Apr. 27, 2007

875 I stepped from Plank to Plank

by Emily Dickinson

FRIDAY, 27 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "875" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)


I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the author of the "Madeline" books, Ludwig Bemelmans, (books by this author) born in Meran, Tyrol, Austria (1898). He was rebellious as a child. He went to many different schools, but he failed out of all them, so his family sent him to work with his uncle, who owned a chain of hotels. When he shot and almost killed a waiter for one of the hotels, his parents gave him the choice of reform school or emigration to America. He chose America and arrived in New York when he was 16 years old.

He worked at a series of hotels and then started his own restaurant, which became very successful. He didn't think about becoming a writer until a friend in the publishing industry happened to see his childlike drawings on the walls of his apartment. His friend suggested that he write and illustrate a children's book.

And so he wrote his famous book Madeline (1939), which begins: "In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines ... the smallest one was Madeline!"

It's the birthday of playwright August Wilson, (books by this author) born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). He didn't do well in school, but in 1965, he wrote a college term paper about Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg for his sister. She paid him 20 dollars for his work, and on April 1, 1965, Wilson bought his first typewriter with that money. He typed his name, just to see how it would look, and from that point on he knew that he wanted to be a writer.

In 1978, he went to visit a friend in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he liked the relaxed atmosphere so much that he decided to stay there. He found that living away from Pittsburgh allowed him to write about it, and in 1982 he wrote his first play, Jitney, set in a Pittsburgh taxi stand. Two years later, he produced his big breakthrough, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1985.

It's the birthday of the man who created the "Left Behind" series of novels, Tim LaHaye, (books by this author) born in Detroit, Michigan (1926). In 1995—with his collaborator, Jerry B. Jenkins—he started writing the books depicting The Rapture and its aftermath. The books have become a publishing phenomenon, outselling books by John Grisham and Stephen King. The first book in the series still sells about 100,000 copies a month. It's been estimated that one out of every eight Americans has read at least one of the novels.

It's the birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, (books by this author) born in Point Pleasant, Ohio (1822). He was the commander of the Union Armies at the end of the Civil War and served as the 18th president of the United States. But he was also the author of a book called Personal Memoirs (1885), one of the few books ever written by an American president that qualifies as great literature.

After serving two terms as president, Grant got involved in an investment banking scheme with his son. One of the bank's partners had been keeping false books and embezzling money into his private account. Grant, who had thought he was a millionaire, found out that his partnership in the failed bank left him several million dollars in debt. Less than 10 years since he had been president of the United States, he had gone completely broke.

He needed money in a hurry, so he began writing his memoirs for a magazine called Century. But they didn't pay very well. After the first article appeared, Century magazine gained 50,000 new subscribers, and the number of advertising pages doubled, boosting the magazine's profits by about $100,000. Grant was paid only $500 per article.

But Mark Twain offered to publish a book of the memoirs, and he said he would pay Grant 75 percent of the profits. But by that time, Grant had also been diagnosed with throat cancer, and his health deteriorated rapidly. He knew that he didn't have long to live, and wrote his memoirs as fast as he could. In extreme pain, and in a daze from pain medication, he still managed to write 275,000 words in less than a year. He finished his memoirs in July 1885, and died four days later.

Grant's book was sold door to door, and it was a huge success. It eventually sold more than 300,000 copies. It provided Grant's family with $450,000 in royalties, the largest amount of royalties that had ever been paid out for a book at that point in history.

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