This Day In Literary History
On February 28th, 1749, the publication of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, (later shortened to Tom Jones) the classic epic novel by the famous English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding, was announced in the famous London newspaper, The General Advertiser.
This is how the announcement appeared:
THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES,
-- Mores hominum multorum vidit --
By HENRY FIELDING, Esq;
It being impossible to get Sets bound fast enough to answer Demand for them, such Gentlemen and Ladies as please, may have them sew'd in Blue Paper and Boards, at the Price of 16s. a Set, of A. Millar over against Catharine-street in the Strand.
At the time, it was customary for a novel to be published in a serialized format before it appeared in book form. Due to the controversial nature of this particular novel, it was published in book form before the serialized publication was completed.
Although it would be a hot property and sell a lot of copies, most scholars believe that the heavy demand mentioned in the newspaper ad was an exaggeration designed to create a demand for Tom Jones.
The novel, a bawdy romantic comedy / adventure, told the story of its title character. It opens with Squire Allworthy, a wealthy landowner, returning to his country estate in Somerset after a business engagement in London.
Allworthy is shocked to find an abandoned baby boy sleeping in his bed. A young woman named Jenny Jones - servant girl to the local schoolmaster and his wife - later confesses to being the baby's mother, but refuses to name the father.
The kindhearted Squire Allworthy decides to take in the baby, called Tom Jones, as his ward. Sophia Western, the neighbor's daughter, becomes Tom's childhood sweetheart.
Unfortunately, her father and Squire Allworthy have no intention of allowing Sophia and Tom to marry when they grow up. That's because Tom is illegitimate, and thus beneath a girl of Sophia's class.
Tom Jones grows up to have both a healthy appetite for women and a good heart like Squire Allworthy. The novel's liberal attitudes toward sexual promiscuity and prostitution made it quite controversial in its day.
Moralists denounced the novel as obscene, decrying its depiction of a hero who proves himself to be both noble and promiscuous. In reality, Tom's sexual exploits are played mostly for laughs, as the author's sense of humor played a huge part in his fiction.
The most controversial (and funniest) part of the novel finds Tom witnessing a half-naked woman being beaten by a man. Tom rescues her and brings her to an inn.
The woman, Mrs. Waters, is the wife of an army captain. She thanks her handsome young hero by making love to him. Later, Squire Allworthy reveals to Tom the horrible truth about Mrs. Waters - her maiden name is Jones. Jenny Jones. Tom just slept with his long-lost mother!
His childhood sweetheart and first great love, Sophia Western, whom he has tried to keep in touch with, goes through her own trials and tribulations, including the prospect of marriage to a man she detests - Lord Fellamar, a vile young nobleman who lusts for her.
Fellamar hatches a plan to trick Sophia into thinking that Tom Jones has been killed so that she'll agree to marry him. Rather than wait until their wedding night, Fellamar attempts to rape Sophia. Thankfully, her father arrives on the scene before he can.
True love triumphs in the end, as Tom and Sophia are reunited and another shocking secret is revealed: Jenny Jones was not Tom's mother. His real mother was Squire Allworthy's sister, Bridget.
Bridget had been seduced by a young man named Summer - the son of Allworthy's clergyman friend. Now a respectable gentleman, Tom declares his love for Sophia and she agrees to marry him, with the blessings of her father and Squire Allworthy.
Tom Jones would be adapted several times for the screen, stage, and television. The most famous adaptations were the 1963 British feature film starring Albert Finney in the title role, and the opera by French composer François-André Danican Philidor.
Quote Of The Day
"There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true."
- Henry Fielding
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry Fielding's classic novel, Tom Jones. Enjoy!
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 27th, 1807, the legendary American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. A child prodigy, he began his schooling at the age of three. At six, he was studying Latin and reading Miguel Cervantes' classic epic novel, Don Quixote.
