This Day In Literary History
On December 14th, 1916, the famous American writer Shirley Jackson was born. She was born in San Francisco, California, to an upper-middle class family. When she was a young girl, the family moved across the country to Rochester, New York, where she later graduated from Brighton High School.
After high school, Shirley Jackson attended first the University of Rochester, then Syracuse University. While a student at Syracuse, her first published short story, Janice (1938), appeared.
Through her work with the university's literary magazine, she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become both a famous literary critic and her husband.
Shirley and Stanley settled down in rural Vermont and had four children - two sons and two daughters - who would become somewhat famous themselves when their mother included fictionalized versions of them in her humorous memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957).
Although Shirley's literary career - and sadly, her life - would be short lived, she wrote six novels, several children's books, and numerous short stories. She would famously quip, "Fifty percent of my life was spent washing and dressing the children, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, and mending."
Shirley Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall, published in 1948, was inspired by the upper-middle class California suburb she had spent her early childhood in.
The novel tells the dark stories of the people who live in a seemingly ideal community that is tearing itself apart on the inside. Meanwhile, a new road being built threatens to expose the isolated community to the outside world.
Jackson's first novel introduced her trademark prose style and fascination with the dark side of human nature. In her later novels, such as The Bird's Nest (1954) and The Sundial (1958), Jackson ventured into all out horror.
These stories combined supernatural and psychological horror. This was nothing new to her. Jackson's most famous short story, The Lottery, dealt with similar themes.
The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, told the story of a small, rural American town with a horrific secret. The story begins with the town's 300 residents acting strange and nervous, as June 27th approaches.
On that date, they will partake in their annual ritual, called "the lottery." In preparation for the ritual, children collect stones while the adults assemble for the event.
The reader soon learns that "the lottery" is an ancient ritual held to choose a human sacrifice to ensure a good harvest. In the first round, the head of each family chooses a slip of paper. Bill Hutchinson receives the paper with the black dot on it, so the sacrifice will come from his family.
In the second round, each Hutchinson family member chooses a slip of paper. Bill's wife Tessie receives the paper with the black dot. The townspeople stone her to death while she denounces the lottery to her dying breath.
The Lottery was quite a shocker for readers in 1948, and hundreds of letters poured in to the New Yorker. Shirley described reactions as "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse." Some charged her with a calculated, subversive attack on American values and religious faith.
The story would be republished in book form as the title story of the collection, The Lottery and Other Stories (1949). It would be adapted as an acclaimed short film in 1969, a made-for-TV feature film in 1996, and as a short film again in 2007.
Shirley Jackson's most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959. The brilliant supernatural horror story told the tale of Dr. John Montague, a parapsychologist who rents the famous and supposedly haunted Hill House for a summer.
Montague intends to prove that the house is in fact possessed by supernatural forces. Accompanying him are two people who have already experienced supernatural phenomena. They are Theodora, a psychic, and Eleanor, a shy, troubled recluse who as a girl witnessed poltergeist activity in and around her family's home.
The haunting soon begins, and as the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that the evil forces in Hill House are intent on possessing the vulnerable Eleanor, as frightening incidents begin to erode her sanity.
Dr. Montague's bossy, arrogant, and tactless wife later arrives to help her husband with his investigation, along with boys' school headmaster Arthur Parker, who is also interested in the supernatural. Will any of these people survive Hill House?
The Haunting of Hill House was adapted first as an acclaimed feature film called The Haunting in 1963, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson, and again in a mediocre 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In his classic 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, an analysis of horror in literature, comics, film, radio, and TV, legendary horror novelist Stephen King proclaimed The Haunting of Hill House to be one of the greatest horror novels of the late 20th century.
The novel's masterful prose and power to scare can be seen in the famous opening paragraph:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
As Shirley Jackson's reputation grew as a horror novelist, her husband Stanley started a myth that she practiced witchcraft. This was done as a publicity stunt to sell books, but many people took it seriously.
Shirley found their reaction funny. Later, the myth gave her the idea to write The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), a children's book based on the Salem witch trials.
Throughout her life, Shirley suffered from mental and psychosomatic illnesses. These illnesses, and the effects of the various prescription drugs she took to treat them caused her health to decline early in life. She was also overweight and a heavy smoker.
