This Day In Literary History
On November 12th, 1945, the famous American nonfiction writer and journalist Tracy Kidder was born in New York City. After graduating from Phillips Academy prep school in 1963, Kidder enrolled at Harvard, where he initially majored in political science.
He switched his major to English after taking a creative writing course taught by poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald. After graduating from Harvard in 1967, Tracy Kidder served for two years in Vietnam as a first lieutenant for Military Intelligence.
When his tour of duty was up, he returned to the U.S. and began a writing career, eventually enrolling in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master's degree.
While studying at the University of Iowa, Kidder wrote his first nonfiction book. Commissioned by Atlantic Monthly magazine, The Road To Yuba City (1974) was a straightforward, non-judgmental chronicle of the sensational Juan Corona serial murder trial in Yuba City, California.
Corona, a farm labor contractor, was accused of preying on poor migrant farm workers, savagely murdering twenty-five of them by various methods including shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning. Corona was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 25 consecutive life sentences.
In researching his book, Tracy Kidder rode along on trains packed with migrant farm workers, experiencing their living and working conditions firsthand. During the trial, he interviewed the victims' families and examined all facets of the case.
In doing so, he exposed incredible incompetence in both the prosecution and the defense, leaving the impression that the whole trial was horribly botched. To this day, some believe that Juan Corona was wrongfully convicted.
Unfortunately, The Road To Yuba City proved to be a critical and commercial failure. Kidder disowned it, explaining in a 1995 interview:
I can't say anything intelligent about that book, except that I learned never to write about a murder case. The whole experience was disgusting, so disgusting, in fact, that in 1981 I went to Doubleday and bought back the rights to the book.
"I don't want The Road to Yuba City to see the light of day again," Kidder vowed, and it hasn't. Today, copies are extremely hard to find and go for around $100 on eBay.
Tracy Kidder's next nonfiction book, however, proved to be a huge success in many ways. The Soul Of A New Machine (1981) chronicled a turf war between teams of computer designers within Data General Corporation, which was a top minicomputer vendor in the 1970s.
The engineers are presented with a daunting challenge: in order to compete with the new VAX minicomputer of rival company Digital Equipment Corporation, they must design a new 32-bit minicomputer in one year.
Kidder's book takes a seemingly dry subject and turns it into a riveting suspense thriller, following the engineers as they face hectic schedules (including marathon 24-hour work sessions) and tremendous pressure to complete their task.
The Soul Of A New Machine became a big hit with both critics and readers, and is considered a classic work of journalism. It won Kidder a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1982.
Tracy Kidder continued to write great nonfiction books. House (1985) follows a team of home builders as they struggle to build a family's home on time, within their budget, and to their clients' satisfaction. The book follows the construction of the house from the drawing of the blueprints to the day that the family moves in.
Among Schoolchildren (1989) follows dedicated, compassionate inner-city elementary school teacher Chris Zajac through an entire school year as she struggles to provide a decent education to her poor, neglected, mostly Hispanic students in a riveting and brutally honest look at what it really means to be a teacher.
Old Friends (1994) follows Lou and Joe, roommates at a nursing home in Northampton, Massachusetts. In Home Town, (2000), Kidder's subject is the town of Northampton itself, as he tells the stories of several of its colorful residents.
Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003) is a biography of the noted physician and anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer and a narrative about the struggles he faces as he tries to provide health care to the poor in third world countries.
In 2005, Kidder wrote My Detachment: A Memoir - an account of his experiences in the Vietnam War, from eager enlistee (and former ROTC cadet) to disillusioned veteran, as he comes to understand the absurdity and immorality of the war he volunteered to fight in. The book is reminiscent of classic antiwar satires such as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H.
Kidder's 2009 book, Strength In What Remains, follows the journey of Deogratias, a young African man from Burundi who in 1994 fled his country's bloody, genocidal civil war and settled in New York City. He was nearly broke and barely able to speak English.
