This Day In Literary History
On August 31st, 1908, the legendary American writer William Saroyan was born in Fresno, California. His parents were Armenian immigrants who had been living in Turkey. When Saroyan was three years old, his father died suddenly.
Unable to care for her children, Saroyan's mother placed him and his brother and sister in an orphanage. The family would be reunited five years later when Saroyan's mother found steady work at a cannery.
As a boy, William Saroyan developed a passion for reading and learning, educating himself when he wasn't at school. He went to a technical school intending to become a professional typist.
When he was fifteen, his mother showed him some of his late father's writings and Saroyan was impressed. He determined to become a writer himself. He would support himself by doing odd jobs while mastering the craft of writing.
In 1934, at the age of 26, William Saroyan burst onto the literary scene when his classic short story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published by Story magazine. It would later be published in book form as the title story of a collection.
Its protagonist being a starving writer trying to improve his lot in life, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze established the main theme of Saroyan's works - optimism amidst troubled times. It also introduced readers to his style of dazzling, zesty, and impressionistic prose:
Through the air on the flying trapeze, his mind hummed. Amusing it was, astoundingly funny. A trapeze to God, or to nothing, a flying trapeze to some sort of eternity; he prayed for strength to make the flight with grace.
In 1942, following the United States' entry into World War II, William Saroyan enlisted in the Army. He was first stationed in Astoria, Queens. Preferring to avoid the company of his fellow soldiers, Saroyan spent his free time at Manhattan's Lombardy Hotel.
He was later transferred to London as part of a film unit; when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson caught the Army's attention, Saroyan narrowly avoided a court martial for advocating pacifism.
After the war ended, Saroyan continued his writing career. He wrote prolifically, worked fast, and rarely revised his manuscripts. Unfortunately, he drank and gambled away most of his earnings. His body of works included not only short stories and novels, but plays and non-fiction works as well.
As a playwright, William Saroyan was most famous for his classic play, The Time of Your Life (1939). Set in a seedy waterfront bar in San Francisco, its main character is Joe, a wealthy man who gave up working in order to hold court at his favorite bar.
There, he helps out his fellow bar patrons and encourages their eccentricities. The play won Saroyan the Pulitzer Prize, but he refused it in protest over what he saw as the crass commercialization of the award. He later accepted the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
The Time of Your Life was adapted as a feature film in 1948, starring James Cagney as Joe. The film proved to be a critical and commercial failure, as the stifling Hollywood Production Code was still in effect.
Saroyan's play had to be sanitized as per Production Code requirements, and when preview audiences reacted negatively to the play's ending, producers filmed an alternate ending - common fates suffered by written works adapted for the screen during the Code era.
Believe it or not, Saroyan's classic novel The Human Comedy (1943) actually started out as an original screenplay for MGM, but studio head Louis B. Mayer balked at the length of Saroyan's script, which ran well over two hours.
The author refused to make significant cuts, so he was fired from the project, and another screenwriter was brought in to write the script. Meanwhile, Saroyan wrote a novelization of his original screenplay.
He wrote the novel, which was published before the film was released, to serve as a counterpoint to the drastically altered script for the movie, which he absolutely hated.
The Human Comedy was a morale boosting story centered on a then timely topic: the American home front during World War 2. Its main character, Homer Macauley, is a fatherless 14-year-old boy whose older brother is away fighting in the war.
Feeling that he must now be the man of the family, Homer takes an evening job as a telegram delivery boy, which often requires him to deliver news to families that their sons have died in the war.
During the day, he tries to live as normal a life as possible. He goes to school, to the movies, and to church on Sundays. He gets by with the help of his close-knit family (which includes his little brother and their harpist mother) and his own instinctive sense of right and wrong.
Homer remains honest and hopeful as he comes of age amidst the ominous specter of war and the uncertainty and hardships of the home front. His name and experiences are allegorical references to the poet Homer and his legendary epic work, The Odyssey.
After the war ended, William Saroyan resumed his prolific writing career. He continued producing quality short stories, novels, and plays, but then the Cold War began and anticommunist hysteria swept across the American landscape.
