This Day In Literary History
On November 15th, 1887, the famous American poet Marianne Moore was born in Kirkwood, Missouri. She was born in the living quarters of her grandfather's church. He was a Presbyterian minister.
Marianne's father had walked out on the family before she was born, so she spent her early years living in her grandfather's home. Her grandfather died when she seven, and her mother moved the family to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she began her education.
After attending college and business school, Marianne taught at the Carlisle Indian School for several years. In 1915, when she was twenty-eight, her first published poem appeared.
Marianne continued to write and determined to become a professional poet. She and her mother moved to New York City, where she would become an assistant librarian at the New York Public Library.
As her publication credits grew, with her works published in major literary magazines and newspapers, she was befriended by some of the greatest poets of the day, such as William Carlos Williams, H.D. (Hilda Dolittle), Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot.
In 1919, she struck up a friendship with Ezra Pound, a fellow American poet famous for his poetry and controversial for his political views. She continued to write to him even after the end of the war, as he languished in a brutal military prison.
Pound had been serving time for treason. In the 1930s, he proclaimed his support for fascism and admiration of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. During the war, he had lived in Rome and recorded propaganda radio broadcasts for Mussolini.
Although politically conservative, Marianne had denounced fascism long before America's entry into World War II and was revolted by Pound's anti-Semitism. Yet, she remained his friend. Pound would suffer a mental breakdown in prison, be declared insane, and transferred to a mental hospital.
Marianne Moore's first poetry collection, Poems, was published in London in 1921. It was actually published without her knowledge or consent by her friend H.D. as a surprise. When Marianne received her copy, she wasn't happy with the selection of poems, the editing, or the layout.
She continued to write and publish collections of her poetry, establishing herself as one of the finest poets of her generation. From 1925-29, she served as an editor for the famous literary magazine, The Dial (1840-1929). She won the Helen Haire Levinson Prize, awarded by the famous literary magazine Poetry, in 1931.
Marianne became a celebrity among the New York literati. She was quite a character; whenever she went out, no matter what the occasion, she'd wear her trademark black cape and matching tricorn hat.
She was a huge sports fan, and her favorite sports were baseball and boxing. She regularly attended ballgames and boxing matches. Her favorite boxer was Muhammad Ali, and she wrote the liner notes for his 1963 spoken word album, I Am The Greatest!
Marianne's fame also attracted the attention of the Ford Motor Company. The company's manager of marketing research asked her to name their newest car, a breakthrough model that they believed would make automotive history.
She came up with a list of names, including the Resilient Bullet, the Ford Silver Sword, the Varsity Stroke, the Andante con Moto, and the Utopian Turtletop.
None of Marianne's names for the new car were chosen. Instead, Ford named it the Edsel. It did make automotive history; with its vulva-like grille and incredibly poor workmanship, it was the worst American car ever made. In its two years of production, Ford lost $350 million on the Edsel.
In 1951, Marianne published her most famous book, Collected Poems. It won her numerous awards, including a Pultizer Prize. She was a Modernist poet who believed that love of language and heartfelt expression were more important than meter, as you can see in her classic poem, Poetry:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important
beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not be-
high sounding interpretation can be put upon them
but because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to
become unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us – that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of some-
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll,
a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a
horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician – case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents
school-books;" all these phenomena are important.
One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
the imagination" – above
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads
in them, shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
in defiance of their opinion –
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.
Quote Of The Day
"Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others." - Marianne Moore
Today's video features a rare recording of Marianne Moore reading her classic poem, Bird-Witted. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 15, 2018
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On November 14th, 1851, Moby Dick, the classic novel by the legendary American writer Herman Melville, was published in the United States. It had been published in England as The Whale a month earlier - a release that proved to be a disaster.
Melville's classic adventure novel was based in part on the true story of Mocha Dick, a giant albino sperm whale so named because his territory was the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha.
For many years, Mocha Dick terrorized the whaling ships that sailed through his territory. He was known to attack ships with incredible ferocity. He supposedly had around twenty harpoons stuck in his back by previous whalers.
By the time Mocha Dick was finally killed in the late 1830s, he had successfully fought off one hundred whaling crews and destroyed many ships. Sailors told stories about him in every port, and his legend grew.
When Herman Melville read a book about Mocha Dick, he became fascinated by the true story of a giant killer sperm whale and saw in it the potential for a great novel, one he hoped would prove to be his magnum opus. He had already become famous for such classic novels as Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
The narrator of Moby Dick is Ishmael, an itinerant sailor who signs up for work on the whaling ship Pequod along with his new friend Queequeg, a master harpooner from a South Seas island where his father was the chief of a cannibal tribe.
Also on the crew of the Pequod are harpooners Tashtego and Daggoo, and chief mate Starbuck. The crew is under the command of Captain Ahab, a tyrant with a hidden agenda.