Deogratias delivered groceries for slave wages by day and slept in Central Park at night. Driven by ambition and determination, he worked his way through medical school and became a doctor, then an American citizen. Kidder follows him as he returns to Burundi to build a medical clinic for his poor countrymen.
Tracy Kidder has proven himself to be one of the best contemporary writers of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Truck Full Of Money was published in 2016. It's a biography of software entrepreneur Paul English.
English, a brilliant software developer, created the famous travel website Kayak in 2004, which was acquired by Priceline in 2012 for nearly two billion dollars. He would later create the online corporate travel service Lola.
While becoming hugely successful in online software development, English suffered from bipolar disorder. After the sale of Kayak made him a billionaire, he became a devoted philanthropist.
Quote Of The Day
"I think that the nonfiction writer's fundamental job is to make what is true believable." - Tracy Kidder
Today's video features Tracy Kidder and the subject of his most recent book, Paul English, on Talks at Google discussing the book. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Monday, November 11, 2019
My debut novel, You Wish, has won first-place, gold in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards. Also, my short story, "Mrs. Hubble's Penance," has been accepted by Fabula Argentea and will be published on December 29th.
My flash, Dead Flowers is up at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.
My story, Twenty-Seven Boxes, is up at Anti-Heroin Chic in their Grief & Loss issue.
Neither one of these stories is cheerful, but... yahoos are cheerful. Thanks to my Fiction pals for helping me to get these two pieces submission worthy.
Friday, November 8, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On November 8th, 1602, the world famous Bodleian Library, located at Oxford University in England, was opened to the public. Although one of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian Library was not the first library that existed at Oxford.
The first library at Oxford was founded in the 14th century by Thomas Cobham, the Bishop of Worcester. It began as a small collection of books that were chained to prevent theft. The collection grew steadily, but modestly.
Then, around 1436, Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, (brother of King Henry V) donated a huge collection of manuscripts to the library.
There wasn't nearly enough room to store these manuscripts at the library's current location, above the north side of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. So, construction of a new library began.
The new library, located above the Divinity School, became known as Duke Humfrey's Library. By the late 16th century, the library had declined so dramatically that its furniture was being sold off due to lack of interest.
In 1598, Sir Thomas Bodley, a wealthy retired nobleman known for his work as a diplomat, determined to restore and expand the Oxford library as a much needed antidote to "the mediocrity of worldly living." He wrote the following to Oxford's Vice Chancellor:
"Where there hath bin hertofore a publike library in Oxford: which you know is apparent by the rome it self remayning, and by your statute records I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to his former use."
Bodley pledged his own money and collected donations from his fellow nobles to finance the library project. He also donated a collection of his own books.
The new library, which took four years to build, was renamed the Bodleian Library. It was opened to the public in November of 1602.
A huge hit with students, the aristocracy, the royal family, and the general British public, the Bodleian Library's collection began to grow rapidly.
When Sir Francis Bacon donated a copy of his classic work Advancement of Learning to the library, he praised Bodley for "having built an ark to save learning from the deluge."
Bodley spent his remaining years acquiring manuscripts from around the world for his library. In 1603, he acquired the library's first Chinese language book.
In 1610, Bodley made a deal with Stationers' Company - England's largest publisher - to place a copy of every one of its volumes in the library.
The Bodleian Library's collection grew so quickly that its building needed to be expanded. Eventually, new buildings were constructed as part of the library's complex.
Although Bodley wouldn't live to see it - he died in 1613 - the Bodleian Library would ultimately become the United Kingdom's second largest library.
Today, the Bodleian Library boasts an incredible collection of over 11 million items, including books, periodicals, maps, sound and music recordings, drawings and prints, and rare handwritten manuscripts such as Shakespeare's First Folios.
Sir Thomas Bodley would have been angered by the Bodleian Library's Shakespeare holdings; he had originally banned play scripts from his library as "very unworthy matters." This and other policies would change over time.
One of the biggest changes in library policy occurred recently, as patrons are now allowed to photocopy or digitally scan library materials.
The library itself, working with the Oxford Digital Library, had already archived most of its pre-1801 holdings on microfilm and continues to digitize its collection.
