This Day In Literary History
On May 31st, 1819, the legendary American poet, essayist, and journalist Walt Whitman was born. He was born Walter Whitman Jr. on Long Island, New York.
The second of nine children, Walt's childhood was restless and unhappy; the Whitmans moved frequently to dodge creditors, thanks to Walter Sr.'s bad investments.
Walt Whitman completed his primary education at the age of eleven and went off to learn a trade. He became a printer's devil (apprentice) for the Patriot, a weekly Long Island newspaper. He also worked for other newspapers and printers. In doing so, he became an expert at printing and typesetting.
While working for the Long Island Star newspaper, the teenage Walt Whitman determined to further his education and make a cultured gentleman of himself. He educated himself by becoming an active patron of the local public library.
He also joined a town debating society, regularly attended the theater, and began writing poetry, and his earliest works were published anonymously in newspapers.
By 1838, the nineteen year old Whitman, then living in New York City, was unable to find work in his trade because a massive fire had consumed most of the city's printing and publishing district.
Also, the economy had tanked in the Panic of 1837, a depression that would last five years. Whitman returned to his native Long Island and found work as a teacher. He taught at several schools, but found teaching to be an unsatisfying career.
He took jobs in the printing and newspaper business when he could find them. He also founded his own newspaper, the Long Islander, but ended up selling it ten months later. No copies of the Long Islander survived.
In 1840, Whitman was teaching again, at the Locust Grove School on Long Island, when a Presbyterian minister publicly accused him of homosexuality, which at the time was considered both disgraceful and illegal. Whitman, who was most likely bisexual, was not charged with a crime. However, he was reportedly tarred, feathered, and run out of town.
Walt Whitman moved back to New York City and spent the next ten years working for various newspapers. He added to his income by becoming a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. By 1846, he had become the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.
He lost the position two years later due to political differences with the newspaper's owner, Isaac Van Anden. Whitman had used his position to publicly support his fellow Barnburners, angering Van Anden, who was a Hunker.
At the time, as a result of the recent economic crisis, the Democratic Party had become sharply divided between two rival factions, the Barnburners and the Hunkers. The Barnburners were the left wing reformers of the party.
They were called Barnburners because they believed that the best way to deal with crooked banks and corporations was to shut them down - the way a farmer burns down his barn to deal with a rat infestation. The Barnburners were also fierce abolitionists who demanded an immediate end to slavery.
The Hunkers were the professional politicians who seek to hunker down in office. On the campaign trail, they promise everything. After being elected, they did practically nothing. They were conservative Democrats. They favored state bailouts of private banks with no regulatory strings attached.
Hunkers were stubbornly moderate on every political issue, including slavery. They found slavery distasteful, but were willing to maintain it for economic reasons. To abolish slavery, they believed, was too radical a step to take - too much of a risk to the economy. They refused to rock the boat.
After losing his editor's position, Walt Whitman continued to work in the newspaper business, but he was determined to make his mark as a poet. By 1850, he was working on the poems that would appear in his famous poetry collection.
With its breakthrough style of free verse and distinctly American voice, Leaves of Grass is rightfully considered one of the greatest American poetry collections of all time. The title was a pun; in the publishing business, leaves meant pages and grass was a slang term for a literary work of little artistic or commercial value.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. It was a collection of twelve untitled free verse poems contained in 95 pages. Whitman paid for the book to be published at a Brooklyn print shop owned by two Scottish immigrants who had been friends of his for years.
Using his printing experience, Whitman designed the layout and did most of the typesetting himself. The initial press run was just under 800 copies. Instead of the poet's name, an engraved drawing of Whitman in his work clothes and jaunty hat appeared on the cover.
Leaves of Grass didn't sell a lot of copies at first, but it made a huge impact, especially on legendary American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman's friend, who had inspired him to write the book, which contained meditations on transcendentalism.
Emerson said of it, "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed... I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy." Not everyone agreed with his appraisal.
At the time he published his book, Whitman had been working for the United States Department of the Interior. His boss, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, read Leaves of Grass, found its sexual content extremely offensive, and fired him. Literary critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold blasted it as "a mass of stupid filth."
Griswold's review made mention of the public accusation of homosexuality leveled against Whitman some fifteen years earlier, believing him to be guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians."