While on a whaling trip off the coast of Japan, Captain Ahab's ship was attacked by Moby Dick, a giant albino sperm whale. The ship was destroyed, and in the process, the giant whale bit off part of Captain Ahab's leg.
The crew of the Pequod has no idea that their captain plans to risk their lives to satisfy his monomaniacal desire for revenge against Moby Dick. When it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary whaling trip, Starbuck is the only one who objects.
Captain Ahab isn't deterred from his quest when Starbuck points out the madness of his plan and that revenge is against their religion - they're Quakers. In the novel's exciting climax, Ahab and nearly his entire crew pay the ultimate price for his revenge. Ishmael is the sole survivor of the Pequod's final battle with Moby Dick.
Although today Moby Dick is rightfully considered an epic masterpiece of American literature, the novel was savaged upon its first publication in England. Critics referred to it as "so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature."
The scathing reviews were thanks to Melville's monumentally incompetent British publisher, who chopped up his already experimental manuscript for the censors, rearranged the ending, and forgot to include the crucial epilogue.
Melville had no idea that the UK version of his novel was so badly botched until it was too late. Shocked and confused by the bad reviews in British magazines, he was relieved when Moby Dick was published in America in its correct and unexpurgated original version.
Unfortunately, by then, the damage was done. The American reading public's interest had changed from sea adventures to tales of the American West and the Yukon gold rush, and though Moby Dick did receive good reviews from American critics, readers still remembered the bad reviews of the English critics.
The warm reception by American critics to the definitive version of Moby Dick was not enough to undo the damage done to the novel by its British publisher and make it the magnum opus Herman Melville had hoped for. It sold less than 3,000 copies during his lifetime. His total earnings from it were $556.37
He continued to write over the next several years, but after his novel The Confidence-Man was published in 1857, he plunged into alcoholism and depression and his writing came to a screeching halt.
In 1876, Melville published his classic epic poem Clarel, and it sold so poorly that he couldn't afford to buy back the unsold copies at cost, so they were burned. Unable to make money as a writer, he scraped by as a customs agent for New York City.
When Herman Melville died in 1891 at the age of 76, he had been completely forgotten as a writer. In a final insult, an article on Melville published in The New York Times ten days after his death mistakenly referred to him as Hiram Melville.
His last work, the classic novella Billy Budd, Sailor, was published posthumously in 1924 and became an instant classic that would rekindle an interest in his work. Moby Dick would finally receive its due as one of the greatest American novels of all time.
Quote Of The Day
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it." - Herman Melville
Today's video features a complete reading of Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick. Enjoy!
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On November 13th, 1850, the legendary Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a renowned civil engineer who designed, built, and maintained lighthouses - a family business which Stevenson's uncles and grandfather worked for.
As a boy, Robert Louis Stevenson was sickly. Prone to coughs and fevers, which worsened considerably during the winters, he most likely suffered from bronchiectasis resulting from pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. Stevenson's parents were devout Presbyterians, but not incredibly strict.
His nanny, Alison Cunningham, was a fiercely religious Calvinist. Though her religious fervor gave Stevenson nightmares, she nursed him tenderly through his illnesses. She also read to him often and told him folk tales, planting the first seeds of his writing career.
When he was six years old, Stevenson began his schooling. Odd looking and eccentric, he didn't fit in with the other kids. His frequent illnesses kept him out of school, so he received most of his early education from private tutors.
He didn't learn to read until he was seven or eight, but he began writing stories before that, dictating them to his mother and nanny. After he learned to read and write, he continued to write compulsively. When he was eleven, he entered Edinburgh Academy.
At the age of sixteen, Robert Louis Stevenson published his first piece, an essay titled The Pentland Rising: A Page Of History, 1666 (1866), which was an account of the covenanters' rebellion. His father, who was proud of his interest in writing, paid for the printing.
However, he expected Robert to follow in his footsteps and join the family business. So, when he entered the University of Edinburgh in November of 1867, he majored in engineering. He hated it.
Having no interest in or enthusiasm for the study of engineering, he avoided lectures whenever he could. He joined the Speculative Society - the University's exclusive debating club - whose members would become lifelong friends of his.
During vacations, Stevenson traveled with his father around the Scottish islands to inspect the family's lighthouses and other engineering works. He enjoyed these travels, but only as a source of prospective writing material.
In 1871, Stevenson finally told his father that he wanted to be a writer and not an engineer. His father was displeased, but agreed to a compromise: Stevenson would study law to have something to fall back on.
While he studied, Stevenson adopted a bohemian lifestyle. He wore his hair long, rejected his religion, and spent his meager allowance on cheap pubs and brothels. Although he graduated and qualified for the Scottish Bar, he never practiced law.