Shirley Jackson died in her sleep of heart failure in August of 1965 at the age of 48. In 1996, a crate of her unpublished short stories was found in the barn behind her home. The best of these stories were published later that year as the short story collection, Just An Ordinary Day.
In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Award was established, with permission from her estate, to honor her literary legacy and recognize outstanding achievement in psychological suspense, horror, and dark fantasy literature.
Quote Of The Day
"I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there." - Shirley Jackson
Today's video features a complete reading of Shirley Jackson's classic short story, The Lottery. Enjoy!
Friday, December 14, 2018
Thursday, December 13, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On December 13th, 1915, the famous Canadian-American writer Kenneth Millar, best known by his pseudonym Ross Macdonald, was born in Los Gatos, California, to Canadian parents who then moved back to their hometown of Kitchener, Ontario.
When Millar was a boy, his father suddenly walked out on the family. Millar found himself moving frequently, shuffled between his mother and various relatives. Years later, the themes of broken homes and domestic discord would feature prominently in his fiction.
In 1938, while living in Canada, the 23-year-old Kenneth Millar met and married his wife, Margaret Sturm, who would become a successful mystery writer under her married name, Margaret Millar. She bore him a daughter, Linda. Kenneth Millar began his literary career writing short stories for pulp magazines.
To avoid being confused with his wife, Kenneth Millar took the pen name John Macdonald. Then he learned that there was a famous writer called John D. Macdonald. To avoid confusion again, Millar changed his pseudonym to John Ross Macadonald before settling on Ross Macdonald as his permanent pen name.
For his college education, Kenneth Millar attended the University of Michigan in the United States, where he earned a degree in literature. In 1944, while doing his graduate work, his first novel was published.
The Dark Tunnel, aka I Die Slowly, published under his first pseudonym John Macdonald, was a spy thriller. In it, college professor Robert Branch ridicules his best friend for suspecting that a Nazi spy may be lurking in their sleepy Midwestern town.
Branch is more interested in the fact that his German ex-girlfriend has accepted a position at the university where he teaches. Trouble lands a one-two punch when first Branch's ex is suddenly engaged to marry the son of the university's German professor.
Then, Branch witnesses his suspicious best friend fall to his death from his office window. Branch is the only one who doesn't believe that his friend's death was a suicide. When the professor tries to solve the crime, he finds himself marked for death.
The same year that Kenneth Millar's first novel was published, he joined the Navy, as World War II was still raging. He served for two years as a communications officer. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Michigan, earned his Ph.D., and continued with his literary career.
Millar's third novel, Blue City (1947), marked his transition to hard-boiled detective fiction. It told the story of Johnny Weather, a young soldier who returns from the war to find that his estranged father is dead.
His father, a nightclub owner, was a prominent figure involved in the corruption of the town, and the police are more than happy to let his murder remain unsolved.
As Johnny Weather tries to solve the crime, he finds that more people than just the cops prefer that his father's murder remains unsolved, even the man's ex-wife, who attempts to seduce Johnny. The novel would be adapted as a feature film in 1986.
In 1949, Kenneth Millar published The Moving Target, his first novel featuring a detective character who had been the subject of a short story series.
Lew Archer, named after writer Lew Wallace and Philip Marlowe's partner Miles Archer, was not your typical detective. We learn a lot about him in his first novel.
Big (6'2") and tough, yet intelligent and compassionate, Lew Archer possessed far greater depth and humanity than the average hard-boiled detective.
A troubled child (he claimed that he once "took the strap away from my old man") turned petty thief, Archer was befriended and reformed by a kindhearted older policeman.
Archer became a cop himself, training with the Long Beach (California) Police Department. When he finds that the department is a cesspool of corruption, he won't go along with it, and is kicked off the force.
With the war on, Archer joins the Army and serves in military intelligence. After the war ends, he returns home and becomes a private detective. While he solves crimes, Archer pines for his ex-wife Sue and drinks too much.
In his first novel, he's hired by the dispassionate wife of an eccentric oil tycoon who has mysteriously vanished. His attempts to solve the crime lead him to a strange cast of characters and numerous other crimes that must be solved before he can solve the one that he was hired to investigate.