Saroyan's works and their themes of universal brotherhood and benevolence fell out of favor in this new climate of distrust, paranoia, and persecution. By 1958, he had left the country and settled in France, taking an apartment in Paris.
In the 1960s, Saroyan finally beat his addictions to alcohol and gambling, which had cost him not only his marriage, but most of his money as well.
Freed from these addictions, he was able to get his writing career back on track. By the 1970s, he had earned more than enough money to get himself out of debt.
William Saroyan died of prostate cancer in 1981. He was 72 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops." - William Saroyan
Today's video features William Saroyan reading from his 1936 short story collection Inhale and Exhale. Saroyan based his classic poem The Armenian and the Armenian on this passage. Enjoy!
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On August 30th, 1944, the famous American writer, journalist, and humorist Molly Ivins was born. She was born Mary Tyler Ivins in Monterey, California, but grew up in Houston, Texas.
Molly's father, Jim Ivins, was an oil company executive, and the family lived in Houston's affluent River Oaks community. Growing up under the thumb of a father known as General Jim because of his ferocious strictness, she developed a strong rebellious nature.
While in high school, Molly cultivated her interest in journalism and became an editor of the student newspaper. In 1963, while studying at Smith College, a liberal arts college for women, she became involved with Hank Holland, a family friend and student at Yale.
In Hank, Molly found a soul mate. She referred to him as "the love of my life." Sadly, he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964. Unable to find anyone who could replace Hank in her heart, she never married.
Molly would spend her junior year studying political science in Paris. After returning to the U.S. in 1967, she earned a Master's degree in journalism at Columbia University.
After earning her Master's degree, Molly moved to Minnesota, where she took a job as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. Her editor assigned her to cover "militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers."
By 1970, Molly had quit her job and returned to Houston, where she became a co-editor and political reporter for the Texas Observer. She covered the Texas state legislature from a liberal, populist perspective, employing the sparkling, scathing wit that would make her famous.
Her snappy, witty style of writing caught the eye of national publications. Soon, she was writing op-ed pieces and feature stories for The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In 1976, fearing that its writing style was becoming too stale, The New York Times hired Molly Ivins away from the Texas Observer. During her five year tenure, Molly established herself as one of the paper's finest writers.
When legendary rock singer Elvis Presley died in 1977, it was Molly Ivins who wrote his obituary for The New York Times. Ultimately, her colorful writing style would prove to be too colorful for her editor.
In 1980, when she covered a "community chicken-killing festival" in New Mexico, she referred to the event as a "gang pluck." Her irate editor, Abe Rosenthal, accused her of using a double entendre to arouse "dirty thoughts" in her readers' minds. Molly quipped, "Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal!"
The following year, she left the The New York Times after accepting an offer from the Dallas Times Herald to write a column which she would have full creative control of. She would remain with the paper for ten years.
While she wrote her column for the Dallas Times Herald, Molly Ivins' fame would grow, as she also wrote freelance pieces for national publications and became a popular speaker on the lecture circuit.
In 1991, Molly published her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?. A compilation of some of her best pieces from the Dallas Times Herald in which she covered the redneck politics of Texas with her scathing wit and pointed criticism, the book spent 22 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
Rival newspaper The Fort Worth Star-Telegram made Molly an offer to write a column for them, and she accepted. Her column would be syndicated, appearing in nearly 400 newspapers across the country. She wrote for the The Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1992-2001, after which, she became an independent journalist.
When George W. Bush became President in the controversial 2000 election, Molly went after him with a vengeance. She gave him the famous nickname Shrub and wrote three scathing books about him and the spectacular failure of his presidency.
Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (2000), The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President (2001) and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America (2003) delighted liberals and outraged conservatives.
Molly's disdain for George W. Bush is best summed up in this classic quote: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention."
Molly Ivins would write nearly a dozen books and win numerous awards for journalism. She died in 2007 at the age of 62, after a long battle with breast cancer.
Quote Of The Day
"Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful." - Molly Ivins
Today's video features Molly Ivins speaking at Tulane University in 2004. Enjoy!
