This Day In Literary History
On January 19th, 1809, the legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Henry Leonard Poe and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, were both actors.
At the time of his birth, they were in a production of Shakespeare's King Lear, and Edgar may have been named after the character in the play.
When Edgar was a year old, his father abandoned the family. A year later, his mother died of tuberculosis. He was adopted by Scottish merchant John Allan, who changed his name to Edgar Allan Poe and had him baptized in the Episcopal Church.
As a parent, John Allan proved to be a man of extremes; he was both an incredibly doting father and a ferociously strict and aggressive disciplinarian. In 1815, the Allans sailed to England.
At six, Poe briefly attended a grammar school in his adoptive father's hometown of Irvine, Scotland. By 1816, he rejoined his family in London, where he attended a boarding school in Chelsea until 1817.
By 1820, Poe and his family had moved back to the United States, settling in Richmond, Virginia. In 1824, Poe, then fifteen years old, served as a lieutenant in the Richmond youth honor guard during the celebrated visit of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Two years later, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he majored in languages. The university had been founded just a year earlier by Thomas Jefferson.
The experimental college had strict rules against such things as tobacco, alcohol, and gambling, yet it also employed an honor system of student self-government.
Poe found the system chaotic and dysfunctional, adding to the stress he was already under. His engagement to his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster had been broken off, and he became estranged from his father after his gambling debts cut into his college finances.
A year later, still struggling to pay for his education and unhappy with the honor system, he left university. After he learned that Sarah had married another man, Poe believed there was nothing left for him in Richmond.
So, in 1827, he moved to Boston, where he worked as a clerk and a newspaper writer. He began writing poetry and fiction under the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet.
In May of 1827, unable to support himself, Poe enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army, using the alias Edgar A. Perry. He claimed he was 22 years old, though he was really 18. He was stationed at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor and earned $5 a month.
That same year, his first book was published. It was a poetry collection titled Tamerlane and Other Poems. The byline read "by a Bostonian." Only 50 copies of the book were printed, and it went practically unnoticed.
Poe's regiment was posted to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, where he won a promotion and his monthly pay was doubled. After serving for two years, he was promoted to Sergeant Major for Artillery.
Then he decided that he wanted to end his five-year enlistment early and enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He revealed his real name and age to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard.
Howard would only discharge him if he agreed to reconcile with his adoptive father, John Allan. He wrote to John repeatedly, but received no reply. When he visited him in February of 1829, Poe found that his father hadn't even bothered to tell him that his mother had died.
Despite this, Poe and his father did reconcile, and John Allan supported his decision to leave the Army. Before entering West Point, Poe moved to Baltimore to stay with his widowed aunt Maria, her daughter Virginia, his brother Henry, and his grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.
His second poetry collection, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems was published. In October of 1830, Poe's father remarried. Poe disapproved of both the marriage and the illegitimate children sired as the result of John Allan's philandering.
This led to bitter quarrels between the two men, and Poe's father disowned him. Poe left West Point by deliberately getting himself court martialed. In February of 1831, he moved to New York City.
There, he released his third poetry collection, Poems. The book was financed in part by Poe's fellow West Point cadets, who loved the satirical poems he wrote that made fun of their commanding officers.
In Poe's third book, his long poems Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf were included again. The book also featured early versions of To Helen, Israfel, and The City In The Sea.
A month after he arrived in New York, Poe returned to Baltimore to stay with his aunt, cousin, and brother. His older brother Henry died five months later from complications due to alcoholism. Afterward, Poe decided to try and make a living as a writer.
Unfortunately, copyright laws were practically nonexistent in the early 19th century, and pirated editions of literary works were common. Undaunted, Poe put his poetry on the back burner and turned to prose. He sold a few short stories and began work on his only play, Politian.
In 1833, Poe's short story MS. Found In A Bottle won him a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. It also brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a novelist and prominent Baltimorian.
Kennedy helped him sell some more stories and land a job as assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in August of 1835. He was fired a few weeks later for being drunk on the job.
