Displaying articles for: February 2011

Young Robert Lowell

March 1: Robert Lowell was born on this day in 1917. The people and places of Lowell's historic and distinguished clan are featured in a number of his poems and prose pieces. The memoir "91 Revere Street" recalls the Lowell house in Boston's prestigious Beacon Hill district. Though "barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency" as far as his mother was concerned, the neighborhood was all too gentlemanly for young Robert.

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Gravity's Rainbow Appears

February 28: On this day in 1973 Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow appeared, causing among the critics the sort of wonder and mayhem which begins the novel, as a V-2 rocket slams into 1944 London: "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now . . . ."

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Thurber's Carnival

February 26: A Thurber Carnival opened on Broadway on this day in 1960, to good reviews and a long run. James Thurber died twenty months later; Thurber's biographers and friends describe his involvement in the play as his swan song, and a bright spot in his difficult, almost totally blind last years.

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Hugo as Hero

February 25: On this day in 1830, on the eve of his twenty-eighth birthday, Victor Hugo's Hernani premiered in Paris. The opening night is regarded as one of the most momentous in French theater history, part of a larger conflict between the new-wave bohemians in Hugo's "Romantic Army" and the old-guard Classicists. Hugo's troops swept the day, and placed him in the forefront of 19th-century French literature.

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The Grimm Hard Facts

February 24: Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two brothers, was born on this day in 1786. If Jacob was the scholar of the family, Wilhelm was the story-shaper, as well as the one responsible for stripping the early versions of the Grimms' tales of their "graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest."

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The Du Bois Challenge

February 23: W. E. B. Du Bois was born on this day in 1868. In contrast to those contemporaries who advocated a patient approach to racial equality, Du Bois argued for immediate entitlement: " . . . Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?"

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Simon's Broadway Debut

February 22: Neil Simon made his Broadway debut fifty years ago today, when Come Blow Your Horn opened for a twenty-month run. The play's success allowed Simon to escape the day job he loathed, writing comedy for the "Red Buttons Show," the "Sgt. Bilko Show," and other television hits. Looking back, Simon describes his first hit as seeming like "the crude markings in a cave by the first prehistoric chronicler."

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E.B. White Hen-Pecks Harold Ross

February 21: The New Yorker celebrates its eighty-sixth anniversary today. In the first issue, editor Harold Ross outlined the magazine's promises to its readers: "It will be human. Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will be not what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers. It will hate bunk . . . ."

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Inge's Picnic

February 19: William Inge's Picnic premiered on this day in 1953, running on Broadway for almost 500 performances and winning a Pulitzer for Inge. The play was one of a string of hits which made Inge one of the most famous mid-century playwrights. It was also Paul Newman's Broadway debut, and the occasion for his first meeting with Joanne Woodward.

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Kazantzakis & Zorba

February 18: On this day in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion, Crete. Kazantzakis was a philosopher, a doctor of laws, a politician, and a prolific writer in almost all genres, but he is most famous for his Zorba life lessons: "How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea."

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The Story of "Waltzing Matilda"

February 17: On this day in 1864, A. B. ("Banjo") Paterson was born in New South Wales, Australia. Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda" apparently retains its popularity as Australia's unofficial national anthem: Bill Bryson describes a train full of Aussies spontaneously breaking into a few enthusiastic choruses after news of the country winning an Olympic gold medal in his book about traveling the continent, In a Sunburned Country (2000).

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Thomas Gray & the Hermit Tradition

February 16: On this day in 1751, Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was published, becoming the most reprinted poem of the 18th century. Gray and his "Elegy" are central to the 18th century's idealization of rusticity and reclusion, and its related obsession with sensibility; as documented in Isabel Colegate's A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaires and Recluses (2003) , these fads could lead to some odd behavior.

