Friday

Nov. 22, 2013

Hymn

by Edgar Allan Poe

At morn—at noon—at twilight dim—
Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and wo—in good and ill—
Mother of God, be with me still!
When the Hours flew brightly by,
And not a cloud obscured the sky,
My soul, lest it should truant be,
Thy grace did guide to thine and thee;
Now, when storms of Fate o'ercast
Darkly my Present and my Past,
Let my Future radiant shine
"With sweet hopes of thee and thine!

"Hymn" by Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer André Gide (books by this author), born in Paris (1869). Raised in Normandy by his mother and a retinue of female family members and maids, Gide was encouraged by these women to explore his interests with almost total freedom. He did so by roaming the countryside as a boy, picking flowers and indulging in his love of nature, but also by examining and analyzing what he saw and the emotions they conjured. This deep introspection and reflection were traits that later defined his writing.

In school, though, his curiosity won him few friends. He found the requirements of the classroom — monotonous and impersonal, completely unlike the natural world — insufferable, and he claimed to be unable to function within the structure. When a teacher called upon him to repeat a lesson and he remained silent, he was sent to the playground. When he returned and was asked to repeat the lesson, he remained mute, which set the other students laughing — was he really so stupid, or so bold? Eventually, recitation became the one thing at which he excelled in school; the talent made his classmates jealous and irritated, and they began bullying him. He was a good runner and often escaped, but the humiliations finally culminated in his tormentors rubbing a dead cat against his face.

Gide found a way out when he contracted smallpox. Realizing that illness could provide him with a good defense, he feigned dizzy spells at his convenience. Positioning himself in a safe place to fall, he'd fake an attack and collapse. This was, perhaps, the beginning of a dramatic tendency that he continued in adolescence, when he experienced a religious awakening — or at least pretended to. He began carrying a New Testament in his shirt pocket, sleeping on a board, and waking at night to pray and mortify his flesh with ice water. Gide later admitted that he likely enjoyed playing the part of a religious fanatic more than he'd actually believed in what he preached. In fact, Gide was raised a Protestant with a strong sense of discipline and morality, at odds with the sense of passion and sensuous indulgence he'd been allowed to cultivate at home.

It wasn't long before Gide turned the tensions in his life — this sense of moral obligation versus his strong individuality, a highly analytical mind combined with a wild imagination, and a need to be liked despite being a social outcast — to his writing. He published numerous semi-autobiographical narratives and memoirs, as well as book-length essays on everything from a defense of homosexuality to atheism to anti-colonialism. Initially known only within avant-garde circles, Gide became an influential literary critic and widely known for his controversial personal life and beliefs.

Gide said: "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again."

It's the birthday of graphic artist, author, and film director Marjane Satrapi (books by this author), born in Rasht, Iran (1969). Satrapi was a young girl during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, before her parents sent her to Vienna to escape the resulting fundamentalism and the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war when she was 14. Her graphic memoir, Persepolis, documents this period, telling the story of what it was like to be an Iranian girl growing up in this historic time, suddenly segregated from boys in school and forced to wear a hijab, or head scarf. Originally published in 2000 in French — Satrapi's second of six languages — Persepolis was frequently held up as the next Maus, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel masterpiece. The claim was so prevalent, and so embarrassed Satrapi, that she called Spiegelman, a total stranger, to assure him that she had nothing to do with propagating this comparison. He was so charmed by her apology that he invited her to his studio and they became friends.

In 2007, Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed a movie adaptation of her book, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Her recent autobiographical comics include Embroideries (2006), the stories of Satrapi's grandmother and aunts and the men they've loved, and Chicken with Plums (2009), a chronicle of her great-uncle's last eight days of life — a musician, he took to bed and refused to eat or drink after his beloved lute was destroyed. Satrapi vows that when she dies, all her books together will tell a complete family saga.

It's the birthday of novelist George Eliot (books by this author), born Mary Anne Evans in Warwickshire, England (1819). She was born into a middle-class family, the daughter of an estate manager and his second wife — his first had died in childbirth. When childbirth took twin sons too — Mary Anne's little brothers — her mother fell into a depression from which she never recovered; Mary Anne was sent to boarding school when she was only five years old. She returned 12 years later, after her mother's death required her to tend to the household and help care for her father. Although Mary Anne's personal writings mentioned her mother only briefly, and her fiction lacks many substantial mother characters, it was her mother's early rejection that many have speculated contributed toward her lifelong bouts of depression and insecurity.