Poe returned to Baltimore, where he secretly married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. After he promised to behave, Poe was reinstated at the Messenger. He and Virginia and her mother moved to Richmond. Poe and Virginia later had a second, public wedding ceremony.
By 1838, Poe's only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was published. It was widely reviewed and praised. In the summer of 1839, Poe became the assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine.
There, he published numerous short stories, reviews, and articles, building his reputation as both a writer and a critic. That same year, his classic short story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in two volumes.
Regarded today as one of the all time great works of American literature, the collection received mixed reviews and he made little money from it. In 1840, Poe became assistant editor of Graham's Magazine.
He made plans to start his own literary magazine, The Stylus, but his plans fell through. Two years later, his wife Virginia was stricken with tuberculosis. As her illness worsened, he began drinking heavily.
He left Graham's and returned to New York, where he worked for the Evening Mirror, which would publish his celebrated poem, The Raven, in January of 1845.
Poe was paid only $9 for it, but the poem became a huge hit and made him a household name. Children would follow him as he walked down the street, and he would caw "Nevermore!" at them. They would scream and pretend to run away, then laugh and follow him until he cawed "Nevermore!" at them again.
Poe later become editor and then owner of The Broadway Journal. Still drinking, Poe would alienate himself from his fellow writers when he publicly accused poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Longfellow never responded to the charge.
After The Broadway Journal failed, Poe moved into a cottage in The Bronx, which is known today as Poe Cottage. Not long after he moved in, his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis. Poe was devastated and plunged into a quagmire of alcoholism and mental illness.
Later, he dated poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement was called off as a result of Poe's drinking, his mental instability, and the interference of Sarah's mother, who did all she could to sabotage the relationship.
Poe returned to Richmond and resumed his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. He returned to Baltimore, then mysteriously disappeared. On October 3rd, 1849, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore by a man named Joseph W. Walker.
Severely ill, incoherent, and wearing someone else's clothes, Edgar Allan Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died four days later at the age of 40. His death certificate and medical records were lost, so the actual cause of his death remains a mystery.
Newspapers reported that he died of "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation," which were common euphemisms used when a person died of illicit causes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or venereal disease.
Before his disappearance, Poe had given a manuscript to a friend of his. It was something he'd written a while back, a poem he described as "a little trifle that may be worth something to you." It was the manuscript for his last great poem, Annabel Lee, which would be published two days after he died.
Rufus Griswold, an enemy of Poe's, somehow became his literary executor. He wrote a biography of Poe called Memoir of the Author, where he described Poe as a depraved madman addled by drink and drugs.
Most of Griswold's claims were lies or half-truths; for example, although Poe was an opium user and wrote about it, he was a casual user and never became addicted to the drug.
Griswold's biography was virulently denounced by those who knew Edgar Allan Poe. The letters that Griswold presented as proof of his claims were later revealed to be forgeries.
Edgar Allan Poe's writings, especially his classic horror stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Cask Of Amontillado, and The Fall of the House of Usher continue to inspire new generations of writers.
Quote Of The Day
"Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality." - Edgar Allan Poe
Today's video features a complete reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. Enjoy!
Friday, January 19, 2018
Thursday, January 18, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On January 18th, 1867, the legendary Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío was born. He was born Félix Rubén García Sarmiento in Metapa, Nicaragua. Shortly after his birth, his parents' rocky marriage fell apart. His father was a hopeless alcoholic.
Rubén's mother moved to Honduras to live with her new boyfriend, leaving him to be raised by her aunt and uncle in Leon. Rubén considered his Uncle Felix and Aunt Bernarda his real parents and never had any use for his birth parents.
A child prodigy, Rubén Darío learned to read when he was three years old, and begin writing poetry not long afterward. At the age of twelve, his first published poem appeared in a local newspaper.
Within a year, his work was appearing regularly in El Ensayo, (The Test) a literary magazine in Leon, where he became famous as El Niño Poeta de Leon - The Child Poet of Leon. He would often be invited to read his poetry at public functions.