Instead, he began his writing career, and when his parents learned that he had become a libertine, they disowned him. It would be years before he reconciled with them.
In late 1873, Stevenson went to England to visit his cousin. While there, he hobnobbed with London's literati and struck up a friendship with Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, who was impressed by his work.
When Stephen visited Edinburgh in 1875, he met with Stevenson and took him to see a friend of his, William Henley, a patient at the Edinburgh Infirmary. He was a colorful, talkative character who had a wooden leg.
Henley and Stevenson became friends, and it is believed that the character of Long John Silver in Treasure Island was inspired by Henley.
Robert Louis Stevenson continued to travel. One of his journeys was a canoe trip taken through Belgium and France with Sir Walter Simpson, his old friend from the Speculative Society. The trip would serve as the basis of Stevenson's first book, An Inland Voyage, (1878) a travelogue.
The canoe trip would take him to Grez in September of 1876, where he would meet Fanny Osbourne, a separated single mother ten years his senior. They would become lovers the following year.
In August of 1878, Fanny returned to her home in San Francisco while Stevenson stayed in Europe and went on a 12-day, 120-mile solo hike through the Cevennes Mountains in South central France.
Stevenson wrote of the journey in his next book, Travels With A Donkey In The Cevannes. (1879). It was one of the earliest nonfiction books to present hiking and camping as recreational activities. To prepare for the trip, Stevenson commissioned one of the first sleeping bags to be made for him.
Using the money he earned from Travels, Stevenson booked second class passage on the steamship Devonia and sailed to New York City. From there, he traveled across the country by train, bound for San Francisco, where Fanny was waiting for him. This trip was chronicled in his book The Amateur Emigrant, which would be published posthumously in 1895.
Unfortunately, when Stevenson reached Monterey, the trip had taken a huge toll on his fragile health. Too weak to go on to San Francisco, he was joined in Monterey by Fanny, who nursed him back to health. They were married in May of 1880.
After Stevenson regained his health, they went to England, where Fanny would help her husband reconcile with his parents. He and Fanny spent the next several years living in various places throughout England and Scotland, searching for a home that would be suitable for his fragile health.
His writing career took off as he wrote his most famous works. Treasure Island (1883), his first novel, was an exciting adventure for children about a boy, Jim Hawkins, who helps search for treasure after receiving a map from pirate Billy Bones, a rum-guzzling lodger at his parents' inn.
Originally titled The Sea Cook before an editor changed it, Treasure Island was a rarity for a children's novel due to its depiction of unrestrained drinking and its moral ambiguity, with the charming and ruthless pirate Long John Silver proving himself to be not all bad.
Kidnapped (1886) was set amidst the historical events of 18th century Scotland. It told the story of Daniel Balfour, an orphaned 17-year-old boy who goes to live with his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. He doesn't know that his uncle cheated his father out of his estate.
When Ebenezer's plan for Daniel's "accidental" death fails, he tricks him into going on board the brig Covenant, where he sells Daniel into slavery. Daniel is shanghaied and forced to work as the ship's new cabin boy.
The Black Arrow (1888) was a swashbuckling adventure set during the Wars of the Roses. In it, young Dick Shelton rescues his lady, Joanna Sedley, becomes a knight, and joins the Black Arrow outlaw gang to avenge the murder of his father, Sir Harry Shelton. His father's murderer turns out to be Sir Daniel Brackley - Dick's guardian.
Though he wrote other books, Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous novel was the classic novella, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. (1888) In this celebrated tale of psychological horror, brilliant doctor Henry Jekyll is a good man troubled by his capacity for cruelty.
So, he invents a potion that he hopes will remove the dark side of human nature once and for all. Instead, the potion unleashes it as a physical manifestation, transforming Jekyll into Edward Hyde, a younger, stronger, bestial man.
Cruel, remorseless, misanthropic, and downright evil, Hyde consorts with prostitutes, steals, and wreaks all kinds of havoc. At first, Jekyll is able to use his potion to change back into himself, but soon, it requires larger doses.
When the potion is used up, Jekyll tries to make more, but he can't - it was an imperfection in one of the ingredients that made it work. Realizing that his next transformation into Hyde will be permanent, Jekyll commits suicide by poisoning himself.
In addition to his novels, short story collections, and travelogues, Stevenson also wrote poetry collections. His most famous was a collection of poems for children called A Child's Garden Of Verses (1885). Containing the memorable poems My Shadow and The Lamplighter, the book would be popular with adults as well.
Believing its climate would suit his fragile health perfectly, in 1890, Stevenson bought 400 acres of land in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. He moved there, built an estate in the village of Vailima, and took the native name Tusitala, which means teller of tales in Samoan.