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Miller’s "Gob of Spit"

February 15: On this day in 1986 the original manuscript of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was auctioned for $165,000, setting a record price for a 20th century American literary manuscript. The record has been smashed repeatedly now, but the sale stands as a vindication of Miller’s "gob of spit in the face of Art," and middle-class America.

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Wilde, Earnest, Disaster

February 14: On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. Wilde called his play a "Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and the opening night reviewers concurred: "There is no discordant note of seriousness. It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen." But the nonsense soon led Wilde to court, and disaster.

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Woody & Bogey

February 12: Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam opened on Broadway on this day in 1969. It ran for thirteen months (with the hit movie following in 1972), and so enhanced Allen's reputation as a rising star that he made the cover of Time five weeks after the Broadway opening. Play it Again, Sam also cemented Allen's most enduring persona, that of the stumbling intellectual lost in a Walter Mitty daydream.

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A Vonnegut First

February 11: Kurt Vonnegut's first publication, a short story entitled "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," was published on this day in 1950. Vonnegut was twenty-seven, disgusted with his job at General Electric, and still in shock from his experiences five years earlier in the Dresden slaughterhouse. His story is based on the Professor Barnhouse's ability to use his powers of "dynamopsychism" to bring about world peace.

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The Dreadnought Hoax

February 10: The Dreadnought Hoax, a practical joke at the British Navy's expense, occurred on this day in 1910. Among the young Bloomsbury conspirators was Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and, though she played only a minor Abyssinian potentate, she afterwards expressed pride in her contribution: "I am glad to think that I too have been of help to my country."

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Chasing Coetzee

February 9: J. M. Coetzee was born on this day in 1940. Coetzee doesn't do interviews, and his series of "fictionalized memoirs" may trip up more than one fearless biographer. In a review of a recent biography of William Faulkner, Coetzee wonders at the biographer's tendency "to trouble the text with fancies plucked out of the air," and cites Faulkner's ambition to be "abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless" save for the epitaph, "He wrote the books and he died."

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"Gerty Gerty Stein Stein…"

February 8: On this day in 1934, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts premiered. The opening was a celebrated event on its own—Buckminster Fuller arrived to it in his Dymaxion Car—but it also inspired Stein to visit America later in the year for a lecture tour. Her first visit in thirty years made tickertape headlines on the New York Times building and in the press: "Gerty Gerty Stein Stein is Back Home Home Back."

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Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre

February 7: On this day in 1885, Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. The argument which Lewis enjoyed with his hometown is a celebrated one—not least in the hometown, where Lewis's status has evolved from cuss-word to cultural attraction, with even the local high school sports teams, upon which Lewis never dreamed of playing, cheered on as the "MainStreeters."

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Plath's Last Poems

February 5: Sylvia Plath wrote her last two poems on this day in 1963, a week before her suicide. The two poems are quite different in mood, and when read biographically are often interpreted as representations of Plath's volatile personality, if not as a debate over the act she was contemplating.

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Lawrence on Cooper

February 4: James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans was published on this day in 1826. Later that year Cooper moved to Europe, where he lived for the next seven years. This fondness for cultured European living, balanced against a reputation based on a glorification of the American frontier, caused some to raise eyebrows, D. H. Lawrence among them.

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Bowing to H. L. Mencken

February 3: On this day in 1931, the Arkansas state legislature stood to pray for the soul of H. L. Mencken, who had attacked the South as a "booboisie" and elevated Arkansas to "the apex of moronia." The politicians' prayers had no effect on Mencken, but his attack on Arkansas helped to inspire his friend, Anita Loos, to write her 1925 bestseller, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

 

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Prizing Bertrand Russell

February 2: On this day in 1970 Bertrand Russell died, aged ninety-seven. Russell won his Nobel Prize in literature without ever having published any, but he wrote prolifically in other genres, and his commitment to "rationality and humanity" was "in the spirit of Nobel's intention." Russell's personal life is harder to praise or even portray, and some use his autobiography to damn him from his own mouth.

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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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Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

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.