Around this time, Rubén's Uncle Felix died, and he was sent off to be formally educated by the Jesuits. By then, his private studies of the great Spanish poets and writers of the day had kindled within him strong liberal convictions.
These convictions clashed bitterly with the teachings of the Jesuits, whom he would blast in El Jesuita, an essay written in 1881 - when he was fourteen.
In December of that year, Rubén Darío moved to Managua, where some liberal politicians campaigned to have a government grant pay for him to be educated in Europe.
Unfortunately, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Alfaro, the conservative president of congress, denied the grant, as he was offended by Rubén's anti-religious writings.
After a public outcry, a compromise was offered that would pay for Rubén to be educated in the city of Granada, Nicaragua, but he opted to stay in Managua, where he would write for the city's top newspapers.
The following year, in 1882, Rubén Darío met a girl named Rosario Murillo. It was love at first sight for both of them, but there was a problem - he was fifteen years old and she eleven. He planned to marry her when she reached the age of consent, but his friends talked him out of it. He left Managua and set sail for El Salvador.
Several years later, following the sudden death of his first wife, he would be reunited with Rosario, now in her late teens. After her brother caught them in bed together, he forced Rubén to marry her in a shotgun wedding. It would not be a happy marriage. He drank and lived mostly with his mistress.
In El Salvador, Rubén Darío was befriended by the Salvadoran poet Joaquin Mendez, who took him under his wing and introduced him to the President, Rafael Zaldivar. Darío also met poet Francisco Gavidia, a connoisseur of French poetry.
Gavidia introduced him to the works of the French symbolist poets and Victor Hugo. He would later meet his idol, French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, in Paris. He learned the French language well enough that he began writing poetry in French and using French rhythm and meter in Spanish poems.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, Darío served as a war correspondent. In his prophetic poem, To Roosevelt (1905), published several years after the war ended and dedicated to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Darío accurately predicted the plunder and exploitation of Latin America and her people by U.S. imperialists:
You are the United States
you are the future invader
of the naive America that has indigenous blood
that still prays to Jesus Christ and that still speaks Spanish
His work as a war correspondent finished, Darío served as the Nicaraguan ambassador to France. He had held other diplomatic positions before, which enabled him to travel around the world.
When he visited New York City, he met Cuban poet José Martí. While working as an ambassador, he remained a prolific poet and continued to publish collections of his work.
In 1916, after writing his autobiography, Darío went bankrupt and fell ill with pneumonia. He returned home to Nicaragua and his wife Rosario, and died peacefully in bed. He was 49 years old.
Rubén Dario remains a huge influence on Spanish poetic voice and is considered a folk hero in Latin America. If you visit Nicaragua, you'll see a huge portrait of him hanging in Managua's international airport.
In 1965, a collection of Rubén Darío's poetry would be published in an English language edition by translator Lysander Kemp. This volume includes the classic Nocturne:
Silence of the night, a sad, nocturnal
silence — Why does my soul tremble so?
I hear the humming of my blood,
and a soft storm passes through my brain.
Insomnia! Not to be able to sleep, and yet
to dream. I am the autospecimen
of spiritual dissection, the auto-Hamlet!
To dilute my sadness
in the wine of the night
in the marvelous crystal of the dark —
And I ask myself: When will the dawn come?
Someone has closed a door —
Someone has walked past —
The clock has rung three — If only it were She! —
Quote Of The Day
"I seek a form that my style cannot discover, a bud of thought that wants to be a rose." - Rubén Darío
Today's video features a complete reading of Rubén Darío's poem To Roosevelt in English. Enjoy!
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On January 17th, 1904, The Cherry Orchard, the classic play by the legendary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre. It would be the playwright's most challenging work - that is, challenging for the directors who stage it.
The Cherry Orchard was a product of its time in Russian history - the years after serfdom was abolished and before the Bolshevik revolution. It was a time when the aristocracy was losing power and the bourgeoisie was gaining it, and struggled to find meaning in its new status.