What makes the Lew Archer novels so memorable is that they're more than just detective novels. Using incredibly complex plots and adding a great deal of psychological depth and insights to his characters' motivations, Millar's detective novels were essentially part whodunit and part psychological thriller.
A huge hit with genre fans and literary critics alike, Lew Archer's adventures would be adapted for the radio, screen, and television. The most famous film adaptations were Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975), which starred Paul Newman as the iconic detective.
In these films, Lew Archer's last name was changed to Harper. Some say it was because Paul Newman believed that the letter H was lucky for him, having previously starred in the classic films The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963).
However, others, including Harper screenwriter William Goldman, claimed that the producers changed the name to save money, as they hadn't bought the rights to the entire Lew Archer series, only a couple of novels.
Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, wrote eighteen Lew Archer novels. His last, The Blue Hammer, was published in 1976. He died of Alzheimer's disease in 1983 at the age of 67.
Quote Of The Day
"There's nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure." - Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar)
Today's video features a complete reading of Ross Macdonald's classic first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On December 12th, 1821, the legendary French writer Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France. His father, Achille-Cléophas, was a surgeon. According to some sources, the young Gustave began writing stories at the age of eight.
After being educated at Lycée Pierre-Corneille, Flaubert went to Paris to study law. He didn't care much for law and preferred his hometown in Normandy to the City of Lights. He did make some friends in Paris, including fellow writer Victor Hugo.
In 1846, at the age of 25, Flaubert suffered an epileptic attack and left Paris. He settled in Croisset, near Rouen, where he would live with his mother for the rest of his life.
Flaubert was openly bisexual, but preferred women. His one and only great love was the poet Louise Colet. When their passionate affair came to an end, he lost interest in romance and never married.
He wasn't lonely. He caroused with prostitutes of both sexes, (often suffering from venereal disease as a result) he was close to his niece Caroline, and enjoyed the company of other writers, including Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, George Sand, and Ivan Turgenev.
Gustave Flaubert's first published work of fiction was a semi-autobiographical novella called November (1842). The narrator is a schoolboy who meditates on his life, including his determination to become a man both physically and sexually.
The narrator ultimately loses his virginity to Marie, a worldly-wise courtesan who enthralls him with stories of her erotic experiences. Later, the narrator decides to see her again, only to find that she and her brothel have vanished.
Flaubert's first full length novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, written in 1849 but not published in its final version until 1874, was based on St. Anthony the Great's alleged temptation by supernatural forces in the Libyan Desert.
After completing his first draft, Flaubert read the novel aloud to his friends, writers Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, over a period of four days, after which, he asked for their opinions on it. They encouraged him to burn the manuscript.
In 1857, Flaubert published what is considered his masterpiece, the classic, controversial novel Madame Bovary. It first appeared in a serialized form in the French literary magazine Le Revue de Paris, published from October 1st through December 15th, 1856.
The novel was considered scandalous and attacked for its alleged obscenity and immorality; Flaubert was accused of glorifying adultery. In January of 1857, the novel went on trial for obscenity. On February 7th, it was acquitted - found not legally obscene.
Flaubert's novel told the unforgettable story of Emma Rouault, a young woman who falls in love with a country doctor, Charles Bovary. Although a decent man, he turns out to be awkward, weak, and an insufferable bore. Emma becomes disillusioned and despondent.
When wealthy libertine landowner Rodolphe Boulanger seduces her, Emma finds the passionate romance she'd been craving. She risks exposing her affair with her indiscreet love letters and visits to her lover.
Emma plans to elope with Rodolphe, but he has no intention of marrying her. He dumps her, ending the relationship with a dear john letter enclosed in a basket of apricots. Her romantic fantasy world suddenly shattered, Emma falls severely ill.
After recovering her health, Emma seeks happiness in material possessions. The crafty merchant Monsieur Lheureux manipulates Emma into buying lots of luxury items from him on credit, and she quickly accrues a crushing amount of debt.
Lheureux arranges for Emma to get power of attorney over her husband's estate, then calls in her debt. Desperate for money, she tries prostituting herself to Rodolphe Boulanger. When that fails, she swallows arsenic. The romance of suicide even fails her; she dies an agonizing death.