Longfellow was thirteen when his first published poem, The Battle of Lovell's Pond, appeared in the Portland Gazette. Two years later, he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There, he met legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became his lifelong friend.
After graduating in 1825 at the age of eighteen, he was offered a job as professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, on the condition that he travel to Europe to learn more languages. So, he embarked on a three-year European tour, where he became fluent in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese.
While in Madrid, Longfellow met legendary American writer Washington Irving, who encouraged him to become a professional writer. Longfellow based his second book, a travelogue called Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835), on his European tour.
Back in America, when he wasn't teaching at Bowdoin, he translated French, Spanish, and German textbooks. His first book, published in 1833, was a translation of the works of medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique.
In 1831, Longfellow married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Storer Potter. She died three years later from illness following the miscarriage of their only child. Her husband was devastated. At the time, he had been teaching languages at Harvard and had become fluent in Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic.
After losing his wife, Longfellow threw himself into his work, mostly to escape his grief. He worked on more translations and began publishing the poetry collections that would make him famous, such as Voices in the Night (1839) and Ballads and Other Poems (1841).
To escape his loneliness, Longfellow socialized with fellow writers and scholars. In 1839, five years after he'd lost his wife, he found himself falling love again, with Frances "Fanny" Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. She wasn't interested in him.
Nevertheless, Longfellow determined to win her heart, writing to a friend, "Victory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion." After a tumultuous seven year courtship, Fanny's dogged admirer won her heart.
It almost didn't happen when Longfellow published Hyperion, a Romance (1839), a novel inspired by their early courtship. The protagonist, Paul Flemming, a grief stricken American wandering through Germany, meets an Englishwoman named Mary Ashburton and determines to win her heart.
When Fanny learned that she was the inspiration for the character of Mary Ashburton, she was neither flattered nor amused. Longfellow wouldn't give up. When in a letter she finally agreed to marry him, he walked 90 minutes to her home rather than wait for a carriage.
The couple would remain together for eighteen years and have six children before tragedy struck again. In July of 1861, Fanny was trying to seal an envelope with hot wax when her dress caught fire. Her screams woke Longfellow from his nap, and he tried to save her.
Severely burned, Fanny was tended by a doctor who administered ether to her throughout the day and night. She died the next morning. Longfellow had been burned as well, but he would recover physically, growing a beard to hide his facial scars. Emotionally, he was destroyed.
Longfellow had used laudanum (a tincture of opium) to ease the pain of his burns; now physically healed, he used the drug to ease the pain of his depression. He feared that he might go insane and begged his family not to send him to an asylum. He determined to write again.
By now, Longfellow had become the most famous poet in America, and one of the richest writers as well. He continued to write poetry collections and novels. In 1867, he published his greatest work as a scholar - a translation of Dante Alighieri's classic poem, The Divine Comedy.
Longfellow also devoted his later years to social causes. A prominent abolitionist, he protested slavery and supported the Union during the Civil War. He opposed a prewar compromise to allow slavery to preserve the union, but hoped that the Northern and Southern states could reconcile after the war ended.
As a poet, Longfellow was known as a master of lyric poetry. A versatile poet, he experimented with both traditional and free verse, using anapestic and trochaic forms, heroic couplets, ballads, sonnets, and blank verse - unrhymed iambic pentameter.
His greatest poems include Paul Revere's Ride, The Village Blacksmith, The Wreck of the Hesperus, and his classic epic poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, which was based on Ojibwe tribal legends.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died of peritonitis in 1882 at the age of 75.
Quote Of The Day
"The tragic element in poetry is like Saturn in alchemy — the Malevolent, the Destroyer of Nature; but without it no true Aurum Potabile, or Elixir of Life, can be made."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Enjoy!
Friday, February 23, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 23rd, 1633, the famous English writer Samuel Pepys was born in London, England. His father, John Pepys, was a tailor. His father's cousin, Richard Pepys, was an elected Member of Parliament who would later become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
Samuel Pepys was the fifth of eleven children, but because of the high child mortality rate of the time, several of his siblings died, making him the eldest. He lived with a nurse in Kingsland, north of London.
