Mar. 26, 2007


by Robert Frost

MONDAY, 26 MARCH, 2007

Poem: "Away" by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. © Library of America. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Campbell, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904). He saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Riders as a child and decided to learn everything there was to know about Indians. He read his way through the children's room at his local library by the time he was 11, and started right in on reports from the Bureau of Ethnology.

In college, he turned to studying Arthurian legend. He abandoned a Ph.D. dissertation about Holy Grail stories and went to live in a shack, where for five years he continued to read. In 1949, he published a monumental study of mythology called The Hero With a Thousand Faces; it traced the common theme of the spiritual quest in myth. All sorts of writers found it a treasure trove for their own work, from the poet Robert Bly to the filmmaker George Lucas, who said that without it, he would never have been able to write Star Wars.

It was on this day in 1920 that This Side of Paradise was published, launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) to fame and fortune. The first version of the book was called The Romantic Egotist, and Fitzgerald had started writing it in the fall of 1917 while awaiting commission as an army officer. He wrote most of the manuscript at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent chapters as he wrote them to a typist at Princeton where he had been a student. In March 1918, he submitted the novel to Charles Scribner's Sons. Scribners rejected the novel but encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it. He submitted a new version titled The Education of a Personage to Scribners in September 1918, but that second version was also rejected.

In July 1919, after his discharge from the army, Fitzgerald returned to his family's home at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. He pinned revision notes to his curtains and rewrote much of the novel. In August 1919, Fitzgerald finished a new draft, now titled This Side of Paradise. He gave it to a friend from St. Paul for a final edit and sent the new typescript to Scribners on September 4, 1919. Two weeks after he mailed the manuscript, Fitzgerald received Maxwell Perkins' letter accepting the book. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside and stopped cars on the street to announce the news.

It's the birthday of the playwright Tennessee Williams, (books by this author) born Thomas Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). When he was 12 years old, his family moved from small-town Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where they were forced to live in a crowded tenement building. It was around that time that the family began to suspect that Williams's older sister, Rose, was mentally ill. She became increasingly shy and reclusive, and there was talk that she might need to be institutionalized.

Williams started writing when he was in high school, and sold one of his first short stories to Weird Tales magazine. But after his first year of college, his father forced him to take a job at a shoe store. He worked there for two years and later called the experience "a season in hell." He barely slept at all in those two years, staying up all night drinking coffee and writing, and his lack of sleep finally led to a breakdown.

After his recovery, Williams decided to make a total break with his family. He began traveling the country, working as a bellhop, elevator operator, usher, teletyper, warehouse handyman, and waiter in a Greenwich Village nightclub. Then, in 1943, Williams learned that Rose had been given a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to cure her mental illness. He was deeply disturbed by the news, and it inspired him to finish a play he'd been thinking about for a long time, based loosely on his own family, called The Glass Menagerie (1944). The play became a big success in 1944, and Williams went on to write A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), The Night of the Iguana (1961), and Suddenly Last Summer (1958).

Tennessee Williams said, "A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Frost, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1874). His father was a journalist and a hard drinker who died of tuberculosis when Frost was 11 years old. Frost moved with his mother to New England to live near family. He didn't do well in college. He dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard without taking a degree. He wanted to marry his high school sweetheart and tried to impress her with a book of poems he'd written. When she wasn't impressed, he considered drowning himself in a swamp, but decided not to go through with it at the last minute.

He finally married the girl and supported himself as a teacher for a few years, writing poetry on the side. Then, in 1900, he and his wife lost their first child, which sent Frost into a deep despair. So his grandfather took pity on him and bought him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, in hopes that it would give him a steady income. Frost never really took to farming, but it gave him something to write about, and it was in those years on the farm that he began to write the poems that would make his name.

He published his first two collections, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), the latter of which contains many of Frost's early masterpieces, including "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "After Apple-Picking," and "Home Burial."

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