Displaying articles for: April 2010

Walden Burning

April 30: Twenty-six-year-old Henry David Thoreau accidentally set fire to 300 acres of the Concord woods on this day in 1844. Thoreau had taken a few days off from the family pencil-making business, and set out down the Sudbury River with a friend. A spark from their first fire, a noonday fish-fry -- this courtesy of a borrowed match, as they had forgotten to pack their own -- ignited the dry shoreline grass. Read more...

Dr. Roget's Word Cure

April 29: The first edition of Roget's Thesaurus was published on this day in 1852. Dr. Peter Roget was a physician by profession and a polymath in practice, publishing learned articles on sewer sanitation, magnetism, bees, geology and more. First compiled as a personal aid, his Thesaurus was greeted with some skepticism that any sort of word-patching could fix a leaky sentence, or a lifetime of insufficient reading and writing. Read more...

Lee 84, Mockingbird 50

April 28: Harper Lee turns eighty-four today, and this summer To Kill a Mockingbird turns fifty. Lee has not often broken the silence and anonymity into which she retreated after her novel was published, though her rare appearances can be engaging. In a comment published in 2006 she describes "an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms…." Read more...

Emerson Remembered

April 27: On this day in 1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson died, aged seventy-eight. Though his last decade was one of increasing debility, Emerson was still invited to speak across America and Europe; his final return to Concord was part tribute and part house-raising, accepted as "a trick of sympathy to catch an old gentleman returned from his wanderings." Read more...

Dickinson & Higginson

April 26: On this day in 1862, thirty-one-year-old Emily Dickinson sent the second of her famous letters to the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano…." Read more...

Wilde, Dorian & Douglas

April 24: On this day in 1891 Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. One reviewer condemned "its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity…." This only provoked Wilde to go further: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Read more...

Book Day & the Bard

April 23: On this day in 1616 both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died, thus prompting UNESCO to declare today "World Book and Copyright Day." The declaration may also have been inspired by a third death on this day, that of William Wordsworth in 1850. As April 23 is also the generally accepted date of Shakespeare's birth, based on baptismal records, the day is even more momentous, or dubious…. Read more...

Nabokov & Lenin

April 22: Vladimir Nabokov was born on this day in 1899, and Vladimir Lenin was born on this day in 1870. Historically speaking, the two cross paths in St. Petersburg in 1917: as Lenin returned from exile after the first Bolshevik uprising forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Nabokovs, one of those very wealthy and privileged families which the revolutionaries had in their sights, were packing to leave the city and the country. Read more...

Twain as Jeremiah

April 21: On this day in 1910 Mark Twain died at the age of seventy-four. Twain's last decade was full of zeal, the "jeremiad strain in his voice" (biographer Mark Hamlin) heard in articles and dinner speeches on anything from pork-barrel politics to the age of sexual consent to the "Gospel of Self," which defined his portrait of the nineteenth century: "…her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies." Read more...

Archibald MacLeish

April 20: Archibald MacLeish died on this day in 1982, a few weeks before his ninetieth birthday. If MacLeish is not forgotten entirely today, most are unaware of the full range of his accomplishments: two Pulitzers, a Bollingen, and a National Book Award for poetry; a Tony and a Pulitzer for drama (both for J.B.); an Oscar for the screenplay to The Eleanor Roosevelt Story; and, for his initiatives as the inaugural Librarian of Congress, a spot on the list of 100 Most Important Librarians in America. Read more...

The Death of Lord Byron

April 19: Lord Byron died in Missolonghi, Greece on this day in 1824. His last months, spent on a revolutionary war which proved to be "a fool's errand," caused not only his fatal illness but such extreme disillusionment that he had to stop writing in his journal in order to spare himself his observations. His last entry, three months before his death, contained his last poem: "If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live? / The land of honourable death / Is here:—up to the field, and give / Away thy breath!" Read more...

Hardy, Woolf, and The Mayor of Casterbridge

April 17: On this day in 1885, Thomas Hardy noted in his diary, "Wrote the last page of The Mayor of Casterbridge, begun at least a year ago." In her diary forty years later, Virginia Woolf tells an amusing story of reading Hardy's novel while on the way to visit him, "beset with desire to hear him say something about his books." Read more...