Monday, August 29, 2016
It's been a long dry spell, but I'm up today, August 26, at Flash Fiction Press. Thanks to Prose P for convincing me to pare down on my descriptions of tractors and plowing.
My story, a humorous cautionary tale, "Why I'll Never Be a Zen Master," has been accepted at Clever Magazine for their next issue. This one was written recently for Practice, so I have them to thank.
Sarah Corbett Morgan
My review of the spectacular novel, Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta, went live at the Internet Review of Books this past week.
My review of The Paris Librarian - A Hugo Marston Novel by Mark Pryor has been published by the Internet Review of Books.
Friday, August 26, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On August 26th, 1904, the famous English writer Christopher Isherwood was born in High Lane, Cheshire, England. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, and moved the family often to wherever he was stationed.
Lt. Col. Isherwood was killed in action during World War I. Afterward, Christopher Isherwood and his mother lived in London and Wyberslegh. Isherwood attended St. Edmund's prep school in Surrey.
There, he met W.H. Auden, a soon to be famous writer who would become Isherwood's protege and close friend. After St. Edmund's, Isherwood attended Repton School, where he met writer Edward Upward, who would become a lifelong friend.
Isherwood and Upward collaborated on a short story collection, The Mortmere Stories. Although famous in literary circles, only one of the stories would be published during Isherwood's lifetime. The whole collection of stories was published posthumously in 1994.
Christopher Isherwood entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but deliberately failed his exams and left the college without a degree in 1925. He took a job as secretary for violinist André Mangeot and his string quartet, living with Mangeot and his family for the next three years.
In his spare time, Isherwood studied medicine and wrote a book of nonsensical poetry called People One Ought To Know, which was illustrated by Mangeot's 11-year-old son, Sylvain.
Later in 1925, Isherwood was reunited with W.H. Auden. He became Auden's literary mentor and occasional lover. Auden introduced him to writer Sir Stephen Spender, whom he would later spend time with in Berlin.
Isherwood's first novel, All The Conspirators, was published in 1928. It was about a young man, Philip, who longs to escape the office where he works, but is torn between pleasing his oppressive, domineering mother and living out his dream of becoming an artist. Philip's only ally is his sister, Joan.
Around the time his first novel was published, Isherwood studied medicine at King's College, London, but dropped out in six months to join W.H. Auden in Berlin. He had rejected his upper class roots and was openly gay though homosexuality was still a crime in England.
Isherwood came to love Berlin, which, before the rise of Hitler and Nazism, was known as one of Europe's most cultured and liberal cities. He took advantage of the sexual freedom in Berlin and indulged in his passion for handsome young men. He met one, Heinz, who became his first great love.
Isherwood's second novel, The Memorial, was published in 1932. It was another tale of conflict between mother and son, based on Isherwood's family history. While writing his third novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), Isherwood worked as a tutor.
When Hitler came to power in Germany, Isherwood left Berlin and traveled around Europe, living in cities such as Sintra, Portugal, and Copenhagen, Denmark. Around this time, he collaborated on three plays with W.H. Auden: The Dog Beneath The Skin (1935), The Ascent Of F6 (1936), and On The Frontier (1939).
In 1939, Isherwood published one of his masterpieces, a collection of short stories and novellas called The Berlin Stories. They were inspired by Isherwood's time living in Berlin and his experiences with its sexual underground.
The book's stories would be adapted as a play called I Am A Camera and a popular, Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Cabaret, which would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.
The city of Berlin would erect a plaque in Isherwood's memory on the house in Schoneberg, Berlin, where he had lived. In 1939, after visiting New York City on their way back to England, Isherwood and Auden decided to emigrate to the United States.
This decision, made just months before England declared war on Germany, officially beginning World War II, was seen as a kind of betrayal by the patriotic crowd in England. Isherwood stayed in New York with Auden for a few months, then moved to Hollywood, California.
In Hollywood, he met mystic and historian Gerald Heard, who introduced him to Swami Prabhavananda and his Vedantic brand of Hindu spirituality and philosophy. Isherwood joined a group of mystic explorers that included writer Aldous Huxley and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
He embraced Vedanta and, working with the Swami, translated Hindu scriptures, wrote Vedanta essays, and the biography Ramakrishna and His Disciples. He also wrote Vedanta themed novels and plays.
