Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Notes For December 11th, 2019


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


Vanguard Video

Today's video features the 1970 British film adaptation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's classic novella, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Notes For December 10th, 2019


This Day In Literary History

On December 10th, 1830, the legendary American poet Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was treasurer of Amherst College; his father, Samuel Dickinson, co-founded the school.

Edward was also a state legislator who served numerous terms of office over a 40-year period. Emily described him as warm and loving, while her mother was cold and distant. Emily had an older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia.

As a child, Emily Dickinson was well-behaved and displayed a gift for music, showing a particular talent for playing the piano. From the age of nine, she studied botany and tended the family garden with her sister.

Emily collected pressed plants, and throughout her lifetime, assembled them in a 66-page leather bound herbarium, which would contain almost 425 specimens.
At the age of ten, Emily, along with her sister, enrolled at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had begun accepting female students two years earlier.

Edward Dickinson bought a new home and moved the family in. Whenever their parents were absent, Emily and her brother Austin would pretend to be Lord and Lady Dickinson, the owners and rulers of the home.

Since she was so distant from her mother, Emily turned to her brother for comfort whenever something befell her. "He was an awful mother," she quipped, "but I liked him better than none."
From a young age, Emily was troubled by the "deepening menace" of death, especially when she lost people close to her.

When she was 14, the death of her second cousin and close friend Sophia Holland from typhus traumatized her. A year later, a religious revival took place in Amherst, with many townspeople becoming born again Christians.

Emily too became one of the faithful, but it didn't last. She ended her church-going a few years later, after which, she wrote a poem opining that "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church - / I keep it, staying at Home."


After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, Emily Dickinson enrolled at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which would later become Mount Holyoke College. She remained at the Seminary for only ten months.

Some say that she had become ill and was homesick, others have suggested that she disliked the teachers and rebelled against the school's evangelical fervor. Whatever the reason, her brother Austin brought her home, where she took over the household, keeping house and cooking for the family.

She enjoyed attending activities and events in town;
at this time, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton became a Dickinson family friend and a mentor to the 18-year-old Emily. He introduced her to the works of William Wordsworth and gifted her with a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first poetry collection.

Newton held Emily in high regard and recognized her talent as a poet, but their relationship was most likely platonic. Sadly, he contracted tuberculosis, and as he lay dying of the disease, he wrote to Emily.

He told her that he would like to live long enough to see her become a literary success. He didn't. Emily would say of Newton, "When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me immortality - but venturing too near himself, he never returned."


A few years later, in 1850, Emily was devastated again by the death of a close friend. Leonard Humphrey, her former principal at Amherst Academy, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at a young age. Emily had other friends, including Susan Gilbert, her best girlfriend, who had been a classmate of hers at Amherst.

Emily would write her over three hundred letters, more than she had written to anyone else. Their friendship was tempestuous, as Susan was often aloof and disagreeable, but she also acted as Emily's muse and literary adviser. She would later marry Emily's brother Austin, but the marriage would not be a happy one.


From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became bedridden, suffering from various chronic illnesses. She demanded that one of her daughters remain with her, so Emily assumed the responsibility.

The strain of having to care for her cold and distant mother and keep up with the household chores took a huge toll on Emily psychologically. She began to withdraw more and more from the outside world, and became a recluse.


When she wasn't caring for her mother or keeping house, Emily wrote poetry and organized her large collection of manuscripts, rewriting, editing, and making clean copies of her poems. Over a seven-year period, from 1858-65, she assembled 40 volumes containing nearly 800 poems.

When Samuel Bowles, owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper, became a friend of the Dickinson family, Emily sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most intense writing.


Around 1872, Otis Phillips Lord, a judge on the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, became an acquaintance of Emily's, and then, her friend. In Lord, she found a soul mate and kindred spirit who possessed similar literary interests and admired her poetry.

After his wife died in 1877, scholars believe that Lord's relationship with Emily became a late-life romance, but this can't be proven because their letters were destroyed.


More deaths of loved ones would traumatize Emily. In 1874, her father died of a stroke. Nearly a year to the day in 1875, her mother suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. The increased demands her care required took a tremendous toll on Emily's mental and physical health.

She continued to write, but stopped organizing her manuscripts. Her mother would live for seven more years. She died in 1882. The following year, Emily lost her favorite nephew, Gilbert, her brother's youngest child, when the boy died of typhus. Judge Lord fell ill and died in March of 1884.


