Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Notes For May 27th, 2015

This Day In Writing 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

Vanguard Video

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!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Notes For May 26th, 2015

This Day In Writing 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

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a complete reading of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula by an all-star cast including Alan Cumming and Tim Curry. Enjoy!

Monday, May 25, 2015

IWW Members' Publishing Successes

Pamelyn Casto

I'm pleased to announce that I have three pieces that will be published in KYSO Flash: Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature.

Issue 3 will include two of my experimental haibun (“The Feeding and Aporia”) and one of my prose poems (“Lilith Calls”). I want to say too that Clare MacQueen, Editor-In-Chief of KYSO Flash, is one of the best editors I've ever been fortunate enough to work with.

Lynne Hinkey

My review of Dave Coulson's, A Buzz in the Meadow, is up at the Internet Review of Books.

Ruth Zavitz

MT Scribbler has kindly announced on her blog the acceptance by Chronicler Publishing of my book, Niagara Odyssey.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Notes For May 22nd, 2015

This Day In Writing History

On May 22nd, 1859, the legendary English writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The son of a drunkard, his father's only accomplishment in life was siring an intellectually gifted child.

At the age of eight, Arthur Conan Doyle was sent to a Jesuit prep school called Hodder Place. From there, he attended a Jesuit university, Stonyhurst College, but after graduating in 1875, he cast off the yoke of Christianity and became an agnostic.

For the next five years, Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. During this time, he began writing short stories. He sold his first story to Chambers's Edinburgh Journal before his 20th birthday.

In 1882, he joined his classmate George Budd in a Plymouth medical practice, but their relationship soon soured. Conan Doyle left for Portsmouth, where he set up his own medical practice. Unsuccessful at first, he began writing stories again while waiting for patients.

After many rejections, his debut novel A Study In Scarlet was published, first in 1887 by Beeton's Christmas Annual magazine, then in book form a year later, with illustrations by his father, Charles.

The novel's main character was a detective called Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant, analytical, and laid-back Holmes was assisted by his friend, Dr. John Watson, who also served as narrator for the duo's adventures.

When he wasn't solving crimes, Holmes' passions included playing the violin and enjoying a good game of chess. Sometimes he used cocaine and morphine to escape from "the dull routine of existence."

As a detective, Holmes wasn't above deceiving the police or concealing evidence if necessary to solve the crime. His main nemesis was the evil Professor Moriarty, who possessed an intellect comparable to Holmes.

A Study In Scarlet was the first of four novels and 56 short stories to feature Sherlock Holmes, who would become one of the greatest iconic literary characters of all time.

Conan Doyle himself would later become a real life sleuth, investigating closed cases where he believed that the defendants had been wrongfully convicted.

In 1906, his first case, that of a half-English, half-Indian lawyer named George Edalji convicted of writing threatening letters and mutilating animals, led to the establishment of England's Court of Criminal Appeal a year later.

In addition to the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Conan Doyle's large body of work also included a series of science fiction writings featuring the character of Professor Challenger.

Though he possessed a brilliant mind like Sherlock Holmes, he was far from laid-back and described as "a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science." Conan Doyle's first work to feature Professor Challenger, a novel called The Lost World, was published in 1912.

In it, Professor Challenger claims to have discovered a South American plateau where dinosaurs still exist. A skeptical reporter, Edward Malone, accompanies Challenger on an expedition and finds that the irascible scientist was right. Not only are there dinosaurs in the Lost World, but a race of ape-men as well.

Conan Doyle was a believer in the supernatural world and wrote two nonfiction books on the subject, The Coming Of The Fairies (1921) and The History Of Spiritualism (1926).

In the 1920s, he became friends with the legendary American magician Harry Houdini, but Houdini's work as a prominent debunker of spiritualism soon led to a bitter falling out between the two men.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, an honor he believed was bestowed as the result of The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, a pamphlet he had written justifying England's role in the Boer War to an outraged world.

He later wrote a non-fiction book on the subject called The Great Boer War. He died in 1930 of a heart attack at the age of 71. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest mystery writers of all time.

Quote Of The Day

"My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Vanguard Video

Today's video features the only filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle known to exist - an early talkie shot in October of 1928 for a Movietone News newsreel. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Notes For May 21st, 2015

This Day In Writing History

On May 21st, 1688, the legendary English writer and scholar Alexander Pope was born in London. As a young boy, Pope's education was complicated by the anti-Catholic laws enacted to establish the Church of England as the British empire's official clerical body.

Unable to attend public school, he was taught to read and write by his aunt. Pope began his formal education at Twyford School in Hampshire. Twyford was a Church of England public school, but its administrators chose to ignore the law and allow him to attend.