In the play, Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevsky, a middle aged aristocrat, and her family return to their country estate, which is scheduled to go on the auction block, as the family can't afford to pay the delinquent taxes on it. They can't even afford the upkeep of the estate, which is crumbling.
Madame Ranevsky's clan is not the only aristocratic family to fall on hard times, (the abolition of serfdom deprived the aristocracy of its slave labor supply) but she cannot come to terms with her financial predicament.
Her aristocratic pride makes her spend money she doesn't have to maintain the lavish lifestyle to which a person of her class is accustomed. And, she still grieves for her husband and one of her sons, who drowned a month after his father died.
Family friend Yermolay Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant, suggests that to make the money she needs to pay off her taxes, Madame Ranevsky should parcel out the vast lands of her estate, build a cottage on each parcel, and lease them all for summer rental.
She rejects the idea because it would mean cutting down her beloved (and huge) cherry orchard; Before he leaves, Lopahkin offers to lend Madame Ranevsky fifty thousand rubles to buy her estate back at the auction if she changes her mind and agrees to his plan for parceling out her land.
Her feeble brother Leonid Gayev suggests some alternative solutions, such as a financing scheme involving some banker friends and hitting up a wealthy aunt for the money.
In the end, the stubborn, foolish Madame Ranevsky's plans to save her estate and her beloved cherry orchard fall through and Lopakhin buys the estate at the auction.
He tells Madame Ranevsky that he plans to go ahead with the destruction of the cherry orchard and parcel out the land. Before the curtain falls, as Madame Renevsky and her family weep, the sound of chopping cherry trees is heard.
The characters in The Cherry Orchard are walking, talking metaphors. Madame Ranevsky represents the stubborn pride of the waning Russian aristocracy, while her brother Gayev, with his addiction to billiards, symbolizes the aristocracy's addiction to decadent pleasures - another weakness.
Lopakhin represents the bourgeoisie, the middle class who profited most from the weakening of the aristocracy in the years before the Bolshevik revolution. He's a self-made man who rose from working class roots to become a wealthy merchant. He wears a fine, expensive white suit and gaudy yellow shoes.
Lopakhin has a kind of love-hate relationship with Madame Ranevsky. He's grateful for the kindness she's shown him over the years, but he also resents her condescending attitude.
Although he's wealthy - wealthier, in fact, than she is now - she still sees him as the lower class, because of his peasant roots. This is one of the reasons why she rejected his plan to save her estate.
Anton Chekhov was less than thrilled with the premiere of The Cherry Orchard at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904. During rehearsals, the director of the production, Constantin Stanislavski, completely rewrote the second act, turning Chekov's comedy into a tragedy. The playwright was furious.
"In the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you put so many tears in my play? Where are they?" Chekhov wrote to complain. He later went to the theater in person to supervise the production and work out a compromise with the director.
Although a comedy at heart, The Cherry Orchard delicately balances farce with elements of tragedy. Stanislavski insisted on doing the play strictly as a tragedy.
To this day, some directors still struggle to interpret the complex play. Audiences at the Moscow Art Theatre gave the premiere a rousing applause, but the critics' reviews were mixed.
When the play debuted in St. Petersburg at Panin's People's House theater, the audience of pre-revolutionary working class Russians, who understood Chekhov's scathing satire, reportedly cheered at the end, when the aristocrats wept over the demise of their cherry orchard, which was felled onstage.
The Cherry Orchard would be Anton Chekhov's last play. It was inspired by incidents in his own life, including the demise of a cherry orchard he'd planted on his own country estate.
The play was written over a period of several years, as the playwright began to lose his battle with tuberculosis. He died six months after its Moscow premiere, at the age of 44.
Quote Of The Day
"The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them." - Anton Chekhov
Today's video features the 1981 British production of The Cherry Orchard, starring Dame Judi Dench. Enjoy!
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On January 16th, 1933, the famous American writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag was born. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City. Her childhood was unhappy; her father, a wealthy fur trader, died of tuberculosis when she was five. Her mother, cold and distant, was "always away."