Devastated and drained both mentally and physically, her health began to deteriorate. Emily Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886, at the age of 55. Her doctor listed the cause of death as Bright's disease, now known as chronic nephritis or inflammation of the kidneys.

After Emily's death, her sister Lavinia kept the promise she made and destroyed all of Emily's letters. However, Emily did not request that her poems be destroyed. Although less than a dozen of them had been published during Emily's lifetime, Lavinia was shocked to find that her sister had written nearly 1,800 poems.


When Emily's poems were published anonymously by Samuel Bowles in the Springfield Republican, he had edited them considerably, and she complained that the edits changed the meanings of her poems.

Emily wrote poetry in an experimental style, with unconventional capitalization and punctuation, extensive use of dashes, slant rhyme schemes, and idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery.

Bowles thought her style was too unconventional for Victorian readers. Her work would not be published in its original, unaltered format until 1955, when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson.


Today, Emily Dickinson is rightfully considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, and she remains a major influence on American poetical voice.


Quote Of The Day

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry." - Emily Dickinson


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson. Enjoy!


Monday, December 9, 2019

IWW Members' Publishing Successes



Joanna M. Weston

I've just learned that my poem 'Pulsations of time', has won a Pushcart Prize! It's up at Shot Glass Journal.

Sala Wyman

I have two book reviews up at the Internet Review of Books, Lest We Forget - The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-First Century by Velma Maia Thomas, and The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson.

Eric Petersen

My review of the novel China Girl - Intel 1, Book 6 by Erec Stebbins, has been published by the Internet Review of Books.

Cezarija E. Abartis

My 199 word flash "Medea Imagines" is up at Carmina Magazine. I'm happy to thank the following reviewers: Pauline Micciche, Mark Budman, Aaron Troye-White, Tony Awori, and Eric Petersen.


Friday, December 6, 2019

Notes For December 6th, 2019


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


Vanguard Video

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!

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Notes For December 5th, 2019


This Day In Literary History

On December 5th, 1941, Sea of Cortez, the classic nonfiction book by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published. Subtitled A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, it was co-written by the noted marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts.

The two men had first met in 1930. Steinbeck had always been interested in marine biology; Ricketts, a professional biologist, had a small laboratory in Cannery Row where he prepared specimens of intertidal plant life for sale to universities and other laboratories.

Steinbeck spent many hours with Ricketts in the lab and they greatly enjoyed each other's company. In 1939, Ricketts published Between Pacific Tides, a definitive textbook study of intertidal fauna.

The following year, Steinbeck was in desperate need of escape and relaxation following the controversy surrounding his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) - he had been publicly vilified as a communist propagandist, though he had taken great pains to avoid being labeled as such.

Meanwhile, Ricketts had been planning another specimen collecting trip along the Pacific coast. The two friends decided to go together. Steinbeck hired a sardine fishing boat called the Western Flyer take them down the Pacific coast and into Mexico.

To offset the cost of the trip, Steinbeck and Ricketts decided to write a book together about the expedition. They both kept detailed journals, which they would rework into a book manuscript.

After sailing leisurely and fishing down the Pacific coast, they refueled in San Diego and moved on to Cabo San Lucas. There, they were greeted by Mexican officials and began collecting specimens.

They and the crew of the Western Flyer engaged in frequent battles with the boat's outboard motor, which they nicknamed the Hansen Sea-Cow. Their problems with the motor served as a running gag in the book:

Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.... [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed... when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death... It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.

At La Paz, out of beer and warmly received by the natives, they hit the town and enjoyed the hospitality. They also spent three days collecting specimens. Steinbeck would base his classic novella The Pearl (1947) on his time in La Paz.

On their way to San José Island, Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their crew ended up rowing their boat when the cantankerous Hansen Sea-Cow refused to start. From there, they moved on to Puerto Escondido.

In Puerto Escondido, Steinbeck and Ricketts found their most abundant fauna collecting ground. They also hung out with some new Mexican friends, eating, drinking, and listening to dirty jokes in Spanish.

The six-week expedition would take the men to many other locations around the Baja California peninsula. They would collect over 500 species of intertidal plant life and discover 50 new species of marine life, including three new species of sea anemone.