Whitman included Griswold's entire review, which nearly resulted in the publication of the second edition being cancelled, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
Over the years, rather than write additional collections of poetry published under different titles, Whitman issued new, revised and expanded editions of Leaves of Grass that contained additional poems, revisions or deletions of previously published poems, and layout changes.
When the last edition, known as the Deathbed Edition because it was completed just before Whitman's death in 1892, was published, Leaves of Grass had been expanded from its original 12 poems to nearly 400.
In March of 1882, Whitman's then publisher, James R. Osgood of Boston, received a letter from the city's district attorney, Oliver Stevens, who had been contacted by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice regarding Leaves of Grass.
Stevens agreed with the Society that the book constituted "obscene literature" as defined by law. He called for the deletion of two poems, A Woman Waits for Me and To a Common Prostitute, and for the revision of ten other poems. If the publisher did not agree to these terms, he could face prosecution for obscenity.
Osgood wrote to Whitman, who dismissed Stevens' threat and refused to censor his book. When Osgood refused to republish it, Whitman found himself a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, who published a new, unexpurgated version of Leaves of Grass later that year.
Whitman believed that the controversy would boost sales, and he was right. Though some retailers refused to sell it, the book went through five reprint runs of 1,000 copies each. The first printing sold out in one day.
The censorship hoopla brought Leaves of Grass to the attention of more liberal critics, and Walt Whitman was finally - and rightfully - recognized as one of the greatest poets of all time, the master of free verse.
One critic, William Michael Rossetti, believed that with Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman had earned himself a place alongside William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri.
Critic, editor, and fellow transcendentalist George Ripley believed that the book radiated "vigor and quaint beauty." Susan Garnet Smith, a fan from Connecticut, wrote to Whitman, professing her love for him and offering to donate her womb if he wanted a child.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman published his classic patriotic poem Beat! Beat! Drums! and his brother George joined the Union army. George sent Walt many detailed letters chronicling his experiences on and off the battlefield.
In December of 1862, the New York Times published a listing of the names of Union soldiers who had been wounded or killed in action. Concerned that one of the names, "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore," was a misspelling of his brother's name - George W. Whitman - Walt set out to find him.
While traveling through the South mostly on foot, Whitman had his wallet stolen and was unable to find any information about Union soldiers in general or his brother George in particular.
Eventually, he found George alive, with just a minor wound on his cheek. Other soldiers weren't as lucky, and Walt was profoundly moved by the sight of all the severely wounded soldiers and the piles of their amputated limbs.
Whitman found work in the army paymaster's office and was granted leave to serve as a volunteer nurse. He would write of his wartime experiences in a newspaper article, The Great Army of the Sick. His brother George would later be captured in Virginia and interned at one of the Confederates' horrific POW camps.
In 1873, Walt Whitman suffered a stroke that left him mostly bedridden, but it didn't stop him from working on new editions of Leaves of Grass. Cared for by relatives, he lived in various places before buying himself a house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, now known as the famous Walt Whitman House.
He struck up a friendship with Mary Oakes Davis, a sea captain's widow who was boarding with a nearby family. She later moved in with Whitman (bringing her menagerie of pets with her) and became his housekeeper and caregiver in exchange for free room and board.
As the years passed, Walt Whitman's fragile health deteriorated. He died of bronchial pneumonia in March of 1892, at the age of 72.
Quote Of The Day
"The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book." - Walt Whitman
Today's video features a complete reading of Walt Whitman's classic poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. Enjoy!
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Monday, May 30, 2016
I have a guest blog post at Bookingly Yours. This is a rehash of an old post from 2012 on my own blog.
My short story, "Getting Serious," has been accepted at The Jawline Review. The story was critiqued on Fiction a while back.
Joanna M. Weston
My book, 'A Bedroom of Searchlights', published this week by Inanna Publications of Toronto, Ontario. The poems explore the life of the poet’s mother who divorced in 1939, at a time when a woman divorcing was still frowned upon by society.
This collection draws a picture of the artist and single mother who struggled with poverty, war, and the realities of daily life, yet still found beauty and comfort in her garden, and her art. On Amazon and here is the link to the book page on Inanna's website:
Lori Sambol Brody
Take a look at this! Little Fiction does trailers for all the stories they publish, and here's the one they did for my story coming out June 1 – E Ticket.
I'm thrilled and honored to have a new poetry chapbook, "avalanche tunnel," out with Ryga. I had originally submitted work to them last year for their journal, having admired many of the poets they've published in the past and knowing that they pay a generous $200 for accepted work. Well, little did I know this would all lead to a chapbook.