Around the age of eleven, he began his formal education at Huntingdon Grammar School. He attended St. Paul's school in London from 1646-50.
In 1649, at the age of sixteen, he witnessed the execution of Charles I, following the end of the English Civil War. This paved the way for the rule of Oliver Cromwell.
Enrolling at Cambridge University in 1650, a year later, he transferred to Magdalene College, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1654. A year after that, he came to live with another of his father's cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, who would become the first Earl of Sandwich.
That same year, Pepys married Elisabeth de St Michel, first in a religious ceremony, then in a civil ceremony. She was fourteen years old at the time.
From a very young age, Samuel Pepys suffered from painful kidney stones and hematuria. By 1657, his condition was so severe that he decided to undergo a risky procedure to surgically remove a large kidney stone.
The operation took place at the home of Pepys' cousin, Jane Turner, and was a success. However, he did suffer from complications late in life. After he recovered from the operation, Pepys took a job working as a teller in the exchequer under George Downing.
On January 1st, 1660, Samuel Pepys embarked on an endeavor that would make him famous to this day: he began keeping a diary. Like most diaries, he used it to record the personal details of his daily life, including his business dealings.
He also recorded meetings with friends, his trivial concerns, jealousies, insecurities, his troubled marriage, and his extramarital affairs. These personal details would be intertwined with detailed commentary on the politics and national events of the time.
Within the first few months of entries, Samuel Pepys' diary chronicled General George Monck's march on London and Pepys's trip (he was a clerk for the Navy Board) with Sir Edward Montagu to the Netherlands to bring Charles II back from exile.
Over the next ten years, Pepys' diary would provide the most detailed account of the history of late 17th century England, including the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The diary also painted a revealing portrait of Pepys the man. He loved the theater. He was a connoisseur of good wine, literature, and music. He enjoyed the company of friends. He would often evaluate his life and finances, promising to work harder and abstain from wine and the theater, then later, he'd record his lapses.
A talented singer and musician, he played the lute, violin, viola, flageolet, recorder, and harpsichord, with varying levels of proficiency. As a singer, he performed at home, at coffee houses, and at Westminster Abbey.
Pepys also chronicled, sometimes in surprisingly graphic detail, his extramarital affairs. In one entry, he described how his wife Elisabeth caught him in a compromising position with her friend, Deborah Willet.
He wrote that Elisabeth, "coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also...." When he wrote about his affairs, Pepys was always filled with remorse - but that didn't stop his philandering.
Samuel Pepys kept his diary for nearly ten years. By 1669, his health began to suffer from all the work he put into it. He eyesight deteriorated, and he feared he might go blind, so for a while, he dictated his diary to his clerks before ending it altogether.
After he ended it, he would become an elected Member of Parliament and Secretary to the Admiralty. He also helped found the Royal Mathematical School at Christ's Hospital and was made its Governor. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1665 and served as its president from 1684-86.
Pepys was attacked on and off by his political enemies and arrested twice on unsubstantiated charges of being a Jacobite - a radical plotting to restore the Stuart kings to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
He was released both times, as no charges brought against him could be proven in court. After his second release in 1690, he retired from public life at the age of 57. He died in 1703 at the age of 70. Having no children, he willed his estate to his nephew, John Jackson.
Samuel Pepys's diaries would remain unpublished until 1825. He'd used tachygraphy to write his diary entries - one of many forms of shorthand employed at the time. This required translation into standard English.
The first to translate Pepys's diaries was Reverend John Smith. He didn't know that the key to the tachygraphy system was stored in Pepys's library a few shelves above the diaries. So it took Smith several years, from 1819-1822, to finish his translation.
It was an incomplete translation; the clergyman refused to translate the salacious sections of Pepys's diaries - especially the entries about his extramarital affairs.