The fantastic architecture of the Bodleian Library complex has made it an ideal location for filming. It served as the set for the library at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two Harry Potter films.
Sir Thomas Bodley would have been horrified. He was an extremely devout Christian and banned all occult books and manuscripts from his library. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the co-founder of Oxford's first library, wouldn't have been thrilled, either.
Humphrey was accused of witchcraft and hanged. His wife Eleanor was exiled to the Isle of Man - after being forced to march in a humiliating "parade of penance." Shakespeare depicted these events in his classic play, Henry VI, Part 2.
Quote Of The Day
"No university in the world has ever risen to greatness without a correspondingly great library. When this is no longer true, then will our civilization have come to an end." - Lawrence Clark Powell
Today's video features a presentation on one of the Bodleian Library's great treasures - a rare medieval manuscript of Dante's classic epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 7, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On November 7th, 1913, the legendary French writer, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus was born in El Taref, Algeria. Throughout his life, Algeria was a French colony, and what he saw of colonial life was reflected in his writings and philosophy.
Camus never knew his father Lucien, who died when he was a year old. Lucien was killed in the Battle of the Marne during World War I. Albert and his mother, who was Spanish and half-deaf, lived in poverty in the Belcourt section of Algiers.
While studying at the University of Algiers, Camus excelled at both academics and soccer. His career as a star goalkeeper was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis. The disease would come and go over the years.
After graduating from university, Camus joined the French Communist Party. He was not a hardcore communist, and when he became involved with the Algerian People's Party, the Soviet Union denounced him as a Trotskyite and had the French Communist Party expel him.
The Algerian People's Party was a socialist party led by prominent Algerian nationalist Messali Hadji - one of many leftist parties that had formed a coalition centered around Algerian independence from French rule.
The fragile coalition would break apart due to infighting; the Soviet Union was determined to see a communist Algeria under its control, but the parties not allied with the Soviets were calling for a fully independent Algeria.
After being expelled by the French Communist Party, Albert Camus would associate himself with the French anarchist movement. He began a career in journalism and wrote for socialist newspapers. Meanwhile, the looming threat of Hitler increased.
Camus went to France and tried to enlist in the military but was disqualified because of his recurring tuberculosis. During the Nazi occupation of France, he joined the French Resistance.
The French Resistance cell Camus joined was called Combat, and he served as the editor-in-chief of its underground newspaper of the same name, writing under the pseudonym Beauchard.
When the Allies liberated France, Camus was there to witness and report on the defeat of the Nazis. Later, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he was one of the few French newspaper editors to speak out against the bombing and express disgust.
It was during the Nazi occupation of France that Albert Camus would publish his first novel. The Stranger (1942) was a classic work of existentialist philosophical fiction.
Meursault, a young Algerian, drifts aimlessly through the tumultuous French Algerian landscape. Unable to feel for anyone including himself, he attends his mother's funeral, meets a girl, becomes entangled in the life of a local pimp, and ends up inexplicably killing a man.
Arrested, jailed, and put through an absurd trial, Meursault's defense is obviously a deficiency of character - the product of his environment. In telling his story, Camus explores the paradox of existentialism - the search for meaning in a meaningless world.
A year after The Stranger was published, Camus met the legendary French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at the dress rehearsal of Sartre's play, The Flies. The two men became close friends. Camus referred to Sartre as his "study partner."
In 1947, Camus published his second novel, The Plague. Although set in the 1940s, this classic novel was inspired by an epidemic of cholera that ravaged the population of the Algerian city of Oran in 1849 - right after France colonized Algeria.
In the novel, the streets of modern Oran become infested with rats carrying the plague. The rats start dying en masse, but not before transmitting the disease to the human population.
Dr. Bernard Rieux, a wealthy physician, is the first to recognize that a plague is spreading. He alerts the authorities, who waste time quibbling over what action to take. Rieux opens a plague ward in the town hospital, and its 80 beds are filled in three days.
As the city struggles to contain the plague, the authorities are left with no option but to seal the city to keep the plague from ravaging all of Algeria. One man tries to get criminals to smuggle him out of the city.