They requested even more work and offered me the book deal and I feel really lucky. They've been an amazing bunch to work with, offering great edits and helping me polish some brand-new work. So poets, keep sending out your poems, you never know where they may lead! If you'd like to have a look, the editors say some awfully nice things about me.
Also, the excerpted poem was one that was critiqued on Poetry-W a couple of years ago. Other recent news is that a really cool new project, The Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, has published a reprint of an older poem of mine, "The Matador's Daughter," which originally appeared in 2river back in 2006.
This project creates mini poem-postcards and leaves them in wooden boxes (poetry houses) around the city of Pittsburgh for free distribution. Non-city residents can also order copies of a volume (about 30 poetry postcards) for a small fee. They are looking to publish short (must fit on a postcard), easily accessible and family-friendly poems. You can find out more here.
Lastly, this is a bit early, but I'm too excited not to share: Boston Review will be publishing my poem in the upcoming Franz Wright memorial they're curating. "Elegy with Premonition & Tentacles," an ABCDerian critiqued not long ago on Poetry-W (I've substantially edited it - thanks to all who gave such great feedback!), will appear in the not too distant future.
I'll post a link when it's live. Thanks again, dear writers! My heart is brimming!
I recently received a 1st-Place award in the Nonfiction category of the 2016 Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition for a feature titled "Let's Give Djokovic Some Love." I also received a 2nd-Place award for a column titled "Surprises, Demises, and Reprises at the US Open."
I would like to thank everyone whose topnotch suggestions and corrections - plus your explanations - improved these and other articles immensely. We're a team of collaborators, and I really appreciate your generous help.
Theresa A. Cancro
One haiku on Plum Tree Tavern, May 29, 2016.
Two haibun - A Clearing and After Dinner - published in the June 2016 issue of Haibun Today.
Four poems - "tree grief," "Inert at The Door," "Bitter," and one haiku - selected from work appearing last year in Kind of A Hurricane Press' online sites and recently published in their "best of" series, "Storm Cycle 2015."
My thanks to Poetry-W and Prose-P members who provided feedback on a couple of these.
I have an article published in a December 2016 edition of fundsforwriters.com. I didn't crit the draft at NFICTION, but this is another publication besides.
Friday, May 27, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On May 27th, 1894, the legendary American writer Dashiell Hammett was born. He was born Samuel Dashiell Hammett in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on a farm called Hopewell and Aim. Hammett's mother, Anne Bond Dashiell, was a descendant of one of Maryland's oldest families. At 13, Hammett left school to work.
In 1915, at the age of 21, Hammett landed a job at the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he worked for six years as an operative. This experience would plant the seeds of his writing career. Disillusioned by Pinkerton's role in strike breaking and other anti-union activities, Hammett quit the agency in disgust.
During World War I, Hammett served in the Army in the Motor Ambulance Corps, but illness cut his tour of duty short; first he'd contracted Spanish flu, then tuberculosis. He spent most of the war in a hospital in Tacoma, Washington. While there, Hammett met a nurse, Josephine Dolan, whom he would later marry.
Josephine bore him two daughters, Mary Jane in 1921 and Josephine in 1926. Shortly after his second child's birth, due to Hammett's tuberculosis, Health Services nurses told his wife that she and the kids shouldn't live with him. So, they took an apartment in San Francisco.
Hammett visited them on the weekends, but the separation took too great a toll on the marriage, and it fell apart. He started drinking and tried his hand at several jobs before beginning a writing career. His early work was a series of short stories featuring a detective with no name, referred to as The Continental Op.
The short stories led to two novels, Red Harvest (February 1929) and The Dain Curse (July 1929). In Red Harvest, the Continental Op arrives in a coal mining town called Personville to meet with a new client, but finds that the man has been murdered. The client's father, a local industrialist, tells the Op that warring criminal gangs are fighting for control of Personville.
The Op solves his client's murder. With the Chief of Police totally corrupt, the Op cleans up the town himself by extracting and distributing the information he needs to set up a final showdown between the criminal gangs, manipulating them into wiping each other out.
It has been suggested that Red Harvest was the inspiration for legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's 1961 masterwork, Yojimbo. Kurosawa often expressed his admiration for hardboiled American detective novels, citing them as an inspiration for several of his movies.