When Susan was twelve, her mother married an Army captain, Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister were given his surname, though he never officially adopted them. He moved the family around the country, finally settling in Los Angeles.
After graduating Hollywood High School at the age of 15, the intellectually gifted Susan Sontag enrolled at Berkeley University. She later transferred to the University of Chicago. There, after engaging in a brief but passionate courtship, she got married at seventeen.
Her new husband, Philip Rieff, was a writer and sociology professor at the university. They would remain together for eight years and have one child, a son named David. Susan continued her education and earned a Master's degree in philosophy.
In 1957, she was awarded a fellowship at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and traveled to England alone to take classes. She didn't care for Oxford and transferred to the University of Paris.
She considered her time in Paris the most important time in her life, both intellectually and artistically, as she struck up friendships with expatriate academics and artists, one of which, Cuban-American avant garde playwright María Irene Fornés, became her lover.
Susan and María moved to New York City and lived together for seven years. During that time, Susan had regained custody of her son and begun working on her first novel, The Benefactor (1963).
It was a novel in the form of a memoir. The protagonist, a Candide-esque bohemian named Hippolyte, takes the reader along for the ride as his dream world gradually becomes indistinguishable from reality.
Susan's second novel, Death Kit (1967), is a dark Kafka like tale that takes place on a train. One of the passengers, a thirtysomething year old businessman with the ironic nickname Diddy, becomes convinced that he might be a murderer.
Diddy, who recently attempted suicide, fears that he may have beaten a railroad worker to death while the train was stopped in a dark tunnel. Hester, the lovely yet apathetic blind girl sitting next to him, tells him that he never left his seat. Diddy examines his memories and dreams, trying to answer the question: did he do it?
Susan Sontag would publish two more novels, a short story collection, and nonfiction books. She was also known as an essayist and published six essay collections. Her second and most famous collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), contained her most controversial essay.
Trip to Hanoi was the culmination of Susan's activism against the Vietnam War. She had first signed the Writers and Editors War Tax pledge, refusing to pay taxes to support the war. Like actress Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi to tell the North Vietnamese side of the story.
Susan sympathized with the North Vietnamese, writing in her essay that the Vietcong could not be compared to the Soviets or the Maoist Chinese, whose communism she would later describe as "fascism with a human face." The Vietcong were fighting for their independence.
No stranger to controversy, Susan had previously published an essay in the Partisan Review where she said:
Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
Susan would later retract that statement, but only because she believed that it was insulting to cancer patients.
She continued her activist work; in 1986, she vigorously defended the legendary Indian writer Salman Rushdie when his classic novel The Satanic Verses resulted in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa calling for his death.
A few years later, during the Bosnian War, Susan boldly declared that the Serbian Orthodox Christian forces were the real war criminals in that conflict, not the Bosnian / Albanian Muslim resistance. She went to Sarajevo and directed a production of Samuel Beckett's classic play, Waiting For Godot.
When the AIDS epidemic began to spread in the 1980s, Susan brought it to attention with her play The Way We Live Now and her non-fiction book, AIDS and Its Metaphors, where she harshly criticized the idea that AIDS was a "gay disease" and a divine judgement against homosexuals.
Susan was also a filmmaker. Between 1969 and 1983, she wrote and directed four feature films. Three were produced in Sweden, one in Italy. Her first film, Duet for Cannibals (1969), was a Swedish production.
It told the story of a professor who hires a young man to organize his papers for publication. The young man discovers that the professor's wife, tired of being abused and degraded by him, is planning to murder him. The wife and the young man become lovers. Meanwhile, the professor pursues the young man's girlfriend.
Susan followed Duet for Cannibals with Brother Carl (1971), Promised Lands (1974), and Unguided Tour (1983). Unfortunately, all of her movies are hard to find.
Never afraid to voice her often controversial opinions, on September 24th, 2001 - thirteen days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks - in the New Yorker magazine, Susan asked:
Where is the acknowledgment that this was... an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?