Believing that the European colonial officials who ruled Samoa were incompetent, Stevenson blasted them in his non-fiction book, A Footnote To History, (1892) which was a chronicle of the Samoan Civil War. The book caused such an uproar that Stevenson feared that the colonial officials would deport him.
In 1894, a bout with writer's block drove Stevenson into a deep depression. He feared he would never write again. Just when he had hit bottom, he suddenly regained his creative juices and began work on a new novel called Weir Of Hermiston.
Believing that it was his best work and reportedly saying that "it's so good, it frightens me," Stevenson channeled all his energy into his writing, oblivious to the tremendous toll it was taking on his fragile health. His last novel would remain unfinished.
Robert Louis Stevenson died suddenly on December 3rd, 1894, at the age of 44, most likely from a stroke. He remains one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 19th century.
Quote Of The Day
"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish." - Robert Louis Stevenson
Today's video features a complete reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Enjoy!
Monday, November 12, 2018
Sarah Corbett Morgan
My review of the inimitable Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success, is up at The Internet Review of Books. Another novel for these Trumpian times.
My poem, "On Not Winning the Lottery and the Wisdom of Stephen Wright," which was published a couple of weeks ago in New Verse News, has been translated into Chinese and will be published in Li Poetry Magazine out of Taiwan.
William Marr, a Chinese American poet whom I have never met, contacted me and asked if he could translate it for Li. I said sure, and he sent me his translation, which, of course, I can't read, but it's cool to have. The original poem, in English, was in New Verse News, October 27.
A story I wrote a while back, "An Old Photograph," has been accepted for publication in Flash Fiction Magazine. I don't have a publication date. This one was reviewed in Practice and Fiction, so I have a lot of people to thank.
Friday, November 9, 2018
This Day In Literary History
On November 9th, 1928, the famous American poet Anne Sexton was born. She was born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts.
After graduating high school, Anne became a model for Boston's famous Hart Agency. In 1948, she married her husband, Alfred Sexton. She bore him two children and remained with him for twenty-five years.
Throughout her life, Anne Sexton suffered from severe mental illness. She suffered her first mental breakdown in 1954. After her second breakdown in 1955, she began seeing a therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, who diagnosed her with a condition now known as bipolar disorder.
It was Dr. Orne who suggested that Anne Sexton take up writing poetry. She decided to attend a poetry workshop, but was so nervous about it that she had a friend accompany her to the first session. The workshop was led by John Holmes - the poet, not the porn star.
It unlocked a talent Anne never knew she had; all of a sudden, her poems were being published in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Saturday Review.
She later attended Boston University, studying with Robert Lowell, alongside soon-to-be famous poets such as Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.D. Snodgrass became Anne's literary mentor.
When her first poetry collection,To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960, it established her as one of the finest confessional poets of her generation.
In addition to her central themes of isolation, depression, and despair, she was a modernist poet ahead of her time - one of the first widely published female poets to write openly, honestly, and graphically about taboo subjects such as menstruation, abortion, adultery, and masturbation.
Anne Sexton's third poetry collection, Live or Die (1968), won her a Pulitzer Prize. Around this time, she became a counterculture celebrity. She would perform live readings accompanied by a jazz-rock group.
The ensemble billed itself as Anne Sexton and Her Kind. The name of her band, "Her Kind," is also the title of one of her most famous poems, which appeared in her first poetry collection. It was the signature piece of her performances:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Unfortunately, while Anne's fame and fortunes grew, her mental illness grew worse. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning (she locked herself in her garage and started her car with the windows open) at the age of 45.
During her short life, Anne Sexton wrote over a dozen poetry collections and a play. She also co-wrote four children's books with her friend, Maxine Kumin.
After Anne's death, her troubled life would become the subject of controversy when her former therapist, Dr. Orne, gave biographer Diane Middlebrook audiotapes of his therapy sessions with Anne.
Middlebrook's biography - published with the approval of Anne's daughter Linda - revealed many troubling details, including the fact that Anne had been sexually abused by her mother and that a second personality called Elizabeth had emerged while Anne was hypnotized.
Anne's mother and some relatives vehemently denied that any abuse took place and accused her therapist of planting false memories during their hypnotherapy sessions, which involved the administration of sodium pentothol.
Other relatives, including Anne's daughter Linda, confirmed that Anne had been abused by her mother. The biography is still hotly debated to this day, as is the issue of whether doctor-patient confidentiality should remain in effect after the patient dies.
Anne Sexton's eighth poetry collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, was published posthumously in 1975. The title came as a result of her meeting with a Catholic priest who had told her, "God is in your typewriter."
Quote Of The Day
"The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that's saying a lot." - Anne Sexton
Today's video features a complete recording of Anne Sexton's final public reading, taped at Goucher College in 1974. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 8, 2018
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!
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
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!