A complete and definitive edition of Samuel Pepys's diaries was translated by Robert Latham and William Matthews and published in nine volumes, along with companion and index volumes, between 1970 and 1983.
Quote Of The Day
“Saw a wedding in the church. It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition.”
- Samuel Pepys
Today's video features a reading of Samuel Pepys' diaries. Enjoy!
Thursday, February 22, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 22nd, 1892, the legendary American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine. Her unusual middle name, St. Vincent, was given to her in honor of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where her uncle's life had been saved shortly before she was born.
Edna and her two sisters were raised by their mother to be independent and outspoken feminists. Edna's strong feminist convictions developed at a very young age. She was often angered when she or other girls received unequal treatment compared to boys.
In elementary school, she often angered her principal with her frank opinions on gender inequality. When she asked him to call her Vincent - a boy's name - he refused, but instead of calling her Edna, he called her by girls' names that began with the letter V.
After several years of separation, when Edna was twelve, her mother divorced her father for his financial irresponsibility. The family lived in poverty and moved from place to place. When she started high school, Edna began developing her writing talent.
Soon, her poetry appeared in her high school magazine and in other literary magazines. At the age of 14, she was awarded the Gold Badge for her poetry by St. Nicholas Magazine, a then famous and progressive literary and art magazine for children.
Around this time, Edna came to understand and accept her bisexuality, and she would remain openly bisexual throughout her life. In 1912, when she was twenty years old, Edna St. Vincent Millay first became famous - for losing a poetry contest.
She had entered her classic poem Renascence in a poetry contest held by The Lyric Year magazine and was awarded fourth place. The decision proved scandalous for the magazine. Its readers were shocked.
The other poets who had entered the contest were also shocked - and embarrassed - as they considered Renascence to be the best poem. The first place winner, poet Orrick Johns, said of his first prize, “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." The second place winner offered to give Edna his $250 prize.
Not long after the contest debacle, Edna gave a poetry reading and piano recital in Camden, Maine, at the Whitehall Inn. Among those attending the event was Caroline Dow, director of the New York YWCA National Training School. She was so impressed that she offered to pay for Edna's tuition at Vassar College. So, at the age of 21, Edna began her college education.
After she graduated in 1917, Edna moved to New York City's Greenwich Village and took up the life of a bohemian poet, having affairs with paramours of both sexes, immersing herself in the culture of the Village, and writing some of her best poetry.
Her classic first poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920, courted controversy with its feminist themes and meditations on female sexuality.
In 1923, Edna won the Pulitzer Prize for her poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. That same year, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, with whom she had fallen in love. She was 31 years old and he 43. His late wife, Inez Millholland, was a labor lawyer and war correspondent whom Edna had known in Greenwich Village.
Edna and Eugen would remain together for 26 years, until his death in 1949. Eugen supported his wife's career and took care of the household. They maintained an open marriage, each having lovers on the side. One of Edna's lovers was George Dillon, a young poet 14 years her junior for whom she would write several sonnets.
In 1925, Edna and her husband bought Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York. The 500-acre estate had been a blueberry farm. They built a barn, a writing cabin, and a tennis court on their new estate, and Edna started a garden where she grew her own vegetables.
During World War II, Edna found herself criticized for the pacifism in her poetry. Years before, she had written Aria da Capo (1921), a one-act antiwar play in verse.
Now, as critic Merle Rubin observed, "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism." Edna had also written poems about Nazi atrocities committed during the war.
In 1943, Edna became the sixth person (and the second woman) to be awarded the Frost Medal, a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to American poetry. Her husband died of lung cancer in 1949.
A year later, Edna St. Vincent Millay fell down her staircase at home and was found dead eight hours later. The autopsy revealed that she actually died of a heart attack, which had caused her to fall down the stairs. She was 58 years old.
After Edna's death, her sister Norma and her husband, painter Charles Ellis, moved into Steepletop. In 1973, they set aside some of the estate's vast acreage and established the Millay Colony for the Arts, which they would run until Norma died in 1986.
