Nov. 30, 1999

In Praise of ABC

by Nancy Willard

Broadcast Date: TUESDAY: November 30, 1999

Poem: "In Praise of ABC" by Nancy Willard from Swimming Lessons published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Itís the birthday today of American playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet, born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947. Mamet is know for his expert use of everyday speech in the crafting of his film dialogue, as well as for his gritty portrayal of desperate, sometimes freakish characters. In 1976 he won the New York Drama Critics Award for American Buffalo, and in 1992 the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross. Heís written screenplays for several successful motion pictures including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982) and Wag the Dog (1998). "Political corruption in pursuit of a personal vision of the public good is limited by nothing at all, and ends in murder and chaos."

It's the birthday in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. His father opened a grocery store in nearby Hannibal when Twain was four, and Twain grew up watching the steamboats and lumber-rafts work their way up and down the Mississippi River past Hannibal, and rubbing elbows with gamblers and stevedores. His older brother set up a local paper, the Hannibal Journal, and Twain got his start writing humorous sketches for it. Twain left town when he was 18 and for the next 10 years was an itinerant travel writer who made ends meet as a printer, Confederate soldier, riverboat pilot, and gold prospector, and signed his work variously as S.L.C., Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, or Josh. He started using Mark Twain when he was 27 — a phrase riverboat pilots used that means "two fathoms deep," which is safe for a boat to pass — and shortly afterward came out with the story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Published first in New York then all across the country, it made him a famous man. Although Twain continued to travel for the rest of his life, he built a big, lovely house in Hartford, Connecticut, and there wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) — both books after asking friends from his Hannibal days to send him their reminiscences of growing up there. Twain lost his fortune on bad investments, then sold the Hartford house and paid all his creditors back mostly through lecture tours.

Itís the birthday of Anglo-Irish author, journalist, and satirist Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin (1667), who wrote the classic novel Gulliverís Travels (1726). Swift was born to English parents who had settled in Ireland, was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. He was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1695, and began writing at a young age.

It's the birthday poet Philip Sydney, born 1554, in Kent, England, author of Elizabethan England's great sonnet cycle titled Astrophel and Stella. Sidney tried nearly all his life to acquire a military or court post, without much success. So he poured his energies into writing, and in his late 20s produced Astrophel and Stella — a series of passionate love poems for the wife of another man. The cycle begins with these words: "Fool! said my muse to me, look in thy heart, and write." Shakespeare, 20 years later, modeled his own sonnets after Sidney's.

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