Dr. Rieux teams up with civil servant Joseph Grand and tourist Jean Tarrou to treat all the incoming plague cases. Meanwhile, Father Paneloux, an ambitious Catholic priest, declares that the plague is an act of God unleashed to punish the citizens for their sins.
The desperate people of Oran flock to the Church in droves and a new plague begins to ravage the city - the plague of religion. When Father Paneloux witnesses firsthand the efforts to contain the rat plague and the horrors that the disease causes, the priest has a change of heart.
In the 1950s, Camus devoted his life to human rights causes. He worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but resigned when the UN decided to recognize Spain's fascist dictatorship under General Franco.
When the Algerian War broke out in 1954, Camus found himself at a political crossroad. He was in favor of Algerian independence, but opposed the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) freedom fighters - Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas backed by the Soviet Union.
As the vicious FLN guerrillas fought the equally vicious French colonial army, Camus feared for the lives of the innocent Algerian and French citizens caught in the crossfire. He ultimately sided with the French, alienating himself from his friends, including Jean-Paul Sartre.
Undaunted by the criticism, Camus worked behind the scenes to save the lives of imprisoned Algerians who had been sentenced to death by the French colonial government. He was a vocal opponent of capital punishment, a position he expressed in his classic essay, Reflections on the Guillotine.
In 1956, The Fall, Camus' last novel published during his lifetime, was released. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition to his novels, he wrote plays, short stories, essays, and works of nonfiction.
Four years later, on January 4th, 1960, Albert Camus was riding in a car driven by his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard, when they were both killed in an accident. Camus had originally intended to travel by train with his wife and twin daughters, but decided to ride with Gallimard instead. He was 46 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself." - Albert Camus
Today's video features the full length documentary Albert Camus - The Madness of Sincerity. Enjoy!
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On November 6th, 1921, the famous American writer James Jones was born in Robinson, Illinois. In 1939, at the age of eighteen, Jones enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, at Schofield Barracks.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which he witnessed) that led his country into World War II, Jones was stationed on Guadalcanal island, where he was wounded in action.
After the war, Jones wrote an autobiographical novel called They Shall Inherit The Laughter, but getting it published proved unsuccessful - it was rejected several times as being too shrill and lacking perspective.
So, Jones abandoned it and began writing what would become his first published novel, an 850+ page epic novel based on his experiences in the Army before and during the war.
From Here To Eternity (1951) was considered a landmark novel for its expose of the dark side of life as a soldier in the U.S. military. The book chronicles the Army's violent subculture of company boxing, its hazing rituals, and the profane language and sexual exploits of its soldiers.
It proved to be quite a shocker, offending both the Army and conservative readers. Nevertheless, it became a best seller. Critics savaged the novel over its frequently misspelled words and numerous punctuation errors.
They didn't realize that the mistakes were deliberate and part of a writing style conceived by the author for this particular book, which won the 1952 National Book Award and has been named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century by the Modern Library.
The novel opens in the summer of 1941, at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, months before the Pearl Harbor attack. It follows several soldiers in G Company. First Sergeant Milt Warden begins a passionate affair with Karen Holmes, the neglected wife of Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes.
Meanwhile, in the conflict at the heart of the novel, Private Robert E. Lee "Prew" Prewitt, an infantryman from Kentucky, refuses to fight on the G Company team, although he's the best boxer. That's because in his last fight, he ended up blinding his opponent.
Prew's refusal to fight angers his superiors, (Warden and Holmes) who put him through the Treatment in order to break his will. The Treatment is a daily hazing ritual of brutal physical and psychological torture.
Prew grew up dirt poor and joined the military not out of patriotism, but because it was the only honest way out of poverty. An aspiring career soldier, he understands the motive behind the Treatment and won't allow it to break his will. Prew has a love interest - Lorene, a prostitute who helps him when he gets into trouble.