Dr. Oscar Calgren of the Lund University's Department of Zoology in Sweden named these species Palythoa rickettsii, Isometridium rickettsi, and Phialoba steinbecki after the two men who discovered them.

When Steinbeck and Ricketts got back to Monterey, they began work on their book. After the manuscript was submitted, Steinbeck's editor wanted the title page to state that Steinbeck wrote the book, which included appendices by Ricketts. A furious Steinbeck shot back, "I not only disapprove of your plan — I forbid it!"

He enjoyed writing Sea of Cortez with Ricketts. He liked the challenge of applying his skills as a novelist to writing scientific nonfiction and making it entertaining. The book is part scientific text, part travelogue, and part philosophy.

Steinbeck believed that Sea of Cortez was the best work he'd done, but expected the critics to savage it. He also expected it to be of limited commercial appeal. The reviews were mixed, but mostly favorable.

The book was indeed a commercial failure, but not because of limited appeal. It was published on December 5th, 1941 - two days before the Pearl Harbor attack took place, bringing the United States into World War II. Suddenly, marine biology was the last thing on the public's mind.

The revenues from Sea of Cortez were not nearly enough to allow Ed Ricketts to pay John Steinbeck back for financing their expedition. Steinbeck didn't care. He remained close friends with Ricketts, on whom he based the character of Doc, the good-natured, booze guzzling marine biologist who appears in Cannery Row (1945) and other novels.

In 1948, Ricketts was killed when a train struck his car. Steinbeck was devastated. Three years later, their book was reissued as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The new edition included a biographical preface titled About Ed Ricketts. This time, the book received the commercial success it was due.


Quote Of The Day

"When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate." - John Steinbeck


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a Stanford University symposium of lectures on how John Steinbeck's relationship with the environment was depicted in his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Notes For December 4th, 2019


This Day In Literary History

On December 4th, 1916, the legendary English writer W. Somerset Maugham departed on a ship to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. During the voyage, he became friendly with his fellow passengers.

Two of them, a missionary and a prostitute, would inspire him to write his classic short story, Rain, which would appear in his 1923 short story collection, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands.

Rain, originally titled Miss Thompson, told the story of the downfall of a severely repressed, devoutly religious missionary who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of a young prostitute. He's so repressed that he won't make love to his own wife.

After their boat docks in Samoa, fiery Scottish missionary Reverend Alfred Davidson and his wife find themselves trapped by the island's heavy seasonal rains. They lodge at a seedy rooming house and general store.

To the Davidsons' dismay, the occupant of the room below them turns out to be Sadie Thompson, a fast young American woman who was a passenger on their ship. The Davidsons can hear the sounds of Sadie's phonograph, her laughter, and the sailors that she entertains.

When Reverend Davidson learns that Sadie is a prostitute, he becomes determined to save her soul and make a good Christian woman out of her. But Sadie is a tough cookie and wants none of that.

Davidson becomes Sadie's unwanted "avenging angel." As he tries to save her from sin, his repressed passion threatens to explode. He ends up killing himself, and the story ends with the disturbing implication that he raped Sadie before committing suicide.

The year of its publication, Rain was adapted as a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. A hit on the London stage, it opened in New York the following season, becoming one of Broadway's biggest hits of the 1920s.

In 1927, silent film megastar Gloria Swanson bought the film rights to Rain, determined to play Sadie Thompson. She soon found herself up against Hollywood Production Code Administration head censor Will Hays, who forbade any negative depiction of religion on screen.

Swanson got around Hays by making changes to her original cut of Rain. The missionary Reverend Davidson became Mr. Atkinson, a religious layperson. All she had to do was change the character's name and description on the silent film's title cards.

The name of the picture was changed to Sadie Thompson to avoid any references to Rain. This was done to appease studio bosses who had pledged not to adapt "salacious" books and plays for the screen.

The silent film's title cards had been changed, but Will Hays was so concerned about eliminating all references to Rain that he hired lip readers to screen Sadie Thompson.

They must have been asleep at the switch, because they missed seeing Gloria Swanson mouth the line "You'd yank wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their soul, you psalm singing son of a bitch!"

Sadie Thompson became a huge hit, earning record-setting revenue at the box office, thanks to Swanson's performance in the lead role, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Lionel Barrymore delivered a typically brilliant performance as Atkinson. When the film was restored in 1984, the original title cards were used, and Atkinson became Reverend Alfred Davidson again.