That year, she won the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded biannually at the Jerusalem International Book Fair to writers whose works have dealt with the subject of human freedom in society.
Susan Sontag died of leukemia in 2004 at the age of 71.
Quote Of The Day
"The writer is either a practicing recluse or a delinquent, guilt-ridden one - or both. Usually both." - Susan Sontag
Today's video features Susan Sontag speaking at the San Francisco Public Library in 2001. Enjoy!
Monday, January 15, 2018
My humorous homage to the hard-boiled detective story, "A Defective Story," has been accepted at Out of the Gutter and will appear later this month or early February. I worked with Karen Rice on trying to turn this into a play.
That didn't work, but it helped me revise it into a better story. Thanks, Karen. This started in the Practice group and was also critiqued in Fiction a while back, so I have a lot of people to thank.
Friday, January 12, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On January 12th, 1876, the legendary American writer Jack London was born. He was presumably born John Chaney in San Francisco, but his record of birth was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
London's mother, Flora Wellman, a music teacher and spiritualist, had become pregnant by her boyfriend, astrologer William Chaney. Chaney demanded that she have an abortion; when she refused, he refused to accept responsibility for the child.
In desperation, Flora Wellman attempted suicide by shooting herself. She wasn't seriously injured, but had become mentally ill, so her friend, ex-slave Virginia Prentiss, took care of the baby while she recovered.
Virginia would remain a strong maternal figure throughout Jack London's life. After his mother recovered, she met and later married John London, a disabled Civil War veteran. The baby, named John but called Jack, came to live with them.
The Londons moved around the San Francisco Bay Area before settling in Oakland. Jack London began his schooling. In 1886, at the age of 10, he discovered the Oakland Public Library and became a voracious reader, his love of literature nurtured by the librarian, poet Ina Coolbrith, later the state's first poet laureate.
In 1897, when he was 21 years old and a student at the University of California, Berkeley, London read an old newspaper account of his mother's attempted suicide. Learning the name of his biological father, William Chaney, London wrote to him.
Chaney wrote back, telling him that he wasn't his father, and that his mother was a whore who had slandered him, ruining his good name. London was devastated.
Long before he had attended Berkeley, Jack London started working at the age of 13. He toiled from 12 to 18 hours a day for slave wages. Seeking a way out of this grueling labor, London borrowed money from his black foster mother.
He bought a boat from an oyster pirate named French Frank. Jack became an oyster pirate himself for a few months, but then his boat was damaged beyond repair. So, he gave up piracy and switched sides, joining the California Fish Patrol.
From there, London signed up to work on a sealing schooner bound for Japan. When he returned to the U.S., he found his country in the grip of the Panic of '93, a precursor to the Great Depression. Labor unrest had swept through his hometown of Oakland.
After suffering through more grueling, low-paying jobs, London joined the famous Kelly's Army protest march of unemployed workers and became a tramp. These experiences would result in London becoming a lifelong socialist.
After living as a hobo for a while, Jack London decided that he would have to use his brains to escape poverty. So, he completed high school and went on to the University of Berkeley. Financial difficulties forced him to leave university in 1897, so he never graduated.
He set sail for Alaska with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, hoping to strike it rich in the Yukon Gold Rush. Instead, like most would-be prospectors, he fell ill from exposure to the harsh Alaskan climate.
Suffering from malnutrition and a bad case of scurvy, he soon found himself living in a shelter and medical facility for the poor. London would later base one of his greatest short stories, To Build A Fire, (1908) on these struggles.
When he returned to California in 1898, Jack London determined to become a writer. His first published short story, To The Man On Trial, appeared in The Overland Monthly that year. The magazine paid him $5 for the story, (about $150 today) but was slow in sending him a check.
Just as he was about to give up on being a writer, The Black Cat accepted another of his stories, A Thousand Deaths, (1899) and paid him $40 for it, or about $1200 today.
London had begun his literary career at the right time; new printing technology had just been introduced that enabled high quality magazines to be produced quickly at low cost. This resulted in a literary magazine boom.