Lessing's Albatross

April 16: On this day in 1962, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook was published. Still the bestselling of her two dozen books, Lessing has described it as an attempt "to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them"; she has also said that the novel became "an albatross" hung around her neck by a feminist misreading. Read more...

Da Vinci & the Deluge

April 15: Leonardo da Vinci was born on this day in 1452. Jean Paul Richter's 1883 edition of The Literary Works of Leonardo was the first systematic presentation of the great Renaissance thinker's copious, scattered, and demanding manuscripts -- 5,000 loose-leaf pages scrawled with detailed and overflowing genius, so that "on one and the same page, observations on the most dissimilar subjects follow each other without any connection." Read more...

Webster & Johnson

April 14: On this day in 1828 Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language, introducing thousands of new words and authorizing various non-British spellings. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, which Webster both borrowed from and criticized, has its 255th anniversary tomorrow. Read more...

Shaking & Stirring

April 13: Ian Fleming's Casino Royale was published on this day in 1953. It is not only the first of the dozen spy-sex cocktails which Fleming would shake and re-shake over the next decade, but the source for the actual Bond cocktail, named at a first meeting with Vesper Lynd, the first of the double-dealing femme fatales. Read more...

Madame Bovary in Court

April 12: On this day in 1857, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary was published. Flaubert's portrait of "ignoble reality" introduced a new style of writing, established his reputation, and landed him defiantly in court, charged with corrupting public morals: "If the bourgeois are exasperated by my novel, I don't care; if we are taken to criminal court, I don't care…." Read more...

Fitzgerald & Gatsby

April 10: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was published on this day in 1925; on the same day, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins that he was "overcome with fears and forebodings" for the book's reception. Other letters at the time despair at the stupid or capricious critics, and that the poor sales will require the writing of more magazine trash, or taking up the movie business: "I had my chance back in 1920 to start my life on a sensible scale and I lost it and so I'll have to pay the penalty." Read more...

Rabelais, Rabelaisian

April 9: On this day in 1553 the French monk, physician, humanist scholar, and writer, François Rabelais died. His influential and inimitable Gargantua and Pantagruel is regarded as a masterpiece of the mock-quest tradition (emphasis decidedly on the mock). Its lampoon of just about every power-group going brought condemnation and censorship in the author's lifetime; modern readers marvel more at the style, that exuberant combination of humor, sex, and scatology now deemed "Rabelaisian." Read more...

Faulkner's Wishing-Tree

April 8: William Faulkner's The Wishing-Tree was published in The Saturday Evening Post on this day in 1967, three days before its book publication. The Wishing-Tree is Faulkner's only children's story, and it is little known, but behind it is a tale which has its own charm, in the style of his RAF fibs and other fabrications. Read more...

Barth on Barthelme

April 7: On this day in 1931 Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia. Barthelme's eminence in postmodern fiction is beyond dispute, though few are brave enough to attempt going beyond the author's own description of his achievement: "stories that invite and resist interpretation." Read more...

Petrarch & Laura

April 6: As noted on the flyleaf of his copy of Virgil, Petrarch first saw "Laura" on this day in 1327, while at a Good Friday church service in Avignon, France. Though some scholars hold that Laura was only an idealization, others think that she was not only real but an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade; whatever their inspiration, Petrarch's 366 love sonnets are their own testament, and model for a lot of later plaint-making. Read more...

Mencken's Law

April 5: On this day in 1926, H. L. Mencken was arrested by the Boston vice squad, charged with the possession and sale of indecent literature -- the recent issue of Mencken's American Mercury magazine, found offensive for a short story by Herbert Asbury about a small-town prostitute. Mencken approached his trial as yet another opportunity to demonstrate Mencken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel." Read more...

Wilde in Court

April 3: Oscar Wilde's first trial, his prosecution of the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, opened on this day in 1895. This initiated the series of legal events -- Wilde's withdrawal of charges partway through the first trial and then, based on the evidence presented during it, his arrest for homosexual acts -- which would deliver Wilde to prison within two months. Read more...

Fraser & Forester

April 2: George MacDonald Fraser was born on this day in 1925, and C. S. Forester died on this day in 1966. Between the two of them, in two dozen books ranging over Her Majesty's lands and seas, Fraser and Forester turned the nineteenth-century British Empire into a never-ending, never-dull yarn. Read more...

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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