Tuesday

Jan. 15, 2013

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
    Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
    And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
    Half hidden from the eye!
— Fair as a star, when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference to me!

"She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways" by William Wordsworth. Public Domain. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1929). There have been many books written about him since he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. Taylor Branch wrote a 3,000-page trilogy about America during the King years: Parting the Waters (1988), Pillar of Fire (1998), and At Canaan's Edge (2006). It covers King's life from 1954 until his assassination in 1968. The first book in the trilogy won the Pulitzer Prize for history. David Garrow wrote Bearing the Cross (1986), a look at King's work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (2001), by King and Clayborne Carson, depicts King's life through his writings. Hampton Sides wrote about King's assassination and the hunt for his killer in Hellbound on His Trail (2010). Marshall Frady wrote from the perspective of a journalist who experienced the civil rights movement firsthand; his book is simply called Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life (2005).

The French playwright Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (books by this author), was baptized in Paris on this date (1622). Known as the father of French comedic theater, Molière wrote The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1664), and The Misanthrope (1666). Although he poked fun at the peasant and bourgeois classes, he was careful to leave the church and the monarchy alone; as a result, he never ran into trouble, he was a favorite of Louis XIV, and he always had work. He collapsed onstage during a performance in 1673; he finished the performance, but died of tuberculosis later that night. Because was no priest around to administer the Last Rites, he couldn't be buried in consecrated ground. After his widow appealed to the king, Molière was buried in the section of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized babies.

Molière, who said, "All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing."

It's the birthday of Frank Conroy (books by this author), born in New York City (1936). He's the author of five books, including Stop-Time (1967), a memoir; and also the novel Body and Soul (1993). When he was just starting out as a writer, he sometimes earned some extra money by playing piano in jazz clubs. He wasn't bad, either, and once jammed with Charlie Mingus. Mingus told him, "You are an authentic primitive [...] but you also swing."

He was invited to the University of Iowa as a last-minute teaching replacement, and he ended up directing the Iowa Writers' Workshop for 18 years. He once scolded a student for using irrelevant details in her short story. He said: "The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain — to the end of the story — and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you're going to have a very irritated reader on your hands."

Today is the birthday of the author and artist Andreas William Heinesen (books by this author), born in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands (1900). He was the most famous writer to come from the Faroe Islands, which belong to Denmark and lie between Iceland and Scotland. He spoke Faroese at home, but at that time, Danish was the Islands' official language, and that was the language he wrote his novels and poems in. He'd published three poetry collections by the time he wrote his first novel, which was Stormy Dawn (1934). He was so insecure about his Danish that he read the whole thing aloud to a native Danish speaker to make sure he'd gotten everything right.

In 1981, there was a rumor going around that he was going to be nominated for a Nobel Prize. He wrote to the committee asking that he not be considered for the prize. He wrote: "The Faroese language was once held in little regard — indeed it was suppressed outright. In spite of this, the Faroese language has created a great literature, and it would have been reasonable to give the Nobel Prize to an author who writes in Faroese. If it had been given to me, it would have gone to an author who writes in Danish, and in consequence Faroese efforts to create an independent culture would have been dealt a blow." Now, his books have all been translated into Faroese, which is being taught in the schools again in an attempt to preserve it.

It's the birthday of French courtesan Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy (1824). She was a beautiful young woman: petite, dark-haired, and slim. She was working as a laundress at the age of 13 when her father decided that prostitution paid better. He sent her to live with a rich and elderly bachelor in exchange for cash. After a year, she went to live with cousins in Paris. For a time, she was kept by a restaurant owner, who gave her a place to live in exchange for her favors. It wasn't long before she set her sights higher. She learned to read and write, and she studied a wide variety of subjects so that she could hold her own in any social situation. She started appearing at places where the rich and powerful were likely to be, and she attracted lots of attention.

She suspected she had tuberculosis when she developed a cough that only got worse. She was treated with everything from spa cures to strychnine to hypnotism. And through it all, she kept dressing up and holding salons and going to the opera. Having grown up in poverty, she couldn't get enough of luxury. Noblemen from all over Europe would call on her whenever they were in Paris, and they brought her expensive trinkets, which she sometimes pawned to support herself between lovers.

She began an affair with Alexandre Dumas the younger when they were both 20 years old. He was a struggling writer, and he wasn't able to give her lavish gifts like her other lovers. He kept her with him out in the country for a while, for the sake of her health, but she missed the lively Paris scene and went back to the city after a year. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore, and broke it off with her, writing in a letter, "I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish nor poor enough to be loved as you wish."

Duplessis never answered Dumas's letter. She was too ill, and she had begun an affair with the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. She wanted Liszt to bring her along on his concert tour, but he was afraid he would catch tuberculosis from her, so he left her behind. He promised to take her to Turkey one day, but he never saw her again. After she died at the age of 23, Liszt regretted not coming to her bedside, and said: "She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind. [...] She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed."

Four months after Duplessis's death, Dumas published his novel The Lady of the Camellias (1848). It's the story of a courtesan named Marguerite Gautier, based on Duplessis. She breaks the heart of her lover — Armand Duval — to spare him from ruin. Dumas wrote it in four weeks. It was later made into a play, which in turn inspired Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853).

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