Literary magazines catering to a wide variety of genres and tastes provided a strong market for short fiction and serialized novels. London's writings continued to sell and sell well. By 1900, he was making $2,500 a year - the equivalent of $75,000 in today's money.
That year, London married his first wife, Bess Maddern. She had been an old and close friend of his. They both knew (and publicly acknowledged) that they didn't really love each other, but they liked each other enough that they figured they could make a successful marriage. Bess bore Jack two daughters, Joan and Bessie, who was called Becky.
After the birth of their second daughter, their marriage soured. Bess wanted no more children, and she believed that sex without the express purpose of procreation was immoral, so she wouldn't let her husband touch her. Frustration led London to frequent brothels. Bess finally agreed to a divorce, and they parted amicably.
A year later, Jack London married his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. She had been his publisher's secretary. In Charmian, Jack found a soul mate. Despite her prim and dignified exterior, Charmian was a libertine who enjoyed sex. She also possessed an intellect equal to her husband's.
Charmian had been raised by an aunt who was a libertine, a feminist, and a disciple of the famous suffragist Victoria Woodhull. Jack and Charmian tried to have children together, but their first child died at birth and a second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage.
In 1903, Jack London's most famous novel, The Call Of The Wild, was published, first in a serialization by the Saturday Evening Post. They asked London to set his price, and he received a payment of $750, or just under $21,000 today.
Later, Macmillan bought the book rights. London chose to take a lump sum payment of $2000 (about $550,000 today) instead of royalties, not realizing that his novel would become a classic, selling millions of copies. He had no regrets, because the publisher's extensive promotional campaign made his name as a writer and helped him sell more novels.
The Call Of The Wild told the story of Buck, a domesticated dog living in the rough and frigid Yukon during the Gold Rush who finds himself forced into service as a sled dog.
Buck's experiences cause him to revert to his primordial instincts. Although considered a children's novel because its main character is a dog, The Call Of The Wild is actually a dark tale with many scenes of cruelty and violence.
Jack London would publish more classic novels, including The Sea-Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906). In The Sea-Wolf, pampered, rich intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden is on board a San Francisco ferry which collides with another ship in the fog and sinks.
Adrift in the sea, Van Weyden is rescued by Wolf Larsen, the captain of a sealing schooner. The misanthropic Larsen is no hero; he rules his crew with an iron fist and promptly shanghais Van Weyden, forcing him to work as cabin boy.
The formerly pampered rich man must toughen up fast in order to do his work and protect himself from the brutal crew. When the crew attempts a mutiny, Wolf Larsen fights them off, then tortures them in retribution.
White Fang tells the story of the title character, a wolf-dog hybrid who is adopted by an Indian tribe in the Yukon. The pack of dogs that live with the tribe see White Fang as a wolf and attack him. The Indians save him, but the dogs still persecute him relentlessly.
The morose and solitary White Fang grows up to be a savage and deadly fighter. The Indians sell him for a bottle of whiskey to Beauty Smith, a white prospector who runs a dog-fighting operation.
The savage White Fang goes undefeated until one opponent, a ferocious bulldog, nearly tears him apart. Left to die, he is rescued by Weedon Scott, a wealthy young prospector. After nursing White Fang back to health, Scott manages to tame the formerly vicious wolf-dog.
In 1905, Jack London bought a 1,000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain. He loved the ranch, and over the next decade, he invested his writing income (after 1910, he mostly wrote potboilers strictly for money) into making it successful, but it turned out to be a huge failure.
By 1916, he began suffering from both kidney failure and dysentery. He continued to work, both on his writing and on the ranch, even as his health deteriorated. On November 22nd, 1916, Jack London died at the age of 40.
Although uremia was listed as the official cause of death, London was taking large doses of morphine to relieve the extreme pain he was in, and most believe that he really died from an accidental or intentional overdose of morphine.
Throughout his remarkable career, Jack London wrote numerous novels and short stories. He also published several works of nonfiction, including two memoirs: The Road (1907), about his life as a tramp, and John Barleycorn (1913), about his battles with alcoholism.