Trouble comes in the form of Old Ike, a sergeant with whom Prew gets into a scuffle. He's sentenced to the stockade, where he must break rocks with a sledgehammer. He must also endure solitary confinement in the "hole" and physical abuse at the hands of the sadistic guards.
When one of the guards beats another inmate to death, Prew vows revenge, which leads to his downfall. The man who once lived for the Army is destroyed by it. In 1953, From Here To Eternity was adapted as a highly acclaimed feature film, directed by Fred Zinnemann.
Due to the novel's length and wealth of objectionable elements (Hollywood's stifling Production Code was still in effect) many wondered if it could be adapted for the screen.
It took over a year to write a suitable screenplay that remained (mostly) faithful to the novel, while at the same time, taming the objectionable elements. Finally, screenwriter Daniel Taradash completed a workable script.
Taradash decided that most of the novel's brutality would be better communicated through suggestion. Instead of sending Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) to the military stockade, run by the sadistic Sgt. "Fatso" Judson, (Ernest Borgnine) the screenplay sends his friend, Maggio (Frank Sinatra), instead.
This left Prewitt alive for a heroic and happy ending, where he kills Judson to avenge Maggio's death. Since producer Buddy Adler needed the permission of the Army to do location shooting at the actual Schofield Barracks, he and Taradash agreed to make two major changes to the story.
Instead of being promoted as he was in the novel, Captain Holmes, (Philip Ober) who ordered Prewitt to get the Treatment, is cashiered and condemned by his outraged superiors. A long standing animosity is used to explain Judson's torture of Maggio; in the novel, torture is standard procedure.
Taradash's screenplay had already cleaned up the soldiers' language, so only one more element needed to be changed for PCA (Production Code Administration) head censor Joe Breen to pass the film: the New Congress Club brothel was changed into a social club for soldiers, a sort of low rent USO instead of a house of prostitution.
In the movie, when one of the girls explains to Prewitt that the "privileges" of Club members are "dancing, snack bar, soft drink bar, and gentlemanly relaxation with the opposite gender so long as they are gentlemen, and no liquor is permitted. Get it?" Prewitt slyly replies "I get it," making it appear that a lot more is going on.
As for the adulterous affair between Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), Breen's only victory in censoring it was getting Taradash to push back the start of their sexual relationship so that they appear to have become involved out of love for each other rather than lust.
Breen still demanded that they be punished for their affair, but punishment only comes in the form of a single line of condemnation spoken by Karen when she and Warden end their affair, which seems to have been justified by the buildup of Captain Holmes' bad behavior, including his own infidelity.
Ironically, the famous love scene featuring Karen and Warden wrapped up in each other's arms and kissing passionately on the beach amidst the pounding surf, (which was seen in the film's trailer and print advertising) caused the most moral outrage.
James Jones followed From Here To Eternity with Some Came Running (1957), the story of an Army veteran with literary aspirations and personal problems. Former soldier Dave Hirsh is a cynical alcoholic who finds himself back in his hometown of Parkman, Illinois, after being put on a bus in Chicago while intoxicated.
Also on the bus is Ginny Moorehead, a woman of seemingly loose morals and poor education who is being stalked by her hoodlum ex-boyfriend. Dave doesn't think much of Ginny at first, but eventually, he will see past her flaws and fall in love with her.
He will also be reunited with his embittered older brother, Frank. Frank married well and inherited a successful jewelry business from his wife's father. To Frank, social status is his and his wife's highest priority.
Frank sees his brother as a threat to that, so he tries to make him respectable. Instead, Dave strikes up a friendship with Bama Dillert, a gambler. In 1958, Some Came Running was adapted as a feature film by director Vincente Minnelli.
Featuring Frank Sinatra as Dave Hirsh, Shirley MacLaine as Ginny Moorehead, and Dean Martin as Bama Dillert, the film is rightfully considered a masterpiece. It received five Academy Award nominations. In 1962, James Jones published The Thin Red Line, the second book in a trilogy of military novels that began with From Here To Eternity.
Praised by critics who compared it to Stephen Crane's classic novel The Red Badge Of Courage (1895), The Thin Red Line is a fictional account of the Battle of Mount Austen on Guadalcanal during World War II.
