Displaying articles for: May 2010

Shaw Tied in Knots

June 1: On this day in 1898 George Bernard Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townsend. Both were in their early forties and both professed a distaste for matrimony; how they came to tie a knot that would last for forty-five years—though celibate ones, apparently—is a story that has intrigued all Shaw's biographers, as it seems to have intrigued Shaw himself. Read more...

The Model T

May 31: The last Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line on this day in 1927 (and asphalt was patented on this day in 1870). Aldous Huxley was so horrified by the American road culture he saw when traveling the U.S. in the 1920s that he made Henry Ford the dystopian God of Brave New World, and Sinclair Lewis immortalized the car in Main Street: "That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters." Read more...

Starting Spoon River

May 29: On this day in 1914 the first installment of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology was published. Over the next six months Masters would write the remainder of his 244 "epitaphs"; when published in book form in 1916, Spoon River became the bestselling collection of American poetry to date, and eventually enabled Masters to give up his legal practice and become a full-time writer. Read more...

Seeking Walker Percy

May 28: Walker Percy was born on this day in 1916. Percy's books are full of seekers, the theme clear and compulsive from the first pages of his first, prize-winning novel, The Moviegoer: "Then it is that the idea of the search occurs to me," says Binx Bolling. "What is the nature of the search? you ask. …The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." Read more...

Rachel Carson's Wonder

May 27: On this day in 1907 Rachel Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her homestead is now a museum and educational center, though it includes only one of the sixty-five acres upon which Carson grew up and learned the life-lesson that she would teach the world: "The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life." Read more...

Last Pepys

May 26: Samuel Pepys died on this day in 1703, aged seventy. A tailor's son, Pepys rose to a position of relative prosperity and power -- Secretary to the Admiralty, an M.P., a man who knew royalty, and one rich enough to amass a library of 3,000 volumes, most of them leather-bound to order, all displayed in impressive oak cases and according to his own unique cataloguing system. Read more...

Carver Country

May 25: On this day in 1938 Raymond Carver was born. Carver's poem "Luck," about a nine-year-old who wakes to an empty house and the leftovers of his parents' party, is all too autobiographical: "What luck, I thought. / Years later, / I still wanted to give up / friends, love, starry skies, / for a house where no one / was home, no one coming back, / and all I could drink." Read more...

Brodsky the Parasite-Poet

May 24: Joseph Brodsky was born on this day in 1940 in Leningrad. Brodsky's constitutional skepticism was not compatible with the official Russian alternatives, and by age twenty-five he was in prison, wrapped in cold, wet sheets as a cure for "having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism … except for the writing of awful poems." Read more...

Dining With Langston Hughes

May 22: On this day in 1967 Langston Hughes died, aged sixty-five. While still in his mid-twenties, Hughes allied himself with other Black Americans who intended "to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." Throughout his life he remained optimistic of the outcome: "Tomorrow, / I'll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody'll dare / Say to me, / 'Eat in the kitchen,' / Then." Read more...

Gypsy and the Ecdysiasts

May 21: The musical smash-hit Gypsy opened on Broadway on this day in 1959. The bestseller upon which the show is based, Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir Gypsy, told her life as a rags-to-naked success story, and added to her case against H. L. Mencken, who had offered her profession a semantic makeover: "Ecdysiast, he calls me! Why, the man ... has been reading books! Dictionaries! We don't wear feathers and molt them off.... What does he know about stripping?" Read more...

Auden, Orwell, Spain

May 20: On this day in 1937 W. H. Auden's Spain was published. The proceeds from sales of this pamphlet-length poem went to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, a group which Auden had tried to join as an ambulance driver in Spain just months earlier. One who would have had need of such aid was George Orwell: on this same day in 1937, while in Spain fighting for the Republican cause, Orwell was shot in the throat in front-line fighting. Read more...

Nash, Tarkington, Teenagers

May 19: Ogden Nash died on this day in 1971, and Booth Tarkington died on this day in 1946. These two events meet at Nash's "Tarkington, Thou Should'st Be Living In This Hour," a poem which pays tribute to Tarkington's Seventeen (and which borrows for its title from Wordsworth's "London, 1802," which begins "Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour...."). Tarkington's bestselling 1916 novel is A Tale of Youth and Summer Time; Nash's poem is a befuddled parental howl…. Read more...

The Surrealist Parade

May 18: Parade, the "first modern ballet," premiered in Paris on this day in 1917. The production was a collaboration of some of modernism's most famous -- music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Picasso, dancing by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, and program notes by Guillaume Apollinaire, these describing the event as "a kind of surrealism," the first print usage of that word. Read more...

"The Genius They Forgot"

May 17: On this day in 1873 the innovative British novelist Dorothy Richardson was born. While Richardson may not be "the genius they forgot" (the subtitle of one biography), she was once compared to Proust and Joyce, her writing was the first to be described as "stream of consciousness," and Virginia Woolf credited her with the invention of something that Woolf herself would go on to make famous -- "the psychological sentence of the feminine gender." Read more...

