thursday, July 11, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On July 11th, 1960, To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic novel by the famous American writer Harper Lee, was published.
The classic semi autobiographical Southern Gothic Bildungsroman novel was inspired by actual events from the author's childhood. Harper Lee, born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926, was the daughter of a prominent lawyer.
Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, once defended two black men accused of murder. After the men were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, Amasa never practiced criminal law again. This took place in 1919, before Harper was born.
In 1936, when Harper was ten, a black man named Walter Nett was accused of rape by a white woman, convicted, and sentenced to death. A series of letters then appeared which contained proof that Nett's accuser had lied.
Instead of being released from prison, Nett's death sentence was commuted to life. He died a year later of tuberculosis. After Harper Lee's father quit practicing law, he founded a newspaper. The paper would cover the Nett trial and its shocking aftermath.
Some scholars believe that it wasn't the Nett case but the case of Emmett Till that inspired Harper Lee to write her famous novel. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting relatives in Mississippi, made the mistake of flirting with a white woman.
The woman's name was Carolyn Bryant. When her husband Roy found out that a black kid had flirted with his wife, he, his half-brother John Milam, and an unknown accomplice abducted Emmett Till, beat him savagely, shot him in the head, then dumped his nude body in the Tallahatchie River.
Roy Bryant and John Milam were arrested and charged with murder. At their trial, it took an all-white jury just over an hour to acquit them both. One of the jurors later said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long."
The murder of Emmett Till would serve as a catalyst for the then fledgling Civil Rights Movement, helping to bring it to prominence and setting the stage for the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of a black man's tragic fate in Depression era Alabama, as seen through the eyes of the white little girl whose father defended him.
In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1936, spunky little tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch lives with her big brother Jem and their widower father, Atticus Finch, a prominent, respected attorney.
School is out for the summer, and Scout and Jem make a new friend - Dill, a boy who is visiting his aunt, who lives nearby. The three children spend their days outside playing and fantasizing about another neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley.
As his nickname implies, Boo is a strange and spooky character, a mysterious recluse whom everyone knows of but no one ever sees. As they try to think of ways to get him to come out of his house, the kids wonder if he really is a monster.
Soon, little trinkets begin to appear in the tree outside Boo Radley's house - apparently gifts to Scout and Jem from Radley, though the man never seems to come out of his house.
Scout's obsession with Boo Radley is put aside when a black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, and her father, Atticus, agrees to defend him. For this, Atticus pays a dear price.
Once one of the most respected and admired men in Maycomb, Atticus quickly becomes the most hated man in town. Scout and Jem are taunted by the other children, who call their father a "nigger lover."
After shaming a lynch mob into backing off, Scout, Jem, and Dill secretly watch the trial from the colored section of the courtroom.
Atticus believes that Tom Robinson's accuser, Mayella Ewell, and her father, Bob - a violent, alcoholic racist - are lying. During the trial, Atticus exposes the truth. The lonely, abused Mayella flirted with Tom and got caught by her father.
After beating his daughter, Bob Ewell forced her to accuse Tom Robinson of rape in order to save face. He couldn't allow his friends and neighbors to think that his daughter would flirt with a black man.
Despite the truths revealed in court, the all-white jury still convicts Tom Robinson of rape. The conviction causes Atticus and Jem to lose faith in the American justice system. Later, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape from prison.
Even though he won in court, Bob Ewell, furious with Atticus Finch for exposing his daughter, spits in the lawyer's face. In the novel's memorable climax, a drunken, enraged Bob Ewell attacks Scout while she and Jem are walking home from a school Halloween pageant.
Jem tries to save his little sister and gets his arm broken. Suddenly, a man appears out of the shadows and attacks Bob Ewell, stabbing him to death with his own knife. Scout realizes that their savior is none other than Boo Radley. He finally came out of his house.
The strange, silent man scoops Jem up in his arms and carries him home. The sheriff is called, and he and Atticus argue about how to handle Bob Ewell's death. He convinces Atticus that justice would be best served by declaring Ewell's death an accident.
Though it would receive rave reviews and sell over 30,000,000 copies, Harper Lee never expected her novel to be a success. She said:
I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.
Lee was stunned when her novel won her a Pulitzer Prize. Two years after it was published, To Kill A Mockingbird was adapted as a highly acclaimed feature film.
Featuring an Academy Award winning screenplay by playwright Horton Foote, and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (he won an Oscar for Best Actor) and in an amazing performance, eight-year-old Mary Badham as Scout Finch, it's considered one of the all time great movies.
A staple of study for eighth grade English classes, (where I first read it) To Kill A Mockingbird has faced censorship battles due to its depictions of rape and use of racial epithets.
Scholars - and the author herself - argue that the novel's depiction of a black man suffering at the hands of ignorant, racist white Southerners is the real reason why some people want the book banned from the classroom.
In 2003, a rumor began spreading that To Kill A Mockingbird was written not by Harper Lee, but by her childhood (and lifelong) best friend, legendary writer Truman Capote, whom the character of Dill was based on.
An Alabama newspaper had quoted Capote's biological father, Archulus Persons, as stating that Capote had written "almost all" of Lee's novel.
Three years later, the rumor was discredited by a letter written by Capote himself that was donated to Monroeville's literary museum.
In this letter to a neighbor, Capote mentioned that his old and dear friend Harper Lee was writing a book that would soon be published. Capote's letter was corroborated by extensive notes between Lee and her editor at the Lippincott publishing house.
In 2006, she received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. A year later, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It seemed like To Kill A Mockingbird would be her only novel.
Then, on February 3rd, 2015, Harper Lee announced that she would be publishing another novel. The book, titled Go Set A Watchman and published a few months later in July, was a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird that follows Scout as a grown woman.