He would later attend Catholic schools which, though technically illegal, were tolerated in some towns. When he was twelve years old, Pope contracted Pott's disease, a rare form of tuberculosis that attacks the bones and deforms them.

The disease left him a hunchback and stunted his growth. He would grow no taller than 4'6", or 1.37 meters. Already a social pariah because he was Catholic, Pope's deformities alienated him further from society.

He would never marry, but he had many female friends, and wrote them witty letters. One woman, his lifelong friend Martha Blount, was allegedly his lover.

Pope's health problems, which also included respiratory trouble, high fevers, inflammation of the eyes, and stomach pain, didn't affect his mind. He gained a reputation for his intellect, his rapacious wit, and his satirical verse.

When his first poetry collection, Pastorals (1709), appeared in the sixth part of publisher Jacob Tonson's anthology Poetical Miscellanies, it made him an overnight sensation. He soon struck up friendships with fellow writers Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot.

Together, they formed the Scriblerus Club, which was dedicated to satirizing ignorance and pedantry via a fictional scholar named Martinus Scriblerus. Pope continued on his path of literary success with his poems The Rape of the Lock (1712) and Windsor Forest (1713).

The Rape of the Lock was one of Pope's most popular poems. The mock-heroic epic poem satirized the high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (named Belinda in the poem) and Lord Petre, (the Baron) who had cut off a lock of her hair without her permission.

Pope mocks the conflict in an epic style; after Belinda's hair is stolen, she tries to get it back but it flies through the air and turns into a star. He later became friends with poet and playwright Joseph Addison and contributed to Addison's classic play, Cato.

He also wrote essays for magazines of the day such as The Guardian and The Spectator. His classic epic poem An Essay on Criticism was first published anonymously in 1711.

A satirical attempt to declare and refine his views as a poet and critic, the poem was said to be Pope's response to an ongoing debate on whether poetry should be a natural product of the poet's mind and heart or written according to predetermined, traditional rules such as meter.

In his inimitable style, Pope deliberately leaves the poem unclear and full of contradictions. His own position was that while rules were necessary, so was the passion and imagination that gave poetry its mysterious, sometimes baffling qualities.

An Essay on Criticism featured the famous line, "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Pope's most ambitious projects were his English translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Beginning in 1717, his translation of the Iliad appeared in one volume a year over a six year period.

For his translation of the Odyssey, Pope, confronted with the arduousness of the task and his increasingly fragile health, employed his friends William Broome and Elijah Fenton to work on the translation with him.

The entire translation was published under Pope's name; when word got out that he hadn't translated the entire work himself, his reputation took a hit, but the translation of the Odyssey still sold well. It first appeared in 1726.

Before he began work on the Odyssey, a volume of Shakespeare's plays transcribed and edited by Pope was published. The volume had been commissioned by Pope's publisher. It was hugely controversial - more like a revision of Shakespeare's plays than a transcription.

Pope cut over 1,500 lines and relegated them to footnotes, believing them to be of such poor quality that he doubted Shakespeare had ever written them. The lines, he thought, were the result of actors' interpolations. Poet Lewis Theobald wrote a scathing pamphlet denouncing the volume called Shakespeare Restored.

Among Pope's last great works were a series of poems called Imitations of Horace. Appearing between 1733-38, they were satires of life under King George II and the corruption of Robert Walpole's ministry, which Pope believed was tainting Britain. By the time he completed the series in 1738, his health began to deteriorate.

He planned to write an epic blank verse poem called Brutus, but he abandoned it and only a few lines have survived. Instead, he devoted his remaining years to revising his final masterwork, The Dunciad.

The four-book satirical epic poem told the story of how the goddess Dulness and her servants plunge Britain into a quagmire of imbecility, tastelessness, and ultimately, decay. Originally written in three books, Pope revised it and added a fourth book, which was published in 1742.

Alexander Pope died two years later, on May 30th, 1744. He was 56 years old.

Quote Of The Day

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance." - Alexander Pope

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a complete reading of Alexander Pope's classic satirical epic poem, The Rape of the Lock. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Notes For May 20th, 2015

This Day In Writing History

On May 20th, 1937, the legendary English writer George Orwell (the pseudonym of Eric Blair) was wounded in action while fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was shot in the throat by a sniper.

Orwell fought alongside the POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) which was allied with Britain's Labour Party, of which he was a member.

The POUM was one of several leftist factions which had formed a loose coalition to fight General Franco's fascists. Another member of this coalition was the Spanish Communist Party, which was controlled by the Soviet Union.

At the Soviets' insistence, the Spanish Communist Party denounced the POUM as a Trotskyist organization and falsely claimed that they were in cahoots with the fascists. Near the end of the war, the POUM was outlawed, and the Spanish Communist Party began attacking its members.