As a writer, Flaubert's prose combined romanticism with realism. A perfectionist, he strictly avoided cliches and determined to find le mot juste - the right word. He worked in solitude and could spend a whole week writing and rewriting a single page.
With the publication of Madame Bovary, scandal would follow Flaubert for most of his life, but he continued to write great novels. Salammbô (1862) was a historical novel set in 3rd century Carthage amid the Mercenary Revolt, which took place shortly after the First Punic War broke out.
At the time Flaubert wrote his novel, this was a rarely studied period in history. The author went to Carthage to do his research; his primary source was book one of The Histories by the legendary ancient Greek historian Polybius.
Salammbô proved to be a masterpiece that restored the reputation of Flaubert as one of France's greatest writers. He had been denounced by the conservative establishment and the Church as a mere pornographer.
Gustave Flaubert's last great novel, Sentimental Education (1869) was set amid the French revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second French Empire - the regime of Napoleon III, which would rule from 1852 to 1870 - as seen through the eyes of a young man named Frederic Moreau.
Flaubert died of a stroke in 1880 at the age of 58.
Quote Of The Day
"Writing is a dog's life, but the only life worth living." - Gustave Flaubert
Today's video features a complete reading of Gustave Flaubert's classic short story, A Simple Heart. Enjoy!
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On December 11th, 1918, the famous Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Stavropol Krai, in the North Caucasian region of Russia.
Shortly after his mother Taisia discovered that she was pregnant with him, his father Isaakiy, an Army officer and World War I veteran, was killed in a hunting accident.
With his father dead, Alexander was raised by his mother and aunt. Poor but educated, his mother encouraged his interests in literature and science and brought him up in her extremely devout Russian Orthodox faith.
He began writing in 1936, at the age of eighteen. He also studied mathematics at Rostov State University and took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History.
In April of 1940, while at university, Solzhenitsyn married his classmate, Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya, a chemistry major. They would divorce in 1952, remarry in 1957, then divorce again in 1972.
The following year, he married his second wife, mathematician Natalia Dmitrievna Svetlova, who was 21 years younger. She would bear him three sons.
During World War II, Solzhenitsyn served in the Red Army as commander of a sound-ranging battery, saw major action at the front, and was decorated twice.
His early, unfinished novel Love The Revolution! chronicled his wartime experiences and his growing disillusionment with the Soviet regime.
Around this time, in February of 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for making derogatory comments about the regime in general and Josef Stalin in particular - comments included in letters to his friend, Nikolai Vitkevich.
(At the time, it was a common practice for Soviet authorities to read citizens' private mail in search of subversive statements.)
Accused of distributing anti-Soviet propaganda, Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was beaten and interrogated. On July 7th, 1945, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a brutal gulag - a Soviet labor camp.
He served his time at several different work camps, including one in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, where his experiences would form the basis for his first published book, a novella that would bring him international fame.
One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (1962) told the story of the title character, an innocent Russian soldier and prisoner of war who, after returning home, finds himself arrested by Soviet authorities and charged with being a spy.
He is sent to a work camp in the Soviet gulag system - a brutally cold, filthy, and degrading labor camp designed to dehumanize the prisoners. Ivan Denisovich's spirit can't be broken.
He makes friends with his fellow inmates and they all try to survive the inhumane conditions as best they can. When Denisovich falls ill, he is forced to continue working.
While serving his time in Ekibastuz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself fell ill and had a tumor removed, although the doctors failed to diagnose his cancer. In 1953, after he finished serving his sentence, he was exiled for life in Kazakhstan, a common fate for political prisoners.
Solzhenitsyn's cancer spread. Close to death, he was allowed to be treated at a hospital in Tashkent. The treatments worked and his cancer went into remission. He would base his 1967 novel, Cancer Ward, on his experiences fighting the disease.
After Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous Secret Speech in 1956, where he denounced the crimes of the Stalin regime in an attempt to bring the Soviet Union out of the dark ages and closer to Lenin's original vision, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was exonerated and freed from exile.
He returned to Russia, where he taught school during the day and wrote at night. He kept his writings a secret, but somehow, while he was working on his next book, the KGB found out that he was a writer.
The manuscript he'd been working on - his famous nonfiction expose, The Gulag Archipelago - wouldn't be published until 1973, and not officially in the Soviet Union until 1989.