In 1946, Isherwood became a naturalized American citizen. This made him eligible for the draft, however, he had already established himself as a conscientious objector. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s, Isherwood spent most of his time with his Vedanta writings.
On Valentine's Day, 1953, while spending time on the beach with friends, the 48-year-old Isherwood was introduced to an 18-year-old aspiring artist named Don Bachardy. Despite a 30-year age difference, affairs, and separations, Bachardy and Isherwood would remain partners until Isherwood's death.
During the early months of their relationship, (which would be chronicled in the acclaimed 2008 documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story) Isherwood finally completed The World In The Evening (1954), a novel he'd been working on for a few years. Bachardy typed up the manuscript.
When he wasn't writing, Isherwood taught creative writing at California State University, Los Angeles. In 1962, Isherwood's novel Down There On A Visit was published. A semi-sequel to The Berlin Stories, the novel is narrated by a hedonistic writer who proves himself to be a man of extremes.
He relentlessly pursues physical pleasures, but interrupts his binges of debauchery to engage in meditation and take up disciplines such as learning a foreign language. He meets a famous male prostitute and the two men decide to take up a spiritual life dedicated to self-denial and meditation.
Two years later, in 1964, Isherwood published his other masterpiece, A Single Man. Told in a stream of consciousness narrative, the novel takes place during one day in the life of George Falconer, a middle-aged gay Englishman and professor living in Los Angeles, as he struggles to cope with the sudden death of his partner Jim in a car accident.
The novel's frank and honest treatment of homosexuality and gay relationships proved to be a shocker in 1964, but it was Isherwood's dazzling prose that made the novel a masterpiece.
Isherwood's fellow English writer Anthony Burgess declared it "a testimony to Isherwood's undiminished brilliance as a novelist." An acclaimed feature film adaptation of A Single Man was released in December of 2009, starring Colin Firth as George Falconer.
Christopher Isherwood died of prostate cancer in 1986 at the age of 81. After his death, Don Bachardy's portraits (he had become a successful draughtsman and painter) of his dying partner became famous.
Quote Of The Day
"The Nazis hated culture itself, because it is essentially international and therefore subversive of nationalism. What they called Nazi culture was a local, perverted, nationalistic cult, by which a few major artists and many minor ones were honored for their Germanness, not their talent." - Christopher Isherwood
Today's video features a 1969 BBC TV documentary on Christopher Isherwood. Enjoy!
Thursday, August 25, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On August 25th, 1949, the famous English writer Martin Amis was born. He was born in Oxford, England, the son of famous writer Sir Kingsley Amis.
As a boy, Martin Amis attended 14 different schools, as his father gave lectures at colleges and universities all over the United Kingdom and the United States, taking the family with him.
Martin Amis was twelve years old when his parents divorced. He only read comic books until his stepmother, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, introduced him to the novels of Jane Austen, whom he credited as his earliest influence.
As a teenager, Martin became a hippie and hung out at bars with the mod crowd. He later graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, with a Congratulatory First in English, which he described as "the sort where you are called in for a viva and the examiners tell you how much they enjoyed reading your papers."
In 1973, Martin Amis' first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published. The semi-autobiographical comic novel told the story of Charles Highway, a bright, bookish, 19-year-old wannabe intellectual making the transition from adolescence to manhood.
Nasty yet moral, calculating yet able to love, Charles falls for the lovely Rachel, executes a carefully planned seduction of her, then abandons her even though she may be pregnant with his child. The absurdly conceited Charles doesn't realize how much he has in common with his father, whom he detests.
The Rachel Papers, which was adapted as a feature film in 1989, won Martin Amis the Somerset Maugham Award - the same award his father had won for his 1954 novel, Lucky Jim. Unfortunately, Sir Kingsley Amis showed no interest in his son's work and often derided it.
Martin's next novel, Dead Babies (1975), a black comedy, has been described as a cross between the works of P.G. Wodehouse and the Marquis de Sade. It's set in a bleak future where excess has become the norm, as the characters engage in orgies of sex and drugs. Dead Babies was adapted as a feature film in 2000, released in the United States under the title Mood Swingers.