One of Norma's closest friends was Mary Oliver, a teenage poet who had moved into Steepletop and lived there for seven years. A huge fan of Norma's sister Edna, whose papers she would help organize, Mary would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, as her idol did before her.
Edna St. Vincent Millay remains a major influence on American poetic voice.
Quote Of The Day
"You see, I am a poet, and not quite right in the head, darling. It’s only that."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Today's video features a rare recording of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her classic, Pulitzer Prize winning poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Enjoy!
Wednesday, February 21, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 21st, 1903, the legendary French writer Anaïs Nin was born. She was born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.
Her father, Joaquin Nin, was a Cuban pianist and composer. Her mother, Rosa Culmell, was a classically trained singer of French and Danish descent. She had two younger brothers, Thorvald and Joaquin.
When Anaïs was a young girl, her family traveled throughout Europe. They lived for a time in Spain and in America, then moved back to her mother's French homeland. There, they lived in an apartment rented from an American friend who had gone away for the summer.
Anaïs, then in her teens, stumbled across the man's collection of French erotic paperbacks and read them all. By then, she had already determined to become a writer, and had begun keeping the diaries for which she would become most famous.
At sixteen, she completed her primary education and became an artist's model. She had begun learning English while her family was living in America; soon she became fluent in English, though French would remain her primary language.
In March of 1923, at the age of twenty, Anaïs married her boyfriend, Hugh Parker Guiler, a banker who years later would reinvent himself as an experimental filmmaker named Ian Hugo. The couple settled in Paris and would maintain an open marriage.
While her husband was preoccupied with his banking career, Anaïs took up writing and flamenco dancing. Her first book, published in 1932, was an acclaimed work of nonfiction titled D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. She wrote it in just over two weeks.
At the time of its publication, literary critics had begun turning their backs on Lawrence, the legendary English writer best known for his classic and controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Anaïs' masterful, scholarly study of Lawrence's works was an eyebrow raiser - no woman had dared praise his controversial writings before.
At the time she wrote her first book, Anaïs Nin was living the bohemian life in Paris. She met the legendary American writer Henry Miller, then a down-and-out expatriate trying to start his own career as a novelist. She let him read her diaries; they were a revelation to him.
Her writing had the poetry and passion that his lacked. With Anaïs as his muse, Miller wrote his classic debut novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934), which made his name as a writer. Meanwhile, Anaïs worked on her own fiction.
While they tried to keep their writing careers going, Anaïs and Henry struggled to make ends meet, as France had also fallen victim to the Great Depression. They and their writer friends soon discovered they could make a dollar per page writing pornographic literature for an anonymous private collector.
At first, they did it more for their own amusement than for the money, but soon it became an important source of income during the hard times of the Depression, as a dollar per page back then is equivalent to about $20 per page in today's money.
Believe it or not, for Henry Miller, writing decent erotica in those days was a struggle. Anaïs Nin, however, was brilliant at it. Her erotica, told from a woman's perspective, was dazzling, poetic, sensual, and even philosophical at times, while also surprisingly graphic.
She explored all the known sexual taboos, including male and female homosexuality, sadomasochism, and incest. Though she retained her original manuscripts for these stories, she never intended to have them published.
Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller became close friends and ultimately lovers. When Miller's wife June arrived in Paris, the relationship would become something of a ménage à trois. Though Anaïs came to love June and found herself attracted to the woman, she preferred men.
In 1936, Anaïs published her first novella, House Of Incest, which would prove to be one of her most famous works of fiction. The Nin family had feared that it was going to be an expose of a recent incestuous affair between Anaïs and her father.
Instead, it was a novella filled with surrealist prose poetry, metaphors, and psychological symbolism, based on a series of dreams she had. Anaïs would later chronicle the actual incestuous affair in her famous diaries.
