Jan. 29, 2013
As a child, my father helped me dig
a square of dense red clay, mark off rows
where zinnias would grow,
and radishes and tender spinach leaves.
He'd stand with me each night
as daylight drained away
to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe
as I would practice leaning so on mine.
Years later now in my big garden plot,
the soggy remnant stems of plants
flopped over several months ago,
the ground is cold, the berries gone,
the stakes like hungry sentries
stand guarding empty graves. And still
I hear his voice asking what I think
would best be planted once the weather warms.
It's the birthday of the man considered "the master of the modern short story" and a brilliant playwright, a man who said: "Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity." Anton Chekhov (books by this author) was born 153 years ago today in Taganrog, a seaside city in southern Russia (1860).
His father borrowed too much money trying to build a big new house, and his grocery store went out of business, and he went bankrupt. In order not to be thrown in debtor's prison, the family fled to Moscow — everyone in the family, that is, except Anton Chekhov, who was left behind to finish his last three years of high school and to pawn whatever family possessions remained. He worked as a private tutor; he caught little singing birds and sold them as pets, and he wrote stories for newspapers. He sent all the money he made on to his family in Moscow. He described his teenage years as a "never-ending toothache."
He finished up high school, got into Moscow University's medical school and paid his own way, and at the same time continued to support his family by writing funny stories for Russian newspapers and magazines. He wrote under pseudonyms like "Antosha Chekhonte" and "Man without a Spleen." He once told a friend that "medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." He finished medical school, passed all of his doctor exams, and started to treat patients, mostly for free. The same year that he had officially become a doctor, he started coughing up blood. He'd contracted tuberculosis, and it would eventually kill him when he was in his 40s.
His stories, as well as the popular productions of his plays Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), made Chekhov famous throughout Russia. He acquired a reputation as "Russia's most elusive literary bachelor," preferring lovers and prostitutes to a committed monogamous relationship. He once wrote to one of his supporters: "By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: Everything must be as it has been hitherto — that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her. ... Give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day."
By some accounts, Chekhov considered himself a doctor foremost and a writer by hobby. There are a great number of medical doctors who also wrote fiction and poetry, among them 19th-century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Seymour Bridges, who is the only physician to have been Poet Laureate of England. American writer Walker Percy was a medical doctor, and Michael Crichton completed medical school before he became a full-time writer. Doctor Arturo Vivante wrote more than 70 stories for The New Yorker magazine. Mystery writer Robin Cook is a physician and author of the best-selling thrillers Coma (1977) and Mutation (1989). Dr. Abraham Verghese took a break from hospitals to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1990s; he returned to medicine and now teaches and practices at Stanford, where he has a secret unmarked writing office on campus. Perhaps the most famous doctor in literature is William Carlos Williams, M.D., of Rutherford, New Jersey.
It's the birthday of the man who said, "There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation." That's W.C. Fields, born William Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania (1880). He also wrote screenplays, including for the films The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).
He ran away from home as a child, stole to survive, got in a lot of fistfights, and was arrested often. He was a fabulously skilled juggler, and at 14 he honed his juggling act and joined the carnival. He went from juggling to doing a witty comedic routine, and then to acting in films. He toured a lot, and the more famous he became, the more he drank. When he was filming movies, he kept a flask of mixed martinis near at hand, referring to it as his "pineapple juice." He quipped about his drinking a lot, saying things like, "Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water." And, "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink." And, "If I had to live life over, I'd live over a saloon."
Toward the end of his life, his career fizzled out some — he gained a reputation for being extremely hard to work with, was passed over for some coveted movie roles, and his alcoholism was taking its toll. He died Christmas Day 1946. And then his persona made a sort of comeback in the late 1960s. The Beatles even included his face in the collage on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®