In 1929, Hammett became romantically involved with mystery writer Nell Martin, dedicating his novel The Glass Key to her. By 1931, their relationship ended and Hammett embarked on a lifelong affair with legendary playwright Lillian Hellman. They would never marry.
Hammett's writing matured after the publication and success of his Continental Op novels, his prose becoming more realistic and hardboiled. In 1930, Hammett published his classic novel, The Maltese Falcon, featuring one of the great detective characters of all time, Sam Spade.
A bitter, sardonic character, Spade lets the police and other criminals think that he's a criminal while he works to nail the bad guys. The novel opens with Spade and his partner Miles Archer being hired by a woman, Miss Wonderly.
Their job to tail Floyd Thursby, a man who allegedly ran off with Miss Wonderly's underage sister. When Archer and Thursby suddenly end up murdered, Sam becomes the prime suspect.
Later, a man named Joel Cairo offers Sam $5000 to retrieve a valuable figurine of a black bird known as the Maltese Falcon. Then suddenly, Cairo pulls a gun on Sam and decides to search Spade's office for the bird.
The case leads Sam on a collision course with Cairo, rotund crime boss Kasper Gutman, and Gutman's bodyguard, Wilmer Cook. The Maltese Falcon was filmed three times, in 1931, 1936, (as Satan Met A Lady) and 1941.
While the 1931 version wonderfully captures the grittier elements of the novel, the other two were sanitized as per Production Code requirements. In the novel, Sam Spade is having an affair with both his partner's wife and his female client.
Gutman and Cook are obviously homosexual lovers, and the effeminate Cairo is also gay. Despite these changes, the 1941 version, featuring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, is still the best of the three and rightfully considered an all-time classic film.
Hammett's 1934 novel, The Thin Man, also turned out to be a classic. Set in New York City during Prohibition, ex-private detective Nick Charles and his clever, witty wife Nora - a wealthy socialite - spend most of their time cheerfully drunk in speakeasies and hotel rooms.
Though he retired from the detective business, Nick finds himself investigating yet another crime, with Nora's help. As they try to solve a murder, Nick and Nora engage in snappy banter and imbibe vast quantities of alcohol. The case leads them into the rough world of gangsters, hoodlums, and the grotesque Wynant family.
The Thin Man would inspire a series of movies featuring the characters of Nick and Nora Charles, as well as a Thin Man TV series. It has been suggested that Dashiell Hammett modeled Nick and Nora after the personalities (and drinking habits) of himself and his longtime lover, Lillian Hellman.
The Thin Man would prove to be Hammett's last novel, some say because he'd suffered an incurable case of writer's block. He devoted the rest of his life to political activism. In the 1930s, Hammett, a ferocious and outspoken anti-fascist, joined the Communist Party and the League of American Writers, a group of left-leaning activist writers.
In 1942, Hammett, a disabled veteran of the first world war and ex-tuberculosis patient, pulled strings to get himself readmitted to the service. He spent most of World War II as a Sergeant stationed in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper.
He came home from the war with more lung trouble, this time emphysema. Returning to political activism, Hammett was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress of New York in June of 1946 and devoted most of his time to working for the CRC.
In 1951, he would be brought to testify before a U.S. District Court judge about his CRC activities. He refused to testify to anything, pleading the Fifth Amendment to every question. Congress began a full investigation of Hammett.
Two years later in 1953, he was brought to testify before the HUAC - the notorious House Unamerican Activities Committee. Hammett openly testified to his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and inform on others. As a result, he was blacklisted.
Both trials took a toll on Hammett's already declining health. He died of lung cancer a few years later in 1961, at the age of 66. As he was a veteran of two world wars, Hammett was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dashiell Hammett was one of America's greatest writers, a former detective turned author of hardboiled detective stories and novels whose iconic characters - and the classic films they inspired - will live on forever.
Quote Of The Day
"When you write, you want fame, fortune and personal satisfaction. You want to write what you want to write and feel it's good, and you want this to go on for hundreds of years. You're not likely ever to get all these things, and you're not likely to give up writing and commit suicide if you don't, but that is - and should be - your goal. Anything else is kind of piddling." - Dashiell Hammett
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the acclaimed 1941 feature film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's classic novel, The Maltese Falcon. Enjoy!
Thursday, May 26, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On May 26th, 1897, Dracula, the classic horror novel by the legendary Irish writer Bram Stoker, was published in London. Though not a huge commercial success, it was very popular with Victorian readers and critics alike.