In 1962, Solzhenitsyn approached Alexander Tvardovsky, poet and editor-in-chief of the Noviy Mir magazine, with his final draft of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.
Amazingly, the novella was published in an edited form with the explicit approval of Soviet Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, who publicly defended it at a Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication.
In his defense of the book, Khrushchev famously declared, "There is a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil."
Solzhenitsyn's novella became a huge hit throughout Russia. It was studied in Soviet schools. It also became a hit around the world, bringing the Soviet gulag system to the attention of the West.
Unfortunately, two years later, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power, and books exposing the horrors of Stalinism began to disappear. In 1965, the KGB confiscated most of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's papers and manuscripts.
The manuscript for his nonfiction book The Gulag Archipelago was spared, hidden from the KGB by Solzhenitsyn's friends in Estonia. They helped him finish typing it up.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He couldn't go to Stockholm to receive it, for fear of not being allowed back in the Soviet Union. A compromise was proposed.
The deal was that Solzhenitsyn would receive his prize at a ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow, but the Swedish government rejected the proposal, fearing that the ensuing media coverage would damage its relations with the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West in 1973. Not long afterward, the KGB found a copy of the first part of the manuscript. On Februrary 12th, 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested. He would be deported to Frankfurt, West Germany, and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.
A few days later, the legendary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. U.S. military attache William Odom managed to smuggle most of Solzhenitsyn's archive out of Russia.
Solzhenitsyn lived in Cologne and Zurich, Switzerland, before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States. He lived in the Hoover Tower, then settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976.
In 1978, Harvard University awarded him an honorary literary degree, and he delivered the commencement address - where he condemned materialism in modern Western culture. He began work on The Red Wheel, a cycle of novels set amidst the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In the 1980s, Solzhenitsyn found himself becoming a media star, the darling of the right and a hero to the Reagan administration, which had whipped up anti-communist hysteria and paranoia to levels not seen since the 1950s.
Liberals and secularists criticized Solzhenitsyn for his strong support of the Vietnam War, his reactionary patriotism, and his devout espousal of Russian Orthodox Christianity, which was tinged with anti-Semitism.
His two volume essay on Russian-Jewish relations, Two Hundred Years Together, was denounced as anti-Semitic. He had also vocally opposed allowing foreign Catholic and Protestant clergy into Russia in order to protect the country's Russian Orthodox Christian identity.
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn's Russian citizenship was restored. Four years later, having tired of the West, he and his wife moved to Troitse-Lykovo, West Moscow, where he lived until his death in 2008 at the age of 89.
On the first anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's death, in an interview on Radio Liberty, Russian dissident writer Vladimir Voynovich confirmed that Solzhenitsyn had been a lifelong, virulent anti-Semite.
Solzhenitsyn kept his anti-Semitism a closely guarded secret because he knew that it would prevent him from receiving the Nobel Prize. His notorious essay, Two Hundred Years Together, would not be published until 2001.
Quote Of The Day
"Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time of threatening moral and social dangers - such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a facade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its public works are used as wastepaper instead of being read." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Today's video features the 1970 British film adaptation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's classic novella, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Enjoy!
Monday, December 10, 2018
My flash fiction piece, "War of Water," was published in Still Life, a collection of stories published in 2018 by Scars Publications. The story was originally in the online magazine Children, Churches, and Daddies. The collection is available for purchase on Amazon.
My short story "Thursday Nights with Edgar" appears in the December issue of Foliate Oak Literary Magazine (University of Arkansas at Monticello). Written long before I joined the Fiction List, I once wrote this story off as unpublishable because song lyrics were central the plot.
Recently I tried revising it - merely mentioning the song title and alluding to the lyrics - and I guess this proves it worked. It's a tragic story and has one of my least likeable characters, but you'll probably end up humming the song by the end (and hating me for it).
Friday, December 7, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On December 7th, 1873, the famous American writer Willa Cather was born. The oldest of seven children, she was born Wilella Sibert Cather in Gore, Virginia.
When Willa was nine years old, her father moved the family to Nebraska, where he tried his hand first at farming, then at the real estate and insurance business.
The young Willa fell in love with the landscape and weather of the frontier. She also became interested in the cultures of the immigrant and Native American families who lived in the area. All of this would inspire her as a writer.