Due to the degradation of the original film elements, the last reel was damaged beyond repair, so the restorers had to use stills and new title cards to prepare an ending for the movie.


Quote Of The Day

"What mean and cruel things men can do for the love of God." - W. Somerset Maugham


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a complete reading of W. Somerset Maugham's classic short story Rain. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Notes For December 3rd, 2019


This Day In Literary History

On December 3rd, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic play by the legendary American playwright Tennesee Williams, opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Williams had written the steamy play while living in an apartment in New Orleans, rewriting the script numerous times and changing the title as well. Early titles of the play included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair on the Moon.

A Streetcar Named Desire told the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading but still attractive Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski, while taking time off from her teaching job after suffering from a nervous disorder.

Actually, she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. On the surface, Blanche may seem like a virtuous, cultured Southern belle, but that's just an act to conceal her alcoholism, mental illness, and delusions of grandeur.

Blanche is also a nymphomaniac, driven to sexual addiction after catching her husband, Allan Gray, having an affair with another man, which resulted in the end of their marriage and Allan's suicide.

Stella, who knows that her sister is a nymphomaniac, is hesitant to let Blanche stay with her, for fear that she'll seduce her husband. Stanley is a brutish, domineering slug who abuses Stella both emotionally and physically, but his beastly nature and animal sexuality are what attracted her to him.

The arrival of Blanche predictably upsets the unhealthy co-dependent relationship of Stella and Stanley. When Blanche sets her sights on Stanley's friend Mitch, Stanley determines to unmask her Southern belle facade. He learns about her past and confronts her.

Finally pushed to the breaking point, Stanley rapes Blanche in a fit of rage, which is alluded to rather than shown explicitly. The attack drives Blanche to a nervous breakdown, and she ends up being committed to a mental institution.

When the kindly doctor takes her away, Blanche utters her famous line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

The original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a 21-year-old newcomer named Marlon Brando as Stanley. The play caused a sensation with its sexual themes and violence.

The play also won Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years after it opened, a feature film adaptation was released. Directed by Elia Kazan, the highly acclaimed movie featured Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden reprising their Broadway roles, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche.

Due to the stifling restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which would remain in effect until the ratings system was adopted in 1968, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire omits, changes, or waters down elements in the play deemed too objectionable for the screen.

By making these sometimes drastic changes, the film could get the PCA (Production Code Administration) Seal of Approval it needed. At least, that's what director Elia Kazan thought he had done. But then the film ran afoul of the notorious Legion of Decency.

During the Production Code era, the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as an unofficial film censorship board. They rated films and expected Catholics to abide by their ratings. If they rated a film Condemned, all Catholics would be forbidden to see the picture under the pain of mortal sin.

Priests were encouraged to loiter in the lobbies of theaters showing condemned films, take down the names of parishioners who failed to heed the Legion's rating, and deny them communion. Priests were also encouraged to organize picket lines at certain films.

In addition to the imposition on Catholics, the Legion also organized national protest rallies to encourage people of all faiths to boycott Condemned films. To avoid a costly boycott, studio bosses would order directors to negotiate cuts with the Legion to get them to drop the Condemned rating.

Despite Elia Kazan's restraint in adapting Tennessee Williams' play, the film was still threatened with a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency. While Kazan was away making his next movie, Warner Brothers canceled the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire.

The studio made several minutes of cuts to the film without his knowledge or consent. The Legion of Decency dropped its Condemned rating, but Kazan was livid. He made one final appeal, asking Warner Brothers if they would release both their censored version and his director's cut of the film.

Kazan wanted audiences to decide for themselves which version to see, but the studio refused, as the Legion of Decency mandated that only their approved version of the film could be released or the Condemned rating would be reinstated.

Elia Kazan's director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire would remain unseen for over forty years, until Warner Brothers finally restored the film in 1993. Several years after Streetcar's original release, Kazan and Tennessee Williams teamed up again.

Their new film, Baby Doll (1956), an adaptation of Williams' classic one-act play, Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton, would prove to be another challenge to the Hollywood Production Code and the Legion of Decency, with its steamy sensuality and dark humor.


Quote Of The Day

"I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." - Tennessee Williams


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a complete live performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. Enjoy!


The Craft of Writing in the Blogosphere

Loading...

News from the World of Writing

Loading...