Shockingly, one of her therapists had encouraged her to seduce, then abandon her father as an act of revenge for his abandonment of her when she was a young girl. The therapist believed that this would leave Anaïs feeling empowered. It didn't.
In the summer of 1939, with the winds of war brewing, Anaïs and her husband left Paris and moved to New York City. She would remain in America for pretty much the rest of her life. In 1947, she met Rupert Pole, an ex-actor sixteen years her junior, in an elevator while on her way to a party. They began dating, then ran off together.
The couple married in Arizona before moving to California. While Anaïs would live with Rupert until her death in 1977, she annulled their marriage in 1966 for tax reasons - and because she had never formally divorced her first husband.
Anaïs continued to write fiction and maintain her diaries. In 1958, she began publishing Cities of the Interior, her classic "continuous novel" which appeared in a series of five volumes. The most famous volumes were the third, The Four-Chambered Heart, and the fourth, A Spy in the House of Love.
While living in California, Anaïs struck up friendships with experimental filmmakers and appeared in a few films. Her most famous film role was of the goddess Astarte in Kenneth Anger's classic film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956). She also appeared in Maya Deren's classic experimental film, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).
Over the years, Anaïs' famous diaries would be published in a series of eleven volumes. They would also appear as collections of excerpts, the most famous of which was Henry and June: From a Journal of Love (1986).
Henry and June: From a Journal of Love contained excerpts from Anaïs' diaries chronicling her relationships with Henry Miller and his wife, June. This memorable volume would be adapted by director Philip Kaufman as the highly acclaimed and controversial 1990 feature film Henry & June.
Starring Fred Ward as Henry Miller, Uma Thurman as June, and, in a bravura performance, Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin, it was the first movie to be rated NC-17, which had replaced the X rating.
Bowing to pressure groups, most theaters banned NC-17 rated pictures as they had X-rated films, and Henry & June played on only a few hundred screens nationwide. It earned most of its profits in video sales and rentals, which were unaffected by the NC-17 rating.
Still, film critics, most famously the legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, decried the film's rating as undeserved and protested the NC-17 rating in general as unnecessary and continuing the X rating's tradition of imposing censorship on filmmakers.
(Since most theaters, especially shopping mall multiplexes, refused to play X or NC-17 rated movies, filmmakers were forced to cut their pictures to obtain a lower rating in order to get a wider distribution and hopefully make a profit.)
By 1976, Anaïs was losing her battle with cancer when a publisher approached her about releasing a volume of her famous erotic short stories, which everyone knew about but nobody had seen - except for the anonymous patron who had paid her to write them.
She still didn't want to publish them, but her ex-husbands Hugh Parker Guiler and Rupert Pole, both of whom she still loved, had fallen into poverty. She figured that the money could be used to help them out. She died in January of 1977 at the age of 73. Six months later, Delta of Venus was published.
As the publisher had expected, the short story collection became a huge hit, though Anaïs Nin had considered the stories an embarrassment because they were more caricature than serious writing and had been penned for a private patron's money rather than written for publication.
Nevertheless, they provided a memorable exhibition of Nin's talent for erotic literature. They also added to her legacy as a feminist icon. With the success of Delta of Venus, a second erotic short story collection, Little Birds, was published in 1979.
Quote Of The Day
"If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it."
- Anaïs Nin
Today's video features Anaïs Nin reading from her famous diaries. Enjoy!
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 20th, 1926, the famous American writer Richard Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey. Born to Norwegian immigrant parents, he would grow up in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1943, after graduating from high school, he joined the military and served as an infantry soldier during World War II. After the war ended, Matheson enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he earned a degree in journalism.
His first published short story, Born of Man and Woman, appeared in 1950, in an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story is narrated in broken English by the grotesque mutant eight-year-old son of a normal couple.
The "normal" parents keep their son chained up in the cellar and beat him frequently. When the mutant boy breaks the rules and sneaks upstairs to spy on his parents, he discovers that he has a normal little sister whom he never met or knew existed.