The story focuses on a number of characters and their different, individual reactions to combat, effectively capturing the horrors of the Pacific campaign.
The author presents a chillingly realistic, non-judgmental depiction of battle, where ordinary people experience murder, terror, dread, helplessness, frustration, cruelty, emptiness, and other such elements of war, including war crimes committed by American soldiers against Japanese soldiers.
For example, Japanese corpses are disinterred for fun or to steal their gold teeth, and Japanese prisoners of war are summarily executed. The author places no moral judgment on these acts. They are shown as the natural reactions of American soldiers to their environment. The novel was adapted as a film first in 1964, then remade in 1998.
With money earned from the success of From Here To Eternity, James Jones helped form and fund the Handy Writers' Colony in Marshall Illinois, which was conceived as a Utopian commune where aspiring writers could concentrate on their writing.
Organized by Jones' then girlfriend Lowney Handy, (who was still married at the time) the colony dissolved after a few years due to Handy's erratic behavior and Jones' focus on his own novels. He married his wife, Gloria Mosolino, and relocated to Paris.
James Jones continued to write novels. His last book, Whistle, was the third novel in his military trilogy. He was dying of a heart condition while he wrote it. Jones died of congestive heart failure on May 9th, 1977, at the age of 55.
He had died before completing the last three chapters of Whistle, but left extensive notes and recorded conversations, enabling his friend, writer Willie Morris (best known for his autobiography My Dog Skip) to complete the novel.
Whistle is about four wounded American soldiers in the South Pacific who are taken by hospital ship to a veteran's hospital in the fictional town of Luxor, Tennessee.
Before he began writing it, Jones said that he expected that the novel would say "Just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us."
Quote Of The Day
"There are so many young guys, you know - young Americans, and yes, young men everywhere - a whole generation of people younger than me who have grown up feeling inadequate as men because they haven't been able to fight in a war and find out whether they are brave or not. Because it is in an effort to prove this bravery that we fight - in wars or in bars - whereas if a man were truly brave, he wouldn't have to be always proving it to himself. So therefore, I am forced to consider bravery suspect, ridiculous, and dangerous. Because if there are enough young men like that who feel strongly enough about it, they can almost bring on a war, even when none of them want it, and are in fact struggling against having one. And as far as modern war is concerned, I am a pacifist. Hell, it isn't even war anymore, as far as that goes. It's an industry, a big business complex." - James Jones
Today's video features a 1967 documentary on James Jones. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 5, 2019
This Day In Literary History
On November 5th, 1943, the famous American playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor Sam Shepard was born. He was born Samuel Shepard Rogers IV in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. His parents were teachers.
After graduating from high school, Sam briefly attended college, then dropped out to join a traveling theater group. In 1963, he was working as a busboy in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
He delved into illicit drugs and for a time became a drummer for the eccentric folk-rock group The Holy Modal Rounders, which were featured in the classic movie, Easy Rider (1969). He avoided the draft for Vietnam by claiming to be a heroin addict.
Shepard returned to the theater, becoming involved with New York's off-Broadway theater scene. Although he acted occasionally, he was primarily interested in writing. His plays were staged at several different off-Broadway venues, mostly at the Theatre Genesis in the East Village.
Richard O'Brien, author and co-star of the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which would be adapted in 1975 as one of the greatest cult classic films of all time, cited Shepard's 1969 science fiction play The Unseen Hand as an influence.
Though Shepard wrote for the stage, he also earned some impressive early screenwriting credits. He ontributed to the screenplays for Robert Frank's indie classic Me And My Brother (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni's classic film, Zabriskie Point (1970).
In the early 1970s, Sam Shepard lived in England for three years, then moved back to the United States, where he settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and became playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, which produced his works.
Some of his notable plays from this period include Geography Of A Horse Dreamer (1974), Suicide In B Flat (1976), and Angel City (1976).
Shepard's 1978 play, Buried Child, won him a Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year and brought him international fame. It was the first time that an off-Broadway play won a Pulitzer Prize.