Tragically, this infighting would break apart the coalition and give the fascists the opportunity to win the war. While George Orwell recovered from his injuries in a POUM hospital, he had a lot of time to think, and he came to hate Soviet communism.

Orwell would later become famous for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), both of which were brilliant allegorical satires of Stalinism. Animal Farm was a modern cautionary fable, while Nineteen Eighty-Four was a work of dystopic science fiction.

In the years since their publication, the right in the United States and Europe embraced these novels as the bibles of anti-communism. George Orwell became their hero, and this led to a popular misconception that he had been a staunch conservative - perhaps even a fascist - although he was really a socialist.

The lesson Orwell teaches us in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is that even an ideal as noble as socialism can become corrupted and twisted into something far worse than the ills it seeks to cure.

And yet, Orwell remained a lifelong socialist and always hoped for a better world free of poverty, inequality, and social injustice.

Quote Of The Day

"In our age, there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia." - George Orwell

Vanguard Video

Today's video features rare newsreel footage of George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War - demonstrating how to make tea in a trench! Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Notes For May 19th, 2015

This Day In Writing History

On May 19th, 1930, the famous African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Carl Hansberry, was a prominent real estate broker.

In 1938, when Lorraine was eight years old, her father moved the family to an all-white neighborhood where a majority of homeowners had formed a covenant that banned blacks from buying homes in the neighborhood. So, he had a white friend buy the house for him.

After the Hansberrys moved into their new home, they were attacked by an angry mob. A brick was thrown through Lorraine's bedroom window, and she just barely avoided being struck by it.

Her father later sued the white homeowners for discrimination, and in the case of Hansberry v. Lee, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision banning homeowners' associations from discriminating against home buyers and renters on the basis of their race.

Although Lorraine's father had prevailed in court, the family was still subjected to harassment from their racist white neighbors. She later quipped that she had lived in a typical "warm and cuddly white neighborhood."

Ironically, after her death, her family home would be designated by the city of Chicago as a historical landmark. The climate of racism she grew up with would inspire her to write her first and most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

The title comes from a line in the poem Harlem by legendary African-American poet Langston Hughes. Set in the 1940s, A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the Youngers, a poor black family living in a small apartment in Chicago's South Side.

The family patriarch has died, and his survivors will soon receive an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. His widow, Mama, wants to fulfill the dream she shared with her husband and buy a house.

Her grown son, Walter, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends - an investment he believes will provide the whole family with long term financial security. Beneatha, Walter's sister, wants to use the money to pay for her medical school tuition.

Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, believing that a new house would provide more living space for themselves and their son, Travis. As the play progresses, the Youngers fight over their conflicting dreams.

When Ruth becomes pregnant, she considers having an abortion, as she and Walter really can't afford another child. Walter doesn't object, which drives Mama to put a down payment on a nice house in a white neighborhood.

Beneatha is not happy about her family mixing with whites. She's not the only one. When the Youngers' soon-to-be new neighbors find out that the black family is moving in, they send Mr. Lindner from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to bribe them to stay out of the neighborhood.

They refuse the deal, even after Walter loses the rest of the insurance money when his friend Willy runs off with it instead of investing it in the liquor store. In the play's third act, Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend wants her to move to Africa with him after she graduates.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family prepares to move out of their apartment and into their new house, fulfilling their dream but also exposing them to a dangerously racist environment. When A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959, it became the first play written by an African-American to be produced for the Broadway stage.

The original cast featured Sidney Poitier as Walter, Ruby Dee as Ruth, and Claudia McNeil as Mama. It would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1961, with the entire original Broadway cast reprising their roles - including a young Louis Gossett, Jr. as George Murchison.

The play would also be adapted as a hit Broadway musical called Raisin in 1973. The musical would be nominated for nine Tony awards and run for 847 performances. Original cast members included Joe Morton as Walter, Debbie Allen as Beneatha, Ernestine Jackson as Ruth, Ralph Carter as Travis, and Virginia Capers as Mama.

Lorraine Hansberry wrote several other plays, including her second most famous play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. After 110 performances, the play closed on the day she died, January 12th, 1965. She was 34 years old and had lost a long battle with cancer.

Despite her illness, she continued to work as an activist for civil rights, women's rights, and other causes. Her other writings were turned into an acclaimed play called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. It would be the longest running off Broadway play of the 1968-69 season.

Quote Of The Day

"The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely." - Lorraine Hansberry

Vanguard Video

Today's video features the complete American Playhouse production of Lorraine Hansberry's classic play, A Raisin in the Sun, starring Esther Rolle and Danny Glover. Enjoy!

The Craft of Writing in the Blogosphere


News from the World of Writing