Stoker's epic epistolary horror novel is told in the form of letters and journal entries, as different characters, both male and female, narrate the story. The novel opens with entries from Jonathan Harker's journal.
The young solicitor travels to the border of Romania's Transylvania region in the Carpathian Mountains, where he has an appointment at the ominous Castle Dracula to help the nobleman Count Dracula complete his purchase of a new estate in London.
Though impressed by the Count's impeccable manners, Harker soon finds himself a prisoner in the castle. He meets "the sisters" - a trio of seductive female vampires that crave his blood. Dracula saves him, but Harker soon learns his host's terrifying secret.
Dracula himself is a bloodthirsty vampire and plans to move from Transylvania to London in search of new victims to feed on and add to his army of the undead. Harker barely escapes Castle Dracula with his life.
Later, in North Yorkshire, England, the Russian ship Demeter runs aground and the captain is found dead and bound to the helm. The log relates the story of the entire crew's disappearance. An animal resembling a large dog was seen leaping off the ship.
From there, we meet Jonathan Harker's fiancee, Mina Murray, and her friend, Lucy Westenra. One of Lucy's suitors is Dr. John Seward. When Lucy begins wasting away from a mysterious illness he can't diagnose, Seward contacts his old teacher. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.
Van Helsing immediately recognizes that Lucy is the victim of a vampire's bite, but keeps his diagnosis to himself. After Lucy dies, the newspapers begin reporting on nighttime attacks on children by someone described by the victims as a "bloofer lady." (beautiful lady)
Knowing that Lucy has become a vampire, Van Helsing finally reveals the truth to Seward, and his former student is shocked that a man whom he considers one of the world's greatest scientists could believe in vampires.
Seward becomes a believer when he and his mentor team up with Lucy's other suitors and track her to her coffin. She attacks them, but they destroy her by driving a stake through her heart, beheading her, and filling her mouth with garlic.
Around this time, Jonathan Harker returns, marries Mina, and joins Van Helsing, Seward, and their friends to hunt and kill the vampire who attacked Lucy - Count Dracula - before he can add more victims to his army of the undead.
Victorian readers described Dracula as "the most blood-curdling novel of the paralyzed century." In a review in the Daily Mail published on June 1st, 1897, Dracula was proclaimed a classic of Gothic horror, the critic stating:
In seeking a parallel to this weird, powerful, and horrorful story, our mind reverts to such tales as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, The Fall of the House of Usher ... but Dracula is even more appalling in its gloomy fascination than any one of these.
Dracula is a novel very much the product of its time, that being the late 19th century - the waning years of the Victorian era, as a new century approached. The book speaks both metaphorically and directly of the conflicts between science and religion and traditional versus modern life.
The character of Mina Harker represents the conflict between traditional and modern womanhood. Some have suggested that in Dracula, vampirism is a metaphor for uncontrolled sexual desire, the ungodly lust for blood equated with lust for the flesh.
Sexuality in the Victorian era was a strange and sharp paradox; rigid morality and fear of the body and one's natural biological impulses ruled on the outside, with unwed motherhood a scandal worthy of suicide. Yet, behind closed doors, Victorians rarely practiced what they preached.
There was a thriving, seamy sexual underground in England at the time that included both female and male brothels catering to all desires. Some of the best literary erotica ever written was penned during the Victorian era and published in underground literary magazines and anthologies, all of which were distributed on the sly - usually under cover of darkness.
Though the suave and seductive Count Dracula's name was taken from that of the infamous Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracul - dracul meaning devil in the Romanian language - the novel was partly inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's classic 1871 novella Carmilla.
Carmilla told the story of a lesbian vampire preying on lonely, vulnerable young women. Stoker added new aspects to the vampire mythos; in Dracula, for the first time, a vampire cast no reflection in a mirror, could be driven away with garlic, and could be destroyed by driving a wooden stake through its heart - though Dracula himself meets a different, much nastier fate.
Dracula would be adapted as a stage play by Bram Stoker himself. While Dracula's name may have come from the Romanian prince, his charisma, elegance, and gentlemanly manner were inspired by an actor named Henry Irving, who also managed the Lyceum Theatre, where Bram Stoker had worked for twenty years.