Buried Child debunks the mythology of the American Dream in its tale of Dodge, the aged, failed patriarch of a dysfunctional Midwestern farm family.
A weak, sardonic alcoholic who is bullied by his wife and children, Dodge represents the archetypal American father's failure to create the environment of "family values" idealized by the American Dream.
Dodge's sons, Tilden and Bradley, are also failures. One is handicapped physically, the other emotionally. They are unable to take over the family farm or care for their parents in their old age.
Never able to make a success of his farm, the now elderly Dodge sits in his living room and decays, his immobility a metaphor for his disappointment and disillusionment. His wife Halie, now in her mid-60s, still worships her late third son Ansel, whom she sees as an All-American hero.
Ansel, a former star basketball player, was found dead in his motel room under suspicious circumstances. Other characters in the play include Reverend Dewis, the family minister - a married man who drinks and carouses with women and once had an affair with Halie.
A subplot finds Shelly, the girlfriend of Tilden's son Vince, (who hates being at his grandparents' house) uncovering the shocking family secret - Vince is the child of an incestuous union between his father and grandmother.
Although Sam Shepard's film career began as a contributing screenwriter, he would turn to acting, debuting as the wealthy farm owner in Terrence Malick's 1978 epic film, Days Of Heaven.
Shepard would follow his debut with a memorable co-starring role in the 1980 movie, Resurrection. It was about a woman, Edna McCauley, (Ellen Burstyn) who miraculously survives the horrific car accident that kills her husband.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Edna soon discovers that she has gained the power to heal herself and others. Her new boyfriend Cal Carpenter, (Shepard) a young hellraiser, begins to believe that Edna is the second coming of Christ.
Cal becomes a born again Christian. Edna fails to see what her survival and healing powers have to do with religion, and this disturbs Cal greatly. His mental state begins to deteriorate to the point that he becomes dangerously unbalanced.
In 1983, Sam Shepard co-starred as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Although he had a fear of flying, he allowed the real Chuck Yeager to take him up in a plane in preparation for the role.
Shepard appeared in memorable supporting roles in numerous films. He was the voice of the narrator in the 2006 live action feature film adaptation of E.B. White's classic children's novel, Charlotte's Web.
He also co-starred in the 2008 prison drama, Felon, which starred Stephen Dorff as a loving family man who finds himself sent to prison for killing a burglar who had broken into his home.
Shepard would return to screenwriting in 1984, co-writing the Wim Wenders film, Paris, Texas. The following year, he wrote and starred in an adaptation of his play, Fool For Love, directed by the great Robert Altman. In 2005, he co-wrote and starred in another Wim Wenders movie, Don't Come Knocking.
Shepard played an aging Western movie star, who, disgusted with his decadent, meaningless life, flees the set of his latest movie on horseback. He hits the road in search of his past and the woman (Jessica Lange) he left behind twenty years ago.
Sam Shepard proved himself to be one of America's best modernist playwrights. He wrote over 45 plays, eleven of which won Obie Awards, and one the Pulitzer Prize. He also earned Tony Award nominations.
In 1986, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which in 1992 awarded him the Gold Medal for Drama. In 1994, he was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame. He taught drama for many years.
His classes in play writing and theater arts were held at various theater workshops, festivals, and universities. During the 1970s, he served as a professor at the University of California, Davis.
Sam Shepard died in 2017 at the age of 73, following a battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His final play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), was written in 2014.
Quote Of The Day
"There are places where writing is acting and acting is writing. I'm not so interested in the divisions. I'm interested in the way things cross over." - Sam Shepard
Today's video features Sam Shepard reading from his work at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2012. Enjoy!
Monday, November 4, 2019
My short story, "Branta Canadensis" has been published in Aji Magazine, and you can download issue #11 for free. A big note of thanks to Pauline, Jacki, Paul, Deepa, Marisa, Keith, Aaron & Hagar who provided very helpful feedback for a much earlier draft of the story entitled "Goose Poop Synthetic Polymers." Three out of four recommended I change the title.