The First Leaves of Grass

May 15: On this day in 1855 Walt Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, New York, clearing the way for the first edition, published seven weeks later. Over the next 36 years, Whitman would revise and add to the original twelve poems, publishing seven more editions, these now regarded as "the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism." Read more...

Cutting Clockwork Orange

May 14: On this day in 1962 Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange was published. The novel and the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film made Burgess internationally famous and the target of controversy, some finding his book prophetic of our social breakdown, some dismissing both book and author outright: "Anthony Burgess is a literary smart aleck whose novel, A Clockwork Orange, last year achieved a success d'estime with critics like William Burroughs, who mistook his muddle of sadism, teddyboyism, jive talk and Berlitz Russian for social philosophy."

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"How Do You Like it Now, Gentlemen?"

May 13: On this day in 1950, the New Yorker published Lillian Ross's controversial profile of Ernest Hemingway, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?" Based on a weekend spent following the author around New York, Ross's profile is regarded as an essential moment in the creation of the Hemingway legend. Some found Ross's Hemingway attractive; some agreed with the New Yorker wit who quipped to James Thurber, "She loved him so much she shot him." Read more...

Twain's Mississippi

May 12: On this day in 1883 Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi was published. Twain's career as a river-boat pilot began in the mid-1850s, inspired by innocence and circumstance: "I made up my mind that I would go to the head-waters of the Amazon and collect coca and trade in it and make a fortune.... When I got to New Orleans I inquired about ships leaving for Para and discovered that there weren't any and learned that there probably wouldn't be any during that century." Read more...

The Oldest Dated Book

May 11: The world's oldest dated book, the Diamond Sutra, was published "by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long" -- this day in 868. The Buddhist text is a meditation upon the detachment necessary for transcendent wisdom: "Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: / A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; / A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, / A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream." Read more...

Grahame and the Open Road

May 10: On this day in 1907 Kenneth Grahame wrote the first (or the first extant) of a series of letters to his son, Alastair, describing the Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger adventures that eventually became The Wind in the Willows, the children's classic, : "Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his…." Read more...

Osborne's Anger

May 8: On this day in 1956 John Osborne's first play, Look Back in Anger, opened in London. The Royal Court Theatre press release called the twenty-six-year-old Osborne "an angry young man," and when the play became a hit, the phrase stuck as a label for a young, post-war generation which felt disillusioned and disenfranchised. Critic Clive Barnes later cited the opening night of the play as the "actual birthday...of modern British theatre." Read more...

Beethoven's Ninth

May 7: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on this day in 1824, with the totally deaf composer on stage for the first time in twelve years, though only as a secondary conductor. Contemporary accounts describe Beethoven "as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus"; others remember him several measures behind, and having to be turned around to at least see the audience's cheers, many thinking to add a waved handkerchief or raised hat to their five standing ovations. Read more...

"Our Pan is Dead"

May 6: On this day in 1862 Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four. In his eulogy, Emerson suggested that Thoreau never lived up to his potential -- "instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party" -- but he also praised his friend as a "born protestant" with unique gifts. In her memorial poem, Louisa May Alcott lamented, "'Our Pan is dead; / His pipe hangs mute beside the river / Around it wistful sunbeams quiver, / But Music's airy voice is fled….'" Read more...

Papa & Palin

May 5: On this day in 1964 Ernest Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast was published, and on this day in 1943 Michael Palin was born. Palin has taken on the Hemingway legend twice, in his travel book Hemingway Adventure and in his 1995 bestseller Hemingway's Chair, He has also confessed a youthful and unsatisfied infatuation: "…in the late 1950s there wasn't much call for provincial English schoolboys to carry mortars up Spanish hillsides, and though I had a goldfish I hadn't fought for seven hours to land it." Read more...

Joyce's Wake

May 4: James Joyce's Finnegans Wake was published on this day in 1939. Joyce had hoped to have the book come out on his birthday, as Ulysses had done in 1922; this proved impossible, but one advance copy was delivered for February 2nd, and a birthday-book celebration was quickly organized. With the looming uncertainty of war, and the certainty that Joyce did not have another seventeen-year book in him, the party became something of a career celebration. Read more...

Swimming the Hellespont

May 3: On this day in 1810 Lord Byron swam the Hellespont in emulation of Leander's legendary swims to visit his beloved Hero. Byron was twenty-two, and ten months into his two-year tour of the Mediterranean. He was not yet famous for his poetry or his profligacy, although he had just finished the first draft of Childe Harold, and had just ended, while in Malta, his first serious affair with a young woman who fit what would become the Byronic type. Read more...

May Day

May 1: Celebrants of May Day have their pick of two causes, roughly speaking -- love and war, the maidenly Maypole and the workers' Red Flag. One of the most famous and militant poems on the theme of class warfare is Alfred Hayes's "Into the Streets, May First"; one of many poems on the theme of love and renewal is "The First of May" by A. E. Housman, who died on April 30, 1936. 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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