Stoker admired Irving greatly and hoped he would play the vampire count in his stage play adaptation of Dracula, but Irving wasn't interested. Years later in 1931, a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, famous for his stage portrayal of the vampire, would play the part again in the first sound film adaptation of Stoker's novel.
The first film adaptation of Dracula was the classic silent feature film Nosferatu, made in 1922 by legendary German director F.W. Murnau. It was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel.
Though basically faithful to the plot of the book, in order to avoid a lawsuit, Murnau changed the ending and the names of all the characters. Florence Stoker, Bram's widow, still sued for copyright infringement.
The judge ruled in her favor. Prana Film, the studio that made the movie, went bankrupt. Nosferatu would be its first and only film. The judge's decision against Prana ordered all the studio's copies of the movie destroyed.
By then, the film had been distributed around the world, and the owners of those foreign release prints could not be forced to destroy them. As a result, the movie survived and fell into the public domain, where it could be distributed without payment.
Many distributors altered the title cards and restored the characters' original names to cash in on the Dracula names. Nosferatu would become a classic film, famous not for its sordid legal history, but for F.W. Murnau's brilliant direction and the surreal expressionist sets.
The most striking difference between Nosferatu and Tod Browning's Dracula is in the depiction of the main character. In Nosferatu, Count Dracula - renamed Count Orlock - is no suave, seductive aristocrat.
With his skeletal frame, long, claw-like fingers, bat ears, bald head, and mouth full of jagged, fangy teeth, Count Orlock, played by the legendary German character actor Max Schreck, looks like a human plague rat. There's nothing remotely alluring about him.
Though it wasn't the first classic novel to feature a vampire, over a hundred years since its initial publication, Dracula has inspired countless works of vampire fiction.
Bela Lugosi's legendary performance as the Count in the first sound film adaptation of Dracula in 1931 set the stage for the vampire on film. The character would played on film well over 200 times by other great actors such as Christopher Lee and Frank Langella. Jack Palance delivered a sympathetic portrayal of the count in a 1973 TV movie.
But it was Bram Stoker's novel that established the vampire as one of the most popular and intriguing characters in world culture. Dracula is more than just a horror novel. It's also a classic work of 19th century English literature.
Quote Of The Day
"There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part." - Bram Stoker
Today's video features a reading of the first chapter of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula. Here's a link to the complete playlist so you can listen to the entire audiobook on YouTube. Enjoy!
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On May 25th, 1803, the legendary American poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson's father, Rev. William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister who died two weeks before his son's eighth birthday.
Young Ralph would be raised by his mother and other female family members, all of whom were both intellectuals and devoutly religious. Emerson was especially close to his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. They wrote to each other frequently until her death in 1863.
At the age of 9, Emerson attended Boston Latin School, then at 14, he went to Harvard College, where he was appointed freshman messenger for the president.
During his junior year, he began compiling a list of books he'd read and started keeping a journal in a series of notebooks, which he called the Wide World. In his senior year, he served as Class Poet and recited an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, though by all accounts, he was an average student.
After graduating Harvard, Emerson helped his brother run a school for young women originally run out of their mother's house. Emerson took over the school when his brother went off study divinity.
Emerson hated running the school, as he was very awkward around women. But it gave him the experience that enabled him to work as a schoolmaster for a few years before going to divinity school himself.
Emerson was most likely bisexual. During his Harvard years, he wrote in his journal of being "strangely attracted" to a male classmate by the ironic name of Martin Gay, about whom he wrote sexually charged poems. Emerson also wrote of his other male infatuations, including the legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
However, in 1829, not long after being ordained as a junior pastor at Boston's Second Church, Emerson met a young girl named Ellen Louisa Tucker and fell love with her. He married her when she turned 18 - even though she was stricken with tuberculosis.
When Ellen died two years later, Emerson was devastated and visited her grave frequently. His wife's death forced him to come to terms with his simmering discontent with religion.
In his journal, he wrote, "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He resigned as pastor.
Emerson then toured Europe, writing of his travels in English Traits (1856). During his trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a strong influence, and Emerson would serve as his unofficial literary agent in the U.S., maintaining a lifelong friendship with him.
In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, which is now a historical landmark. He married his second wife Lydia Jackson in September, 1835, and she bore him four children: Waldo, Edith, Ellen, and Edward. Ellen was named after Emerson's first wife at Lydia's suggestion.