Some of Martin Amis' best known and most respected novels were written in the 1980s and 90s, including Money (1984), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow (1991), and The Information (1995).
In Time's Arrow, which was nominated for a Booker Prize, the novel is the autobiography of its main character, an ex-Nazi doctor accused of torturing Jews during the Holocaust. Amis employs an unusual narrative technique: time runs backward during the entire novel, to the point that the characters even speak backward.
In addition to his novels, Martin Amis also wrote short story collections and nonfiction. Some of his most memorable nonfiction books include The Moronic Inferno And Other Visits To America (1986) - a collection of satirical essays about all things American, from fashion to the religious right.
Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002) is about the horrors of Stalinism. His most recent nonfiction book, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (2008) offers scathing attacks on both Islamic fundamentalism and the Bush administration's response to it.
Martin Amis' latest novel, The Zone Of Interest, was published in August of 2014. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, circa 1942, it tells the story of Angelus Thomsen, a Nazi officer who falls in love with Hannah Doll, the wife of the commandant, Paul Doll.
The affair awakens the humanity of Thomsen, who becomes appalled by the inhumanity of Auschwitz. His love for Hannah helps her find sanity in an insane existence as the wife of the deluded, psychopathic commandant.
When her husband discovers the affair, Hannah's hate for Paul escalates, and she uses the affair to taunt him in private and embarrass him in public. So he plots to have her killed by blackmailing Szmul Zacharias, a Jewish Sonderkommando.
The novel features alternating first-person narration by Thomsen, Paul Doll, and Szmul Zacharias. Critics called it the best novel Amis has written since London Fields (1989).
Quote Of The Day
"When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life." - Martin Amis
Today's video features Martin Amis discussing his latest novel at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Enjoy!
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On August 24th, 1847, the legendary English writer Charlotte Bronte submitted the manuscript for her classic novel Jane Eyre to Smith, Elder, and Co. - the publisher who would finally accept it. The novel had been rejected by five previous publishers.
Jane Eyre would become an instant hit - a huge critical and commercial success during its time - and later be rightfully recognized as one of the all-time greatest works of English literature. But why was it rejected so many times before finally being published?
In Victorian England, female writers were looked down on. In fact, Charlotte Bronte had been advised by famous poets (and staunch conservatives) William Wordsworth and Robert Southey that writing was no profession for a woman.
Undaunted, Bronte submitted Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell, as it was common for female writers to use male sounding pseudonyms.
The publishers who rejected Jane Eyre knew that it had been written by a woman, but that didn't bother them. What they found infuriating were the feminist themes in the novel.
Narrated by its title character, the story follows Jane from the age of ten through womanhood. As a young orphan girl, following her kind uncle's death, Jane escapes from her cruel aunt and cousins when she is enrolled at Lockwood School.
Unfortunately, the school is run by Mr. Brocklehurst, a nasty, hypocritical Christian clergyman who is both self-righteous and dishonest. Life at Lockwood is grim for Jane and the other students.
When a typhus epidemic exposes Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty, new people are brought in to supervise him and share his duties as inspector and treasurer.
Although the cruel Brocklehurst is not removed from his position due to his family's wealth and prominence, the conditions at Lockwood School improve considerably.
The novel then jumps ahead eight years, and we find Jane Eyre, having taught at Lockwood for a couple of years, taking a better job as governess to Adele, the spoiled little daughter of Edward Rochester, owner of Thornfield Manor.
Though Jane is twenty years younger, Rochester finds himself taken with her. Happy at first with her new job, Jane is soon troubled by mysterious occurrences, including strange laughter echoing through the hallways, a fire, and an attack on a guest.
When Jane, who had been keeping her feelings a secret for months, finally proclaims her love for Rochester, he proposes to her. Later, after a month of courtship, Jane finds herself stalked by a strange and savage-looking woman.
Rochester blames a drunken servant for the strange happenings, but at their wedding, Jane learns the truth. A man named Mason and a lawyer interrupt the ceremony and reveal that Edward Rochester is already married.