When Willa enrolled at the University of Nebraska, she chose science for her major, as she had initially planned to become a doctor. Then, during her freshman year, her first published work appeared.
An essay she'd written about Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle was published by the Nebraska State Journal. Willa became a regular contributor to the Journal and changed her major to English, determined to become a writer.
After graduating with a degree in English, Willa Cather moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to take a job writing for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine.
From there, she became a drama critic and telegraph editor for the Pittsburgh Leader. She also taught high school English, Latin, and algebra. At the Allegheny High School, she became the head of the English department.
In 1906, at the age of 33, Willa moved to New York City to work as an editor for McClure's Magazine, a hugely popular liberal magazine that was famous for its muckraking exposes of corporate crimes and abuses.
In addition to her editing duties, her fiction was published alongside that of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Willa also co-authored the biography Mary Baker Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science which was published in a serialized format by McClure's in fourteen installments over an eighteen month period. It would later be republished in book form.
After several years working at her hectic editing position, Willa found her own writing output slowing to a crawl. So she bounced back and wrote her first novel.
Alexander's Bridge 1912, first published in a serialized format by McClure's, received great reviews from The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly.
Alexander's Bridge was way ahead of its time in its depiction of a man suffering from mid-life crisis. The middle-aged, married Bartley Alexander, a construction engineer famous for the bridges he's built, finds himself drawn into an affair with an old flame, Hilda Burgoyne.
Torn between two loves and tormented, Alexander's life literally comes crashing down around him when he is summoned to Canada to inspect his newest bridge, which is in danger of collapsing.
Willa Cather followed her memorable debut novel with her classic Prairie Trilogy - O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918).
O Pioneers! told the story of a Swedish immigrant farm family in Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century. In The Song of the Lark, the young heroine Thea Kronborg leaves her Colorado hometown, determined to become an opera star.
My Antonia, the third and most famous novel in the trilogy, chronicles the life of Antonia "Tony" Shimerda, a young Bohemian girl living in the small town of Black Hawk, Nebraska.
The novel, which incorporates several previously written short stories, is divided into five "books" and narrated by Jim Burden, a successful lawyer.
Antonia was his childhood sweetheart and remains his lifelong friend, though she marries another man and Jim has an affair with another childhood friend, Lena Lingard.
In 1922, Willa published the novel that would win her a Pulitzer Prize. One of Ours is a tale of existential angst set in Nebraska around the time of the first World War.
Claude Wheeler, the son of a successful farmer, is attending a Christian college, which he absolutely hates. He pleads with his parents to let him enroll at the state university in order to get a better education. They refuse.
Struggling to find meaning in his life, Claude strikes up a friendship with the Erlichs, a family who introduces him to classical music and progressive free thinking.
Unfortunately, Claude has the rug pulled out from under him when his father expands the family farm and orders him home to help work it. Pinned to the farm like a mounted butterfly, Claude grows bored and listless.
Finding no fulfillment in farm work, he marries Enid Royce, a childhood friend, but soon realizes that she cares more about her activism and Christian missionary work than him.
Enid ultimately leaves him and goes to China to care for her sister, a fellow missionary who has fallen ill. Devastated and disillusioned, the only thing that Claude has to take his mind off his miserable life is news of the war.
A world war has broken out in Europe, and Claude's entire family is obsessed with the conflict. When the United States enters the war in 1917, he volunteers for military service.
Ironically, despite the hardships and horrors of war, Claude finally finds meaning in his new life as a soldier. Despite all his new responsibilities and all the orders he must follow, he has never felt so free.
The idealist without an ideal to cling to now has something to fight for in the hellish trenches of France, as his regiment engages an overwhelming German force in a ferocious battle.
Willa Cather established herself as one of the best American writers of the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, her work fell out of favor as the American landscape made a dramatic shift from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression.
Discouraged by criticism that her work had become irrelevant, her later writing output slowed to a crawl and she became a recluse. She died of a stroke in 1947 at the age of 73.
Quote Of The Day
"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." - Willa Cather
Today's video features a complete reading of Willa Cather's classic, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, One of Ours. Enjoy!