The following year, Emerson and some like-minded intellectuals formed the Transcendental Club, which held its first meeting on September 19, 1836. Shortly thereafter, he published his first essay, Nature.
In this essay, Emerson puts forth the foundation of transcendentalism, defining nature - the very universe - as an all-encompassing divine entity that is part of us, rather than a kingdom ruled by a separate divine entity.
In pursuing his new philosophy, Emerson delved into the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedic Texts - all of which are the ancient, sacred writings of the Hindu religion.
A year later, Emerson delivered his famous Phi Beta Kappa Address at Cambridge, where he issued a declaration of literary independence from Europe, urging his fellow American writers to create a literary style all their own, free from European influence.
Around this time, Emerson struck up a friendship with writer Henry David Thoreau and asked him if he kept a journal. Thoreau's fascination with Emerson's journaling practice strongly influenced his own writing. He became Emerson's protege.
On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Harvard Divinity School to deliver the graduation address at Divinity Hall. In what came to be known as his famous Divinity School Address, Emerson disputed biblical miracles and proclaimed Jesus to be neither God himself nor the son of God.
He was simply a great man and spiritual teacher whom organized Christianity had turned into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo." Emerson's address caused considerable outrage. He was denounced as an atheist and a corrupter of young people's minds.
Nevertheless, Emerson remained a popular lecturer in New England and throughout the country. He also toured England, Ireland, and Scotland. By the 1850s, he was giving up to 80 lectures a year. His earnings from the lectures enabled him to buy eleven acres of land near Walden Pond.
In 1845, Emerson published his classic essay The Over-soul, which is clearly influenced by the Vedic Texts and has a distinct tone of non-dualism:
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
In 1847, Emerson published his first book of poetry, simply titled Poems. Among these is Threnody, a heart wrenching, dazzlingly lyrical ode to grief written after Emerson lost his firstborn son Waldo to scarlet fever in 1842. His second book of poetry, May-Day and Other Poems, was published in 1867.
In 1860, Emerson, a ferocious abolitionist, voted for Abraham Lincoln for President, but was greatly disappointed by Lincoln's initial inclination to allow the Southern states to maintain the institution of slavery in order to preserve the Union.
On January 31st, 1862, Emerson gave a public lecture in Washington DC, declaring "The South calls slavery an institution. I call it destitution. Emancipation is the demand of civilization." The next day, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln. He came away with a more favorable opinion of the President.
The decade of the 1870s marked the beginning of the end of Emerson's career. His Concord home burned down in July of 1872, and though his friends collected over $15,000 in donations to help him and his family rebuild, it added to the stress caused by the fact that Emerson's memory was failing.
In 1874, he edited and published a poetry anthology called Parnassus. By the end of the decade, his memory had failed considerably, and in 1879, at the age of 76, he finally retired from lecturing. When asked by friends how he felt, Emerson would reply in classic form "Quite well. I have lost all my mental faculties, but am perfectly well."
On April 19th, 1882, despite having a cold, Emerson went out for a walk and got caught in the rain. His cold turned into pneumonia, and he died eight days later at the age of 79.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the all-time great American intellectuals - a poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator years, if not decades, ahead of his time. He will always have a place in the annals of literary history.
Quote Of The Day
"Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which, by birth and quality, is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today's Video features a complete reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic essay, The Poet. Enjoy!
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On May 24th, 1951, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, the classic short story collection by the famous American writer Carson McCullers, was published. It included the title novella and five other stories.
Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, exploded onto the literary scene in 1940, with the publication of her classic debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Critics were floored by her sad and surreal tale of an intelligent, compassionate deaf-mute man who touches the lives of several unhappy people at the expense of his own happiness. McCullers was only 23 years old when she wrote the profound and moving novel.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, her classic short story collection, was most famous for its title novella. Set in a small Southern town, it told the story of Miss Amelia, a shopkeeper whom the townspeople believe to be a cold and calculating woman who never acts without reason.
Miss Amelia is also known for being masculine, bullying, confrontational, and greedy, and for wanting nothing to do with love, thanks to a rotten marriage that lasted only ten days.
One day, a hunchbacked man called Lymon arrives in town, carrying all of his belongings in one suitcase. He claims to be Miss Amelia's cousin, and has an old photograph that he says proves his claim. When Miss Amelia takes him in, the townspeople are shocked.
Assuming that she has ulterior motives, after not seeing Lymon in town for a while, they suspect that Miss Amelia murdered him for his meager belongings. Then they find him safe and sound in her store.