Watchman was actually written before Mockingbird, which was intended to be its prequel. Lee thought the manuscript had been lost forever, but it was found by her lawyer in a safe deposit box in 2011. The manuscript was published exactly as written, with no revisions.
It's 20 years later, and the Civil Rights movement is just starting to become a major force for change. With racial tensions escalating across the country, especially in Scout Finch's home state of Alabama, she can't help but recall the lessons she learned in her childhood.
Scout, now going by her proper name Jean Louise, joins the Civil Rights movement and is stunned to discover that her now elderly father Atticus, whom she idolized and who risked everything to defend an innocent black man from racist injustice, is opposed to civil rights.
What's more, he's determined to fight school integration and has been consorting with the Ku Klux Klan. For the first time, Jean Louise begins to see her father through the eyes of an intelligent grown woman instead of through the rose colored glasses of a naive, adoring little girl.
She finds that Atticus is flawed like any other person and, like other white Southerners, fears the sudden end of the only way of life he's ever known. Can it really be true? Will Jean Louise's relationship with her father be shattered forever?
The announcement of a second Harper Lee novel came as quite a shock to the literary community. The 89-year-old author had been residing in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke a while back. Her vision and hearing were deteriorating.
The timing of Watchman's publication made some wonder if Lee, perhaps senile, was being exploited by her publisher. Suspicion of elder abuse led the state of Alabama to conduct an investigation. They interviewed Lee and determined that no abuse had taken place.
Her longtime friend, historian Wayne Flynt, said that the "narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady is just hogwash. It's just complete bunk."
Needless to say, the publication of Go Set A Watchman caused quite a stir. Many readers believed that Lee had betrayed them and soiled the legacy of one of America's most beloved literary characters.
Others, like this writer, found Watchman to be a powerful read and a worthy successor to To Kill A Mockingbird that truthfully explores the insidious nature of intolerance.
Quote Of The Day
"Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. It's a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent." - Harper Lee
Today's video features a complete reading of Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Enjoy!
Wednesday, July 10, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On July 10th, 1871, the legendary French novelist, essayist, and critic Marcel Proust was born. He was born Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust in Auteuil, France.
Proust's family was affluent, as his father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist whose work was dedicated to containing the epidemic of cholera in Europe and Asia. He wrote many books and articles on medicine and hygiene.
Marcel's mother, Jeanne, was the daughter of a wealthy, intellectual Jewish family. He was very close to her. As a boy, Marcel Proust was a sickly child. He suffered his first serious asthma attack at the age of nine.
At the age of eleven, he enrolled as a student at the Lycee Condorcet. Despite the fact that his education was often interrupted by his health problems, he excelled at his studies and won an award in his final year.
Proust began writing at an early age. In 1890, when he was nineteen and still in school, in addition to being published in literary magazines, for a year, Proust published a regular society column in the journal La Mensuel.
In 1892, he helped found a literary magazine called La Banquet, where his short pieces would often be published. He was also published in the famous Le Revue Blanche.
As a young man, the dandy Proust was a dilettante and social climber, lacking the discipline required to fulfill his aspiration to be a great novelist. He garnered a reputation as an amateur and a snob, then finally got serious, buckled down, and began writing what would become his magnum opus.
À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, or In Search Of Lost Time, was a 3,000+ page epic semi autobiographical novel. It would be published in English as Remembrance Of Things Past.
After numerous rejections, Remembrance Of Things Past would be published in a series of seven volumes over a period of 14 years, with the last two published posthumously. The first volume, Swann's Way, was published in 1913.
Proust's dazzling novel is rightfully considered one of the greatest ever written, and continues to influence writers and scholars to this day. It was shaped by people and events in Proust's life, including his own experiences.
He employed a lyrical narrative rich in detail, symbolism, and philosophy. It's often melancholic and fascinated with the nature of memories, especially involuntary memories, which are triggered by seeing a certain object, hearing a certain sound, or smelling a certain aroma.
The most famous memory evoked in Swann's Way is the narrator's memory of eating that classic French tea cake, the madeleine:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
The memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, recalled in incredibly rich detail, were in complete contrast with the plot-driven novels of its time. This may have contributed to its initial rejection.
Some believe it had more to do with the fact that Proust, who was gay, wrote openly and honestly about homosexuality at a time when it was not only despised by society but also illegal - a crime punishable by imprisonment.
His narrator in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is not gay, but other characters are (most notably the Baron de Charlus in the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah) and homosexuality is a recurring theme in Proust's writings.
Unfazed by the rejection of Swann's Way by publishers, Proust raised the money to publish the novel himself. It made him famous. Scholars have proclaimed A la Recherche du Temps Perdu to be one of the greatest modern novels ever written.
The legendary Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov named it as one of the greatest prose works of the 20th century, along with James Joyce's Ulysses and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. W. Somerset Maugham called it "the greatest fiction to date."
In 2002, Penguin Books published a new English translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Edited by Christopher Prendergast, it's a collaboration of seven different translators.
Ten years later, Naxos Audiobooks began releasing its acclaimed series of unabridged English language audiobooks of all the volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, narrated by Neville Jason, famous for the abridged audiobook version of the series he'd recorded many years earlier.
I have already listened to the first six volumes of this new unabridged series, and the narration is magnificent. As always, unabridged audiobooks are the only way to go, especially when listening to the classics.
Writing Remembrance Of Things Past would take a toll on Marcel Proust's chronically poor health. During the last three years of his life, he was mostly confined to his bedroom.
He slept during the day and wrote at night, struggling to complete his novel. In 1922, after he had finished the book, Proust contracted pneumonia and later died of a pulmonary abscess at the age of 51.
Quote Of The Day
"Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself." - Marcel Proust
Today's video features a BBC documentary on Marcel Proust. Enjoy!