Encouraged by his first sale, Matheson moved to California, hoping to become a professional writer. There, he married his girlfriend, Ruth Ann Woodson. They had four children, three of whom (Chris, Ali, and Richard Christian Matheson) would also become writers.
Richard Matheson's first novel, Someone is Bleeding, was published in 1953, but his third novel, I Am Legend (1954), made his name as a writer. In it, a man named Robert Neville finds that he is apparently the last man left alive on Earth.
A pandemic quickly wiped out the rest of the world's population, but Neville is immune for some reason. He soon discovers that he is not alone; the world is still inhabited by the infected - who have become vampires that crave his blood.
The disease has mutated and the vampires can now spend brief periods of time in the daylight. After overcoming alcoholism and depression, Neville tries to find a cure for the disease before the vampires become indestructible.
I Am Legend would be adapted three times as a feature film: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith as Robert Neville.
Matheson's classic 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, told the story of Scott Carey, a man exposed to radiation after accidentally ingesting an insecticide. The combination of the two alters Carey's biochemical structure, causing him to shrink in size a little every day.
Most of the story finds Carey at only seven inches tall. Ordinary small objects and creatures become terrifying. As he keeps shrinking, Carey soon realizes that he won't shrink to death, as he'd feared. Instead, he'll keep shrinking until he's the size of an atom.
The Shrinking Man is actually a scathing satire of 1950s white middle class manhood. When Scott Carey shrinks to doll size, he finds that he is no longer the man of the house. Now, his wife and children are intimidating him for a change - a huge blow to his ego and masculinity.
The Shrinking Man would be adapted by the author himself as the cult classic film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). It would also be adapted as The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), a comic fantasy about the dangers of industrial chemicals and deceptive advertising.
Lily Tomlin starred as an average housewife and mother whose exposure to chemicals in everything from laundry detergents to foods, combined with her unique body chemistry, causes her to shrink a little every day. When she reaches doll size, she becomes a media sensation.
In 1958, Matheson published A Stir of Echoes, a supernatural horror novel about a mild-mannered fellow, Tom Wallace, who is hypnotized at a party by his brother-in-law. Wallace doubts the effectiveness of hypnosis until a post-hypnotic suggestion unlocks formidable psychic powers within him.
Suddenly able to read minds and predict the future, Tom's life plunges into a downward spiral. Then, the ghost of a murder victim begins haunting him, desperately searching for justice and peace. This memorable novel would be adapted as the horror film Stir of Echoes in 1999.
Richard Matheson's success as a novelist and short story writer got him noticed by television. He would write fourteen episodes of the classic TV series, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). His memorable episodes include the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
In this episode, an aerophobic salesman (William Shatner) notices something terrifying during his flight - a gremlin clinging to the plane's wing, trying to destroy the aircraft. Is it real or all in his mind?
Another great Twilight Zone episode Matheson wrote was Little Girl Lost. In it, a little girl falls out of her bed in the middle of the night and tumbles through a gateway into another dimension. Her father must attempt a daring rescue before the door closes forever.
Matheson and his close friend, writer Charles Beaumont, who also wrote for The Twilight Zone, belonged to the Southern California Writing Group in the 1950s and 60s. Other members included Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Jerry Sohl, and George Clayton Johnson.
In the 1970s, Matheson wrote the screenplays for two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which were based on a horror novel by Jeff Rice called The Kolchak Papers. The popular movies would spawn the short lived cult classic TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75).
The first of Matheson's TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972), received record ratings for a TV movie. Darren McGavin starred as Carl Kolchak, a shrewd, nosy, obnoxious, wisecracking newspaper reporter covering a series of bizarre murders in Las Vegas.
All the victims were completely drained of blood. The police think they're dealing with an insane serial killer, but Kolchak's investigation leads him to something more terrifying - a vampire. After Kolchak destroys the vampire, the police launch a cover-up and run him out of town.