Mary Anne's appearance was another factor in her lack of self-confidence. Not many pictures exist of her; the one most relied upon in biographies depicts her with delicate features and sandy waves. Its popularity derives from the same reason that there are so few representations of Eliot: She was in fact notoriously unattractive, having inherited her father's bulbous nose and prominent chin, with dark, straight hair her mother had often criticized. Henry James wrote that Eliot was "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous," but claimed that "in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind."

She was a clever child and had done well at school, but it was when she was 21 and moved with her father to a nearby town that her more radical education began. Already doubting her religious faith, Mary Anne began visiting the home of her neighbors Charles and Clara Bray, rich and progressive philanthropists who hosted an irreverent salon of sorts. The environment enlivened and emboldened Mary Anne, who declared a year after their move that she would no longer attend church with her father. He threatened to throw her out, but eventually agreed to allow her to believe whatever she liked, as long as she maintained appearances by accompanying him on Sundays. She continued to do so until he died seven years later, despite her anonymous translation from the German of the book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in the meantime.

Mary Anne was 30 years old when she found herself in possession of a modest annual inheritance and no one to dutifully take care of. She went abroad for the winter, stayed for a time with her friends the Brays, changed her name to Marian, and then moved to London with the plan to become a freelance writer. She boarded at the home of the man who'd published her translation, John Chapman; less than three months later she was back at the Brays, run out by Chapman's wife and mistress, both jealous to have more competition.

A few months later, she returned to London, chastened, and began a successful career at a literary magazine, writing and editing essays and criticism. It was then that she met a fellow journalist, George Henry Lewes, who was to become the great love of her life. He was not, however, to become her legal husband; he was already married. Although he'd essentially had an open marriage, when Lewes filed for divorce, so that he might marry Marian, he was denied — his wife had borne a son by another man but had given the child her husband's last name, which constituted his acceptance of her adultery.

Unable to marry legally, Marian and George Lewes lived as a married couple and considered themselves such for 23 years, a scandal that generated controversy across the city — and back home, where her brother cut her off completely. But Marian was resolute that she had made the right choice. "Women who are content with light and easily broken ties do not act as I have done," she told her friend Clara Bray. "They obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner."

Marian took Lewes' last name for everyday matters, and when he encouraged her to try writing fiction, she took his first name for her pseudonym: George Eliot. She was nearly 40 years old when she published her first short story, and already had a reputation for a very sharp wit and critical eye from the reviews she'd written; choosing a pen name would help prevent her previous work from coloring readers' perceptions of her fiction. She also, of course, had a personal, social reputation — for openly carrying on an adulterous affair — and she didn't relish the thought of offering another morsel for the gossip mill to grind. Choosing a man's name would help cover her tracks, she thought, and distance herself from the "silly novels," as she characterized them, that women wrote.

Her first novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859, was a huge, surprising success; when the speculation about its true authorship reached a fevered pitch and con artists tried to claim credit, Marian — now George Eliot — revealed herself. Her scandalous private life didn't seem to dampen her writings' approval, but she continued to use the pen name. Although she was herself a highly unconventional woman, having abandoned religion, publicly dedicated herself to a married man, and supported herself as a writer, her characters were less nonconformist than their author. Part of her success owed to the fact that, while her books like Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda explored the conflicts and hypocrisies of contemporary English life, they did not first offend the sensibilities of Victorian readers.

Indeed, after the death of Thackeray and Dickens, a popular literary magazine proclaimed Mary Anne Evans/ Marian Lewes/ George Eliot "the greatest living writer of English fiction ... probably ... the greatest woman who ever won literary fame, and one of the very few writers of our day to whom the name 'great' could be conceded with any plausibility."

She said: "I'm proof against that word failure. I've seen behind it. The only failure a man ought to fear is failure of cleaving to the purpose he sees to be best."

It was about 12:30 p.m. on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The Warren Commission published a report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting the president, a conclusion that less than half of all Americans believe. Don DeLillo's novel Libra (1988) is about the Kennedy assassination. He wrote: "What has become unraveled since that afternoon in Dallas is [...] the sense of a coherent reality most of us shared. We seem from that moment to have entered a world of randomness and ambiguity."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »