This Day In Literary History
On April 3rd, 1957, Endgame, the classic play by the legendary Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, premiered in London. Although Beckett was an Irishman, he originally wrote Endgame and other works in French.
Beckett had become hugely famous for his classic avant garde play Waiting For Godot, which had been written four years earlier, in 1953. Endgame would prove to be just as avant garde, if not more so.
Endgame is a four-character play. The cast includes Hamm, a blind man who is unable to stand. His servant, Clov, is unable to sit. Nagg and Nell are Hamm's parents. They have no legs and live in adjacent garbage cans.
All four characters live by the sea, but the dialogue implies that there is actually no sea at all - or clouds or sun, for that matter. Hamm and Clov, trapped in a mutually dependent relationship, bicker endlessly.
Clov always wants to leave, but for some reason, is unable to. Meanwhile, Hamm's legless parents Nagg and Nell spend their time asking for food and getting into inane arguments. The dialogue suggests that the characters had a past, but have no future.
A major theme of the play is the hell of repetition - how humans keep repeating their mistakes and bad habits, never learning from the past to create a better future, and instead becoming devoted to pointless traditions and rituals.
When Samuel Beckett's play Waiting For Godot premiered in Paris, it created an international sensation. But Endgame was so avant garde that no company in France was willing to take a chance on producing it.
The Royal Court Theatre in London contacted Beckett with an offer to produce Endgame, and he agreed to travel to England. However, he was very skeptical about the Theatre company's abilities after they'd botched the premiere of Waiting For Godot.
To assure that Endgame would be produced properly, Beckett made sure to include precise stage and acting directions in his script:
HAMM What's happening?
CLOV Something is taking its course. (Pause)
CLOV (Impatiently) What is it?
HAMM We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
CLOV Mean something! You and I, mean something!
Ah, that's a good one!
HAMM I wonder.
Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn't he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough.
(Voice of rational being)
Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they're at!
(Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands)
And without going so far as that, we ourselves...
... we ourselves... at certain moments...
To think perhaps it won't all have been for nothing!
CLOV (anguished, scratching himself) I have a flea!...
Working with the Theatre's producer and director was once again agony for Beckett. The reviews for the French language production of Endgame weren't good. Still, the playwright agreed to come to London again in eighteen months for the English language premiere of Endgame.
The English language premiere's reviews weren't any better. Critic Kenneth Tynan's famous bad review of Endgame took the form of a parody of the play:
Foreground figure a blind and lordly cripple with superficial mannerisms... Sawn-off parents in bins, stage right, and shuffling servant all over the stage...
Slamm Is that all the review he's getting?
Seck That's all the play he's written.
Slamm But a genius. Could you do as much?
Seck Not as much. But as little.
Despite the inability of critics to understand Endgame, it would go on to become one of Samuel Beckett's most celebrated plays and is still staged to this day.
Quote Of The Day
"Art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear, and does not make clear." - Samuel Beckett
Today's video features a complete performance of Samuel Beckett's classic play Endgame, starring Michael Gambon and David Thewlis. Enjoy!
Friday, April 3, 2020
Thursday, April 2, 2020
This Day In Literary History
On April 2nd, 1805, the legendary Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. The Andersens were a working class family, but speculation (which persists to this day) suggests that Hans' father was of a different lineage.
The senior Andersen may have been an illegitimate son of the Danish royal family. When he was a boy, King Frederick VI took a special interest in him and paid for part of his education. His son wasn't so fortunate.
Hans Christian Andersen had to leave school at 13 and work to support himself. He first found employment as an apprentice weaver, then as a tailor's apprentice. A year later, at the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen, hoping to become an actor.
However, it was Andersen's excellent soprano singing voice, not his acting, that gained him entrance into the Royal Danish Theatre. When his voice changed, his theatrical career faltered. When one of his theater colleagues pointed out his talent for poetry, he decided to become a writer.
In a chance meeting, Andersen encountered Jonas Collin, a director for the Royal Danish Theatre, who became very fond of him. Collin decided to help Hans become a writer. He sent him to school and paid for his education.
Hans attended schools in Slagelse and Elsinore, but because of his dyslexia, he was a fair student at best. Older than his classmates, he felt alienated from them. At one school, he lived with the headmaster, who beat him frequently "to improve his character."
His teachers discouraged him from becoming a writer, driving him to depression. For these reasons, he would describe his school years as the darkest and most bitter years of his life. Despite his teachers' discouragement, Hans Christian Andersen did become a writer.
He burst onto the literary scene in 1824 with his short story A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager. He also published a poetry collection and a comic play. In 1833, he received a traveling grant from the King and embarked on the first of many travels throughout Europe.
During his traveling years, Andersen wrote his first novel, The Improvisatore, which would be published in early 1835. It became an overnight sensation. That same year, he also published a short story collection, Eventyr, the first of several volumes Eventyr, known in English as Fairy Tales.
The book sold poorly, as the brilliance and beauty of the stories had yet to be recognized. Andersen returned to novel writing, and his next two novels, O.T. (1836) and Only A Fiddler (1837), proved to be just as successful as his first.
The year his third novel was published, Andersen made his first visit to Sweden. Inspired by Scandinavism, he decided to write a poem about the brotherhood of Scandinavians shared by the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians.
The result was his classic poem Jeg er en Skandinav (I am a Scandinavian), which would be set to music by Swedish composer Otto Lindblad. Andersen continued his travels throughout Europe. He would write travelogues about his experiences in countries such as Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal.
In 1847, he made his first visit to England. At this time, his writing career was at its peak, and his fairy tales, of which he had published more volumes, were celebrated throughout Europe - except in his native Denmark, where at the time, they still received a lukewarm reception.
In England, Andersen became a noted guest at the famous parties of Marguerite Gardiner, the Countess of Blessington, who was a writer herself. Her parties were known as gathering places for writers, intellectuals, and other illuminati.
Andersen was a hit at the parties - a big social success. At one party, he was overjoyed when he got to meet his literary idol, the legendary Enlgish novelist Charles Dickens.
During one of his later visits to England, Andersen stayed with Dickens for five weeks, oblivious to his host's blatant hints that he had worn out his welcome.
The friendship between the two men soured, and Dickens was said to have modeled the character of Uriah Heep, from his classic novel David Copperfield (1849), after Hans Christian Andersen.
As for Andersen's personal life, he never married. He was a bisexual who preferred women, but was very shy and awkward around them. He would fall in love with unattainable women, and their inevitable rejection of him would result in great heartbreak.
His most famous paramour was the legendary Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. He fell madly in love with her, and his fairy tale The Nightingale was a tribute to her singing. Her famous nickname, "the Swedish Nightingale," was inspired by Andersen's story.
Hans proposed to Jenny, but she turned him down. She had come to love him like a brother, and referred to him as her brother in a dear john letter. Andersen's failures with women would be repeated in his gay relationships; he would become attracted to unattainable men who failed to reciprocate his love.
Ultimately, he never married or had any children. He gave up on love and most likely patronized brothels; shortly before his death, in the throes of severe illness, he dictated journal entries recalling memories of his many relationships with "loose women."
In 1872, Hans Christian Andersen fell out of bed and injured himself severely. He never recovered and his health began to deteriorate. Three years later, he died of liver cancer. At the time of his death, he had finally been recognized in his native Denmark for his legendary fairy tales.
Nearly 150 years later, his classic stories, such as The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, Thumbelina, and The Emperor's New Clothes, continue to enchant readers of all ages. They would be adapted as plays, ballets, and feature films.
Readers are quite surprised that, like the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Andersen's stories are quite different from the retellings and adaptations they spawned. The Little Mermaid, for example, ends on a tragic note.
The little mermaid made a deal with the Sea Witch to become human so she could marry the Prince, but he marries another girl whom he discovers is his true love - the girl who had saved him from drowning.
Heartbroken, the little mermaid can only return to mermaid form if she kills him with a dagger given to her by the Sea Witch. She sneaks up on the Prince, asleep with his new wife, but can't bring herself to kill him, and commits suicide instead, throwing herself into the sea.
Quote Of The Day
"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale." - Hans Christian Andersen
Today's video features a reading of a collection of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tales. Enjoy!
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
This Day In Literary History
On April 1st, 1841, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the classic short story by the legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe, was published. Appearing in Graham's Magazine, it's considered to be the first detective story.
It also incorporates elements of horror, as its author was famous for his horror fiction, which made up the bulk of his writings. Horror elements also appeared in his poems, such as the classics Annabel Lee and The Raven.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue opens with a bizarre and brutal double murder that took place in the Rue Morgue, a fictional street in Paris. The victims, Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter, were found dead in an inaccessible room that had been locked from the inside.
Madame L'Espanaye's throat was slashed so deeply that her head was nearly severed. Her daughter was strangled and stuffed in the chimney. Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin and his unnamed friend, who narrates the story, read an account of the murders in the newspaper.
Dupin's interest in the case is piqued, especially when a man named Adolphe Le Bon is arrested for the horrible crime and imprisoned, despite the fact that there is no evidence to prove his guilt. Dupin offers his services to the prefect (chief) of police.
The plot thickens as Madame L'Espanaye's neighbors, who heard the murders take place, give contradictory statements, each claiming to have heard the killer speak a different foreign language - a language that none of them could recognize.
This leads Dupin to conclude that the witnesses weren't hearing a human voice. His theory is proven correct when he finds a hair at the crime scene that is not human. It belongs to an orangutan.
Dupin places an ad in the newspaper asking if anyone has lost an orangutan. A sailor shows up at his home to answer the ad. He had been keeping a pet orangutan he'd acquired in Borneo, but the animal escaped. Dupin interrogates the sailor and solves the crime.
When the orangutan escaped, it made off with the sailor's straight razor. When it got into Madame L'Espanaye's apartment, it attempted to shave her, mimicking its owner. The resulting bloodbath incited the orangutan to a frenzy.
It strangled Madame L'Espanaye's daughter, and, fearing its owner's whip, stuffed her body in the chimney to hide it. When the sailor learned of the "murders," he panicked and fled, allowing the orangutan to escape again.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue was a huge hit with both readers and critics. A review in the Pennsylvania Inquirer proclaimed that "it proves Mr. Poe to be a man of genius... with an inventive power and skill, of which we know no parallel."
Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, would return in The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842), and The Purloined Letter (1844). The Murders in the Rue Morgue would be adapted several times for the radio, screen, and television.
Quote Of The Day
"It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic." - Edgar Allan Poe, from The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Today's video features a complete reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Enjoy!
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
This Day In Literary History
On March 31st, 1836, The Pickwick Papers - the classic first novel by legendary English writer Charles Dickens, was published. Like most novels of the time, it first appeared in a serialized format, published in twenty monthly installments.
When the first installment was published on this date, only 400 copies were printed. By the time the 15th installment came out, it was being published in press runs of 40,000 copies.
Originally titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the novel had originally been commissioned by publishers Chapman and Hall as captions to accompany humorous drawings by illustrator Robert Seymour.
The members of the Pickwick Club, founded by a wealthy old gentleman named Samuel Pickwick, travel through remote areas of the English countryside by coach, then report back on their adventures when they return. Alfred Jingle, an English mangling actor, charlatan, and practical joker, joins them and plays tricks on them.
Charles Dickens wasn't the publishers' first choice to write the book, but their senior editor had been impressed by his earlier collection of serialized writings, Sketches by Boz, which had also been written to accompany illustrations.
Sketches combined nonfiction articles with short stories. Dickens was just 21 years old when he wrote them. His Pickwick writings were also originally published under the pseudonym Boz, which was the childhood nickname Dickens had given his brother Augustus.
Robert Seymour had conceived the original idea for Pickwick, but creative control of the series went to Charles Dickens, who took the idea and improved on it vastly. Seymour had previously suffered a nervous breakdown after a nasty row with Gilbert A'Beckett, editor of Figaro in London magazine.
The conflict, over money owed Seymour and the illustrator's parody of another writer's work, resulted in Seymour resigning and A'Beckett mounting a cruel public smear campaign against him. The illustrator returned to work after A'Beckett was replaced as editor.
Now, Seymour found himself in another bad situation. His original idea for Pickwick had been given to someone else, who made it his own and improved it. Seymour was never given credit for his creative input.
To add insult to injury, he wasn't even credited as illustrator. The publisher listed the byline as "Edited by Boz with Illustrations." Before the second installment of Pickwick was completed, a distraught Seymour committed suicide with his shotgun.
Seymour's widow publicly blasted Charles Dickens and the publishers, claiming that the first two installments of Pickwick were her husband's idea, i.e., that he told Dickens what to write. Actually, the opposite was true; Dickens had creative control.
Robert Seymour had struggled to come up with illustrations to compliment Dickens' writing, frustrating the author to the point that he advertised for a new illustrator. After Seymour's death, Dickens took over as editor of the publication and saved it from bankruptcy.
Scholars have agreed that although Robert Seymour came up with the original idea for The Pickwick Papers, if he'd had creative control over the series, the final product would have been completely different and nowhere near as successful.
It was Charles Dickens' distinctive style of writing that made the novel what it was. When The Pickwick Papers was issued in book form, the publishers defended themselves and Dickens with the following disclaimer:
Mr. Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word to be found in this book. Mr. Seymour died when only twenty-four pages of this book were published, and when assuredly not forty-eight were written... all of the input from the artist was in response to the words that had already been written.
Taking a final pot shot at the troubled illustrator, the disclaimer goes on to say “that he took his own life through jealousy, as it was well known that Seymour’s sanity had been questioned."
Since suicide was considered a disgraceful, scandalous act by Victorian society and a felo de se (felony to self) by the law, Seymour was denied a Christian burial, his estate went to the government, and his widow couldn't receive any royalties for his work on The Pickwick Papers.
Despite the controversy surrounding its conception, The Pickwick Papers made Charles Dickens' name as a novelist. His second novel would make him a legend. It was named after its main character - a poor orphan boy called Oliver Twist.
Quote Of The Day
"'I am ruminating,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'on the strange mutability of human affairs.' 'Ah! I see — in at the palace door one day, out at the window the next. Philosopher, Sir?' 'An observer of human nature, Sir,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'Ah, so am I. Most people are when they've little to do and less to get.'" - Charles Dickens, from The Pickwick Papers
Today's video features a complete reading of Charles Dickens' classic first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Enjoy!
Monday, March 30, 2020
Friday, March 27, 2020
This Day In Literary History
On March 27th, 1923, the famous poet Louis Simpson was born. He was born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Russian mother. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, settling in New York City.
Louis soon enrolled at Columbia University, where he majored in English. One of his professors was the famous writer and critic, Mark Van Doren. In 1943, Simpson cut his education short to enlist in the U.S. Army, as World War II was raging.
He became a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He served as a courier for the company captain, which required him to deliver orders from company headquarters to officers at the front. Thus, he saw action in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
While stationed in France, Simpson's company fought a fierce and bloody battle against Nazi forces which had ambushed them on the west bank of the Carentan France Marina. The battle would inspire Simpson to write his classic poem Carentan O Carentan, which included these memorable verses:
There is a whistling in the leaves,
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant's silent
That taught me how to do it.
O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain's sickly
And taking a long nap.
Lieutenant, what's my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too's a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
After the war ended, Louis Simpson enrolled at the University of Paris and continued his studies. He then returned to New York City, where he worked as a book editor while doing his graduate studies. He earned a PhD from Columbia University.
He would become a respected professor of English and poetry, teaching at not only Columbia University, but also at the University of California - Berkeley and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Simpson's first poetry collection, The Arrivistes, was published in 1949. In the beginning, he was strongly devoted to traditional verse and was acclaimed for this work. However, as the years passed, he moved away from traditional styles and embraced free verse.
Whether he worked in formal or free verse, as a poet, Simpson was always known for both his strong sense of narrative and for his lyricism, which was never compromised by his narrative voice.
Louis Simpson's 1963 poetry collection, At the End of the Open Road, won him a Pulitzer Prize. Edward Hirsch, critic for the Washington Post, described it this way:
A sustained meditation on the American character... the moral genius of this book is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are.
