Displaying articles for: January 2011

Zamyatin's We

February 1: Yevgeny Zamyatin was born on this day in 1884—somewhat ironically, as Zamyatin's dystopian novel, We, anticipates Orwell's 1984 (and anticipates Huxley's Brave New World even more so). The Russian authorities banned We and exiled Zamyatin; whether for its warnings about totalitarianism or its literary offspring, critic Martin Seymour-Smith has put the novel on his list of "100 Most Influential Books Ever Written."

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"When I Have Fears…"

January 31: On this day in 1818 John Keats sent a letter to his friend, J. H. Reynolds, which included the newly written sonnet "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be." The poem is now one of Keats's most famous, and when it was published a quarter-century after his death, it helped cement the pale-and-dying legend which surrounds his last years.

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Abbey's American West

January 29: Edward Abbey, the American essayist, novelist, and environmentalist, was born on this day in 1927. Larry McMurtry's description of Abbey as "the Thoreau of the American West" alludes to the prickly manner in which Abbey spoke out on the disappearance and commercialization of public lands, or on our dwindling concern over this process.

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Praising Pride & Prejudice

January 28: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was published anonymously on this day in 1813. The first reviewers judged it "very superior … in the delineation of domestic scenes"; Annabella Milbanke, later Lady Byron and embroiled in some notorious domestic scenes of her own, praised it for not stooping to "any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots…."

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Dodgson in Numberland

January 27: Charles Dodgson was born on this day in 1832. As Robin Wilson reminds us in Lewis Carroll in Numberland, Dodgson's books and journals are full of puzzles, paradoxes, mindbenders, and an array of speculative or just madcap inventions, from "Circular Billiards" and "Arithmetical Croquet" to boot-umbrellas for horizontal rain.

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Thoreau & Gandhi

January 26: Henry David Thoreau's thoughts on "Civil Disobedience" were first aired on this day in 1848, in a talk delivered at the Concord Lyceum; and on this day in 1931 Mahatma Gandhi was released from jail after serving eight months for his salt rebellion. Gandhi was inspired by "Civil Disobedience," and by Thoreau's willingness to go to jail for his principles.

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Robots & Newts

January 25: Karel Capek's R.U.R. opened in Prague on this day in 1921, introducing the term "robot"—the play's initials stand for "Rossum's Universal Robots"—as a new way of referencing a very old concept. Capek returned to this theme in War With the Newts (1936), a dystopian satire in which a race of intelligent salamanders, at first exploited for economic and military reasons, takes over the world.

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America & Amerika

January 24: Edward Albee's The American Dream opened on this day in 1961, recasting the Theater of the Absurd "into a genuine American idiom" (Martin Esslin); and on this day in 1913 Franz Kakfa, one of the most famous stay-at-homes in literature, broke off writing Amerika, his absurdist take on the American Dream.

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Shake-n-Bacons

January 22: Francis Bacon was born 450 years ago today. The "father of scientific method" wrote in a wide range—poetry, fiction, essays on religious and moral themes, apothegms  ("Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper"), and more. Much more, say the "Shake-n-Bacons" who believe that Bacon is the author of Shakespeare's plays.

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Brown's Power of Sympathy

January 21: William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, generally accepted as the first American novel, was published on this day in 1789. Worried that his novel of transgressive passion would draw fire from the Puritan, anti-novel lobby, Brown dedicated it to "the Young Ladies of United Columbia," that they might register "the fatal CONSEQUENCES of SEDUCTION" and be inspired to live according to "a Principle of Self Complacency."

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First Trips

January 20: On this day in 1966 Ken Kesey was released from a San Francisco jail after an overnight stay for marijuana possession. This allowed Kesey and a busload of Merry Pranksters to tour the city, trying to astound and to advertise the first Trips Festival, regarded by the historians as a "seminal cultural event, or "the beginning of the sixties," or just a very good and very weird time.

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Edgar More Poe Than Allan

January 19: Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809, to the impoverished and dying young actress, Eliza Poe. Unable to meet the conditions set by his guardian, the wealthy Richmond merchant John Allan, Poe soon faced the hard facts that controlled his mother's life—abandonment, itinerancy, hand-outs.