Rochester's wife, Bertha, is a violently insane madwoman whom he keeps confined in the attic. He hadn't known that madness ran rampant in Bertha's family when he married her. The wedding is canceled and Jane is heartbroken.
Rochester asks her to move with him to the South of France where they will live as husband and wife, but she cannot bring herself to live with him in sin. So she leaves him, fleeing Thornfield Manor in the middle of the night.
When her money runs out, Jane reluctantly turns to begging. One night, freezing and starving, she goes to a house to beg for help. The clergyman who lives there, St. John Eyre Rivers, turns out to be a cousin of Jane's.
Rivers is a fanatical Calvinist clergyman. While he is charitable, honest, and forgiving, he's also proud, cold, and controlling. When he asks her to marry him and go with him to India, where he plans to do missionary work, Jane refuses, knowing that they really don't love each other.
Rivers continues to pressure her and she finally agrees to marry him, but then she thinks she hears the voice of Edward Rochester calling her name. The next morning, she decides to go to Thornfield Manor to check on Rochester before she leaves with Rivers for India.
On her way to Thornfield, Jane learns from an innkeeper that Rochester's mad wife Bertha set the whole manor on fire, then committed suicide. Rochester saved the lives of all his servants, but lost a hand and was blinded in the process.
When Jane is reunited with him, he fears that she won't want a blind cripple and she fears that he won't want to marry again. But after they reveal their feelings to each other, Rochester proposes and Jane accepts without hesitation.
After Jane gives birth to their first child, Rochester eventually regains sight in one eye and is finally able to see his son.
Charlotte Bronte's intelligent, determined heroine left a bad taste in the mouths of prospective publishers. They found the strong feminist themes objectionable.
The fact that most of the male characters are depicted as self-righteous, dishonest, cold, and controlling yet weak at heart, didn't help either. Even Jane's true love Edward Rochester is weak until he commits his act of heroism near the end of the novel.
After Jane Eyre was published under the androgynous pseudonym Currer Bell, early reviews of the novel were scathing.
Some critics blasted the author for daring "to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles." Still, the novel became an overnight sensation with readers.
In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, (which the author dedicated to legendary English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, who wept openly while reading it) Charlotte Bronte reminds "the timorous or carping few" of "certain simple truths":
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns...
The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it inconvenient to make external show pass for sterling worth - to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines.
It may hate him who dares to scrutinize and expose - to raise the gilding, and show base metal under it - to penetrate the sepulcher, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.
Quote Of The Day
"I'm just going to write because I cannot help it." - Charlotte Bronte
Today's video features a clip from the famous 1944 feature film adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Edward Rochester. Enjoy!
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
This Day In Literary History
On August 23rd, 1305, the legendary Scottish knight Sir William Wallace was executed by order of England's King Edward I. This important historical event would inspire the writing of two classic poems and the making of an acclaimed feature film.
The story of Sir William Wallace's execution actually begins nearly twenty years earlier in 1286, with the death of Scotland's monarch, King Alexander III. For years, he had ruled over a peaceful and prosperous Scotland.
Then, in 1286, Alexander was killed when his horse threw him off. His successor to the throne was his little granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway. Sadly, the young girl died on her voyage home, leaving Scotland without a ruler.
The Scottish lords set up an interim government of "Guardians" to rule until a new king could be crowned. This new government was sharply divided; some of the guardians wanted independence from England, while others remained loyal to the British crown.
The conflict threatened to plunge Scotland into civil war. England's King Edward I intervened to prevent that, acting as an arbiter to settle disputes between the feuding Guardians.
As the search for a new King of Scotland continued, King Edward demanded that all contenders to the throne recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. This left a bad taste in many Scots' mouths.
In 1292, a great feudal court in Berwick-upon-Tweed chose John Balliol to be the new King of Scotland, as he was a descendant of the former king, David I.
Meanwhile, King Edward continued to antagonize the Guardians of Scotland by continually reversing the rulings of their court.
The new King John Balliol was then summoned to appear at the English court as a common plaintiff, which most Scots considered the height of disrespect. Balliol was a weakling and his people referred to him as Toom Tabard - Empty Coat.