In this poem from At the End of the Open Road, titled In California, Simpson tips his hat to one of his favorite authors of free verse, the great Walt Whitman:
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
There once was an epical clatter --
Voices and banjos, Tennessee, Ohio,
Rising like incense in the sight of heaven.
Today, there is an angel in the gate.
Lie back, Walt Whitman,
There, on the fabulous raft with the King and the
For the white row of the Marina
Faces the Rock. Turn round the wagons here.
Lie back! We cannot bear
The stars any more, those infinite spaces.
Let the realtors divide the mountain,
For they have already subdivided the valley.
Rectangular city blocks astonished
Herodotus in Babylon,
Cortez in Tenochtitlan,
And here's the same old city-planner, death.
We cannot turn or stay.
For though we sleep, and let the reins fall slack,
The great cloud-wagons move
Outward still, dreaming of a Pacific.
In addition to his poetry collections, Louis Simpson has also written nearly a dozen works of nonfiction including studies of famous poets from T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. He lived on Long Island until his death in September of 2012 at the age of 89.
Quote Of The Day
“The aim of military training is not just to prepare men for battle, but to make them long for it.” - Louis Simpson
Today's video features Louis Simpson reading one of his poems. Enjoy!
Thursday, March 26, 2020
This Day In Literary History
On March 26th, 1920, This Side of Paradise, the classic first novel by the legendary American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published. In the summer of 1919, Fitzgerald, then 22 years old, had broken up with his girlfriend, Zelda Sayre.
Depressed, he spent most of the summer drunk before returning to his family's home in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he began writing again, resuming work on his first novel, which had been rejected by publishers.
The original draft of the novel was titled The Romantic Egotist. Fitzgerald's rewrite was practically a brand new novel; only 80 pages of his original manuscript made it into the 300+ page final draft, which was retitled This Side of Paradise.
He hoped that if he became a successful novelist, he could win Zelda back. She had dumped him because she thought he would never be able to provide her with a comfortable living.
On September 4th, 1919, Fitzgerald had a friend deliver his completed manuscript to Max Perkins, an editor at Scribner's in New York. The novel was nearly rejected by the other editors, but on Perkins' insistence, they accepted it.
(Max Perkins, one of the greatest book editors and publishers of all time, not only discovered and edited F. Scott Fitzgerald's work, he also discovered and edited the novels of other great writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, and helped them get published.)
He believed that Fitzgerald was a major talent, and that This Side of Paradise would be a bestseller. The author pleaded for an immediate release, but was told that his novel wouldn't be published until the spring.
So, on March 26th, 1920, This Side of Paradise was published by Scribner's in a first edition press run of 3,000 copies. It sold out in three days, confirming Fitzgerald's prediction that he would become an overnight sensation.
Between 1920 and 1921, nearly 50,000 copies of the novel were printed. The author didn't earn a huge income from his first novel, but it sold well. He made just over $6,200 in 1920 - about $80,000 in today's money - as the novel's success helped him earn higher rates of payment for his short stories, which made up the bulk of his income.
Fitzgerald's novel was a dark and lyrical tale of love warped by greed and status-seeking. It told the story of Amory Blaine, a poor but handsome young Midwesterner, following him from his early years and his education at Princeton through his service in World War I and his return home.
Blaine learns a hard lesson when his attempts at romance with wealthy debutantes fail miserably and leave him heartbroken. The novel ends with his famous summation, "I know myself, but that is all."
The style Fitzgerald employed for his first novel was a mishmash of straightforward narrative and narrative drama intertwined with letters and poems by the protagonist, Amory Blaine.
This is not a surprise, considering that Fitzgerald cobbled together different writings to form the novel. And yet, the end product turned out to be brilliant and gave readers and critics a preview of the genius that would produce The Great Gatsby five years later.
The success of his first novel wouldn't be the only prediction of Fitzgerald's to come true. After the book was accepted by Scribner's, he returned to Zelda and they became a couple again.
A week after the novel was published, they were married. Unfortunately, their alcoholism and Zelda's worsening mental illness would doom their relationship. His health ravaged by his heavy drinking, F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44 after suffering his third and final heart attack.
Quote Of The Day
"All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath." - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Today's video features a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel,This Side of Paradise. Enjoy!