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Besting Bulwer-Lytton

January 18: On this day in 1873 the novelist-historian Edward George Bulwer-Lytton died. Although widely read in Victorian England, Bulwer-Lytton is now mostly known for inspiring others to imitate the rambling wreck of a sentence which opens his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which…. "

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Sheridan & Malaprop

January 17: Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, his first play, premiered on this day in 1775, launching him to fame and one of his characters, Mrs. Malaprop, into tongue-twisted history. While modern collectors of malapropisms and their cousins—spoonerisms, eggcorns, misheard lyrics, and confused quotations—harvest from all fields, politicians are prized, and recently fertile, ground.

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The Mandelstams

January 15: On this day in 1891 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was born. While by no means the only writer victimized by Stalin, Mandelstam has become a symbol of all those so destroyed. This is partly due to his high reputation as a poet, and partly due to his wife, who salvaged many of Mandelstam's banned poems and who chillingly and movingly documented her husband's death and times in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.

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Emily Hahn, "Roving Heroine"

January 14: On this day in 1905, Emily ("Mickey") Hahn was born. Reflecting on her storybook life, her fifty-two books, and her sixty-eight-year career at the New Yorker, Roger Angell described Hahn as "this magazine's roving heroine, our Belle Geste…. She was, in truth, something rare: a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world. Driven by curiosity and energy, she went there and did that, and then wrote about it without fuss."

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Joyce's Death & Wake

January 13: On this day in 1941, James Joyce died in Zurich at the age of fifty-eight. Even without the dislocation of WWII, Joyce's last years were beset with difficulties—the schizophrenia of his daughter, his son's floundering career and broken marriage, his eyesight, his struggles with Finnegans Wake. "Though not so blind as Homer, and not so exiled as Dante," writes biographer Richard Ellmann, "he had reached his life's nadir."

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Morris & Kelmscott

January 12: William Morris began the Kelmscott Press on this day in 1891, in a cottage he had rented a few doors down from Kelmscott House, his London home. In his bookmaking, as in his furniture, textiles, wallpaper, stained glass, and painting, Morris hoped to obey his "golden rule" to "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

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Hardly Speaking

January 11: Thomas Hardy died on this day in 1928, aged eighty-seven. Hardy had long given up writing novels, and though he continued to work on his poetry, it too could sound like giving up. From "He Resolves to Say No More," the last poem in his last collection: "Why load men's minds with more to bear / That bear already ails to spare? / From now always / Till my last day / What I discern I will not say."

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The Browning Letters

January 10: On this day in 1845 Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, so inciting one of the most legendary of literary love stories. Although partly poet-to-poet fan mail, Browning's letter confides that "for the first time, my feeling rises altogether," and then takes a leap off the romantic deep end: "I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too…."

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Collins & Sergeant Cuff

January 8: On this day in 1824, the Victorian mystery novelist Wilkie Collins was born. Two of Collins's "gaslight thrillers," The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), have stayed popular, and Collins is regarded as among the first in English crime fiction to bring literary flair to his tales and psychological depth to his characters, such as the detective-hero Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard.

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Fannie Farmer's Art

January 7: The first "Fannie Farmer Cookbook," officially titled The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, was published on this day in 1896, borrowing a passage from the Victorian art critic John Ruskin to assert cookery's ancient pedigree as "the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba."

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Gibran's Timeless Prophet

January 6: On this day in 1883 the painter-writer-mystic Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon. His best-known work, The Prophet remains at or near the top of the all-time bestseller lists in both the Arab world and the West, apparently providing the comfort and inspiration intended: "The whole Prophet is saying one thing," Gibran summarized, "‘you are far greater than you know—and all is well.'"

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Dumas as Musketeer

January 5: On this day in 1825 twenty-three-year-old Alexandre Dumas (Sr.) embarked on his self-proclaimed "career as a romantic" by fighting his first duel. Dumas's memoirs are about as reliable as his historical fiction, but they tell the pants story in glorious, comedy-of-errors detail, and prepare us for some of the escapades in The Three Musketeers.

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Ross Lockridge, Raintree County

January 4: Ross Lockridge Jr.'s Raintree County, his first and only novel, was published on this day in 1948. Among those stories of books and authors who belong to the one-hit wonder category, the story of Lockridge and his 1,000-page epic may be the most wondrous, and most tragic.

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Melville & the Cannibals

January 3: On this day in 1841 twenty-two-year-old Herman Melville set sail aboard a New England whaler heading for the South Seas. His experiences on this and several subsequent voyages would provide the basis for a half-dozen sea novels. Central to Typee, the first of these, is the autobiographical hero's discovery that the otherwise friendly natives liked to keep a supply of "long pig" in their cooking pot.

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Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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The King of Pain

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The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.