He pledged his loyalty to King Edward, sparking off a revolution. King Edward had his armies storm Berwick-upon-Tweed. They sacked the town, leaving a path of wanton destruction in their wake.
In July of 1296, three months after the Scots were defeated in the Battle of Dunbar, temporarily squelching the flames of revolution, King John Balliol was forced to abdicate, even though he had pledged loyalty to the British crown.
Nearly a year later, Sir William Wallace, a Scottish nobleman, assassinated William De Heselrig, England's brutal High Sheriff of Lanark.
Legend has it that De Heselrig sought to arrest Wallace at his home, but finding only Wallace's wife there, he arrested her and had her put to death.
After killing De Heselrig, Sir William Wallace teamed up with fellow Scottish noble William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas. Together, they led many armed insurrections against British soldiers on Scottish soil.
In September of 1297, along with fellow revolutionary Andrew Moray, Wallace led their army to victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where they routed a much larger British force.
After the battle, Wallace and Moray were made Guardians of Scotland. Two months later, Wallace led a successful large scale raid on Northern England. For this, he was knighted.
On April 1st, 1298, a horde of English soldiers invaded Edinburgh, looting and pillaging the land as they searched for William Wallace and his men. Wallace found them and attacked, and the Battle of Falkirk was on.
Unfortunately for Wallace, this battle proved to be a disaster - an embarrassing, catastrophic defeat that cost the Scots a lot of men.
Wallace escaped from the battlefield, but his reputation as a military leader would be irreparably tarnished. By September, he resigned as a Guardian of Scotland.
William Wallace continued to do his part for Scottish independence, mostly in a non-military capacity. He visited France's King Philip IV to ask for assistance in fighting the British.
For several years, Wallace avoided capture by the English, but then in August of 1305, he was caught by John De Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to the British crown.
Wallace was turned over to a regiment of English soldiers near Glasgow, then transported to London, where he would stand trial for treason at Westminster Hall.
Sir William Wallace, defiant to the last, defended his actions by saying, "I could not be a traitor to [King] Edward, for I was never his subject." Nevertheless, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
It was a gruesome execution. After Wallace's conviction, he was taken away, stripped naked, dragged through London by a horse, and hanged to the point of near death. Then, still alive, he was castrated, disemboweled, and beheaded.
Finally, his body was quartered - ripped apart into four pieces. In a final act of humiliation, his severed head was dipped in tar and mounted on a pike atop London Bridge.
Wallace's horrific fate and his earlier heroics made him one of Scotland's greatest folk heroes. The story of his life would inspire two classic poems written by two legendary Scottish poets.
In 1477, the poet Blind Harry, aka Henry the Minstrel, wrote The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace - The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace.
In this classic nine volume epic poem in tribute to the Scottish hero, Blind Harry tells of Wallace's assassination of William De Heselrig in retribution for the alleged murder of his wife:
"And thought'st thou, traitor," fierce the hero cried,
"When by thy murd'ring steel she cruel died;
When thy fell hand her precious blood did spill,
Wallace though absent, would be absent still?"
Furious he spoke, and rising on the foe,
Full on his head discharg'd the pond'rous blow;
Down sinks the felon headlong to the ground,
The guilty soul flew trembling through the wound...
In 1793, Robert Burns, considered Scotland's greatest poet, wrote Scots Wha Hae, (Scots, Who Have) his classic patriotic ode to his country's heroes:
Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o battle lour, [look menacingly],
See approach proud Edward's power --
Chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave? --
Let him turn, and flee!
Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',
Let him follow me!
By Oppression's woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! --
Let us do or die!
Burns originally published the poem anonymously, as publicly advocating for Scottish independence was an imprisonable offense at the time.
In 1995, the highly acclaimed feature film Braveheart was released, starring Mel Gibson (who also directed) as Sir William Wallace. The screenplay was based on Blind Harry's classic epic poem, and the movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (Gibson).
Quote Of The Day
“Suspicion is a heavy armor and with its weight it impedes more than it protects.” - Robert Burns
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for Braveheart, the classic 1995 feature film about Sir William Wallace. Enjoy!