The sequel, The Night Stangler (1973), finds Kolchak in Seattle, uncovering another supernatural mystery - identical series of murders that have occurred every 21 years since 1931. The killer is on the prowl again, draining more victims of their blood.
This time, instead of a vampire, the killer is a former Civil War surgeon who discovered an elixir of life that grants him immortality. The formula must be taken every 21 years and requires a quantity of human blood from unwilling donors.
Richard Matheson wrote over two dozen novels and numerous short stories, as well as film and TV screenplays. He won several awards and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. His final novel, Generations, was published in 2012.
He died in 2013 at the age of 87.
Quote Of The Day
"Life is a risk; so is writing. You have to love it."
- Richard Matheson
Today's video features a Writers Guild Foundation interview with Richard Matheson. Enjoy!
Friday, February 16, 2024
This Day In Literary History
On February 16th, 1944, the famous American writer Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi. His father, Parker Ford, was a traveling salesman for a starch company. When Richard was eight years old, his father had a serious heart attack.
While Parker recovered and afterward, Richard spent a lot of time with his grandfather, an ex-boxer turned hotel owner, in Little Rock, Arkansas. He would lose his father to a second heart attack when he was sixteen.
As a boy, Richard Ford suffered from partial dyslexia. To cope with his learning disability, he learned to read slowly, but thoroughly. This led him to develop a passion for literature.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to study hotel management. He soon switched his major to English. At university, he met Kristina Hensley, whom he would marry in 1968.
After graduating from university, Richard became a middle school teacher in Flint, Michigan. He enlisted in the Marines, but was discharged after contracting hepatitis.
Ford then enrolled in law school, but dropped out to enroll in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, where he earned a Master's degree in Fine Arts.
In 1976, Richard Ford's first novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published. His second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, was published five years later.
Neither novel was successful, so he gave up writing and became a journalist. He took a job as sportswriter for Inside Sports magazine. A year later, the magazine folded. When Sports Illustrated wouldn't hire him, Richard Ford returned to writing. He based his next novel on his experiences as a sportswriter.
The Sportswriter (1986) proved to be a breakthrough novel that made Richard Ford's name as a writer. In it, Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old failed novelist turned sportswriter, suffers an emotional crisis when first his son dies, then his marriage crumbles after his wife (whom he refers to only as X) finds proof of his infidelity.
The novel made Ford a finalist for the PEN / Faulkner Award for fiction. It was named one of the five best books of 1986 by Time magazine.
Nine years later, Richard Ford published Independence Day, a sequel to The Sportswriter. It won both the 1996 PEN / Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first novel to win both awards in the same year.
Independence Day finds Frank Bascombe, now a real estate agent, evaluating his life over a long July 4th weekend as he visits his ex-wife and troubled teenage son, as well as some clients and renters of one of his properties. Frank wrestles with the question of whether he should rekindle his relationship with his ex, or stay with his current girlfriend.
In 2006, Ford published the third novel in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The Lay of the Land finds Frank preparing for Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Sea Clift, New Jersey. Attending the dinner will be his bisexual daughter Clarissa, his son Paul, now a greeting card designer, and Paul's girlfriend.
Frank's second wife, Sally, has left him and reunited with her ex-husband, who went AWOL and was presumed dead. Meanwhile, Frank has started his own real estate company and is fighting a tough battle with prostate cancer.
From 2008 to 2011, Richard Ford served as Adjunct Professor at the Oscar Wilde Centre with the School of English at Trinity College, Dublin, where he taught the Masters Programme in creative writing.
In the fall of 2011, he returned to the United States, where he became the new senior fiction professor at the University of Mississippi. His most recent book, his fourth Frank Bascombe novel Be Mine, was released last June.
Quote Of The Day
"Writing is the only thing I've ever done with persistence, except for being married."
- Richard Ford
Today's video features Richard Ford reading from his most recent novel, Be Mine, in a live appearance at Square Books in September of 2023. Enjoy!