What the townspeople don't realize is that the lonely Miss Amelia's relationship with her long lost cousin has changed her for the better. Caring for him has opened her heart. She becomes more hospitable to her customers and even serves them food and liquor, turning her store into a cafe.
Lymon the hunchback is kind and grateful for the hospitality shown by Miss Amelia, but he also has faults. He has a dependent personality, he craves attention, he's a gossip, and he enjoys baiting people against each other and then watching them fight.
When Miss Amelia's ex-husband Marvin Macy suddenly shows up, Lymon comes to admire him greatly, not realizing that the handsome, charismatic Marvin is a cruel sociopath out for revenge against Miss Amelia, whom he blames for breaking his heart and unleashing the rage inside him that led to his crime spree and subsequent incarceration.
Marvin manipulates Lymon into helping him carry out his revenge against Miss Amelia, which culminates in the sacking of her store and the theft of her curios and money. Then in a final, crushing blow, Marvin invites Lymon to leave town with him, taking away the only one who ever really loved Miss Amelia.
Carson McCullers got the idea to write The Ballad of the Sad Cafe while out drinking with her friends George Davis (editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine) and British poet W.H. Auden. They were at a bar one night when Carson noticed two particular customers walk in - a very tall, masculine woman accompanied by a small, hunchbacked man.
Around this time, McCullers had been living in a famous boarding house in Brooklyn run by George Davis. In addition to McCullers and Auden, the boarding house had been home to some of the era's greatest bohemian writers, artists, and actors.
Some of Davis' other tenants included Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee. When McCullers lived there, they held evening gatherings where George Davis played piano - in the nude - while a gallon jug of wine was passed around. W.H. Auden loved to play housemother to what he called "our menagerie."
With the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, Carson McCullers once again established herself as one of the greatest writers of her generation. The title novella would be adapted as a stage play by the legendary playwright, Edward Albee.
Albee had intended for Carson to play the role of the narrator, but by the time the play opened in the fall of 1963, her chronically poor health had deteriorated severely. She did attend the play's opening night, but had to do so in a wheelchair. She died four years later at the age of 50.
In 1991, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film by producer Ismail Merchant of the Merchant-Ivory film production company. It starred Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Amelia, Cork Hubbert as Lymon, and Keith Carradine as Marvin Macy.
Quote Of The Day
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing." - Carson McCullers
Today's video features a clip from the acclaimed 1991 feature film adaptation of Carson McCullers' classic novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Enjoy!
Monday, May 23, 2016
Jeannette de Beauvoir
I'm very pleased that my novel In Dark Woods is now available as an ebook on Kindle and most other digital platforms. My literary agent has been trying to find a traditional home for it for a decade now, and we've both finally given up. It just doesn't fit into any niches.
In the acknowledgments I thank the IWW and members of the Novels-L list, many if not most of whom are no longer active - which goes to show how long ago that it was critted!
Lori Sambol Brody
I have a flash up at Necessary Fiction.
Theresa A. Cancro
I've had several successes recently:
1) Three Line Poetry, Issue #37 - One poem. Click on Issue #37 and scroll down.
2) The Bamboo Hut, Spring 2016 issue - Eight haiku. Click on issue cover, scroll to pages 60-61.
3) Lost Paper, "Keys: Short Pieces on a Theme" Arranged alphabetically by first name.
4) Dead Snakes - Four poems. Two poems posted on 5/13/16 - "What the Numbed May Inherit" and "At Low Tide." Two poems posted on 5/19/16 - "The Sunbeam" and "Gods, Guns, No Roses."
5) The Weekly Avocet (emailed to subscribers of The Avocet): One tanka and four nature quotes.
Joanna M. Weston
A short piece in Lost Paper on Keys. Scroll down, the pieces are in alphabetical order by first name.
My translation of "The Last Supper" by Klaus Wivel, an account of the situation of Christians in the Middle East, has been published by New Vessel Press. Klaus did a tour of the US, here's a link to a radio show he did with Leonard Lopate in New York.
My translation of Sara Blaedel's crime thriller, "The Killing Forest," was published earlier this year by Grand Central Publishing.
And finally, a story of mine, "Ghosts That Never Lived," is in the spring 2016 issue of the Tulane Review, the litmag published by Tulane University. Thanks to everyone on Fiction who helped me with the story.