Thursday, December 6, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On December 6th, 1933, a federal judge ruled that Ulysses, the classic epic novel by legendary Irish writer James Joyce, was not legally obscene.
The novel, first published in a serialized format in the American literary magazine The Little Review in 1918, had been banned in the United States for over ten years.
In 1920, when the magazine published the novel's thirteenth episode, Nausicaä, a moralist group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) objected to the content and determined to keep Ulysses from being published in America in any format.
The NYSSV was founded in 1873 by the notorious Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. (Yes, that YMCA.) Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector.
The same year that he founded the NYSSV, he persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail.
The passage of the Comstock Act resulted in the enacting of "Comstock Laws" at the state and federal level. The last of these laws wouldn't be struck down by the Supreme Court until 1965.
The Comstock Act was a nightmare. His definition of obscenity was so vague that he even used the law and his power as a Postal Inspector to block the shipment of certain medical textbooks to medical students.
Comstock had copies of George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession blocked, calling Shaw "an Irish smut dealer." The furious playwright remarked:
Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.
Although Comstock enjoyed a public reputation as a devout Christian guardian of morality, privately, he was corrupt - and notoriously so.
As a moralist, he destroyed the lives of many innocent people. He proudly admitted to being responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.
In his later years, his health began deteriorating, the result of a severe blow to the head from an unknown attacker. Before he died in 1915, Comstock attracted the attention of an admirer.
The young man was a law student named J. Edgar Hoover. He agreed with Comstock's beliefs and was interested in his methods of investigation, prosecution, and conviction.
Unfortunately, Comstock's NYSSV was successful in its prosecution of The Little Review for publishing the offending episode from Ulysses.
At the first trial in 1921, the literary magazine was ruled legally obscene, and as a result, Ulysses was banned in the United States.
The ruling was a product of its time. The Nausicaä episode contained a scene which must have been shocking to 1920s sensibilities. Leopold Bloom, one of the main characters, meets a girl named Gerty MacDowell at the beach.
Gertie has come to watch a fireworks display. She soon notices Bloom staring at her. Her passion stirred by both him and the fireworks, Gerty deliberately exposes herself to Bloom. He becomes aroused and starts to masturbate, which arouses her in return.
They both reach orgasm as a Roman candle explodes overhead, gushing out "a stream of rain gold hair threads." Afterward, Gerty leaves and reveals herself to be lame, leaving Bloom to contemplate on the beach.
With Joyce's playful punning, the erotic scene becomes a parody of the Catholic Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament ceremony, with Bloom acting out his own version of an Adoration.
In this scathing parody, Gerty's body serves as the body of Christ. The revelation of her lameness is Joyce's biting metaphor for the Catholic Church. At the time, such satirical jabs at the Church or religion in general could easily spark a roaring fire of outrage.
The trial that resulted in Ulysses being banned in the United States drew a huge amount of publicity. As a result, pirated editions of the novel were published.
These illegal editions were sold on the black market or under the counter in bookshops. They made the novel a bestseller, but Joyce and his publisher didn't earn a penny from the sales of the pirated books.
In 1933, after twelve years of frustration, Joyce's official U.S. publisher, Random House, decided to set up a test case. They imported an uncensored French edition of Ulysses and had Customs confiscate a copy after the ship was unloaded.
That year, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses came to trial. On December 6th, 1933, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not legally obscene.
A furious NYSSV appealed the decision. The case reached the United States Second Court of Appeal, which affirmed it on August 7th, 1934.
Ulysses was finally published uncensored in the United States. Most of these editions - including the one that I have - feature the text of the Woolsey ruling as part of the forward.
Woolsey had ruled that Ulysses was not pornographic because it contained no "dirt for dirt's sake." Also, the novel was so hard to understand that people would be unlikely to read it for the purpose of titillation.
British literary scholar and translator Stuart Gilbert wrote that Woolsey's ruling was "epoch-making." He was right. The ruling made it much harder for would-be censors to get written works declared legally obscene.
Also, the ruling made it practically impossible for an entire novel to be declared legally obscene because of a few allegedly offending lines or passages contained within it.
Quote Of The Day
“[A writer is] a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” - James Joyce
Today's video features nonfiction writer Kevin Birmingham discussing his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses on the American radio show The Avid Reader. Enjoy!