A lifelong socialist, he wrote political books as well, including The People Of The Abyss, (1903) - an expose of slum life in London - and Revolution, And Other Essays (1910). He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest American writers of all time.
Quote Of The Day
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” - Jack London
Today's video features a complete reading of Jack London's classic novel, White Fang. Enjoy!
Thursday, January 11, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On January 11th, 1901, the legendary South African writer and activist Alan Paton was born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, the son of a civil servant.
After earning his Bachelor's degree at the University of Natal, Paton became a high school teacher. Later, in 1935, he took a job as principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for black African juvenile offenders.
Disgusted by the prior mistreatment of the boys at the reformatory, and hoping to truly rehabilitate them, Paton introduced a series of progressive reforms, all of which were considered highly controversial by his fellow white South Africans.
The most controversial reform was his new honor system, whereby offenders would be allowed to work outside the reformatory. Some boys who proved their trustworthiness would even be allowed to live outside the reformatory with a foster family.
Paton's reforms proved to be a huge success. During his fourteen years as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, some 10,000 boys were granted outside leave, and less than 1% failed to return.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Alan Paton volunteered for military service, but was rejected. So, he traveled around the world, visiting juvenile correctional facilities in other countries. He also began working on his first novel, which would become an all-time classic and an international bestseller.
Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) told the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black pastor from the small village of Ixopo, who receives a letter from a priest in Johannesburg asking him to come and help his sister Gertrude, who is ill.
Kumalo's son Absalom had gone to Johannesburg to look for Gertrude, but never came home. So, Kumalo decides to go to the city himself. When he arrives in Johannesburg, Kumalo finds that Gertrude has become a prostitute and an alcoholic, but he convinces her to return along with her young son.
Kumalo begins searching for his own son, Absalom. The trail leads him to discover that Absalom served time in a reformatory, impregnated a girl, and is now facing execution for allegedly murdering a man during a burglary.
The victim was Arthur Jarvis, a white activist for racial justice - and the son of James Jarvis, Kumalo's neighbor in Ixopo. James and Arthur had been estranged, but after reading his son's writings, James decides to carry on Arthur's work on behalf of oppressed black South Africans.
Meanwhile, Kumalo and his son Absalom are reunited. Before he is executed, Absalom marries the girl he impregnated. She decides to return to Ixopo with her new father-in-law. Back home, Kumalo, with help from James Jarvis, tries to restore the barren farmlands of his village.
Cry, The Beloved Country would become a classic, as it explored the societal and political changes in South Africa that would lead to the introduction of the apartheid system in that country.
The novel was published in 1948, and later that same year, the right wing National Party would seize power. Within the next few years, they would pass the legislation that defined the apartheid system, stripping black South Africans of their citizenship and rights.
In 1953, Alan Paton founded the South African Liberal Party, (SALP) which fought against the apartheid laws. Paton would serve as president of the SALP until the late 1960s, when the party was outlawed by the apartheid regime because its membership was comprised of both blacks and whites.
Paton's friend, Bernard Friedman, would later found the Progressive Party. Paton's anti-apartheid activities often raised the ire of the regime. In 1960, the South African Secret Police learned that Paton's party was receiving donations from international sources.
Legally, they couldn't stop the transactions, so when Paton returned from a trip to New York City, (where he received the Freedom Award) the secret police confiscated his passport and didn't return it for ten years.
Alan Paton would write other memorable novels, which also dealt with racial injustice in South Africa, as did his short story collection, Tales From a Troubled Land (1961).
He also wrote collections of essays; his last one, Save the Beloved Country, was published posthumously in 1989. He died in 1988 at the age of 85.
Beginning in 1990, as the result of violent resistance at home and mounting opposition around the world, South Africa's apartheid system slowly but surely came to an end, culminating in the African National Congress's landslide victory over the National Party in the 1994 election.
Quote Of The Day
"The truth is, our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." - Alan Paton
Today's video features a clip from a rare 1960 Canadian TV interview with Alan Paton. Enjoy!