Jan. 24, 2014
Getting Up Early
Just as the night was fading
Into the dusk of morning
When the air was cool as water
When the town was quiet
And I could hear the sea
I caught sight of the moon
No higher than the roof-tops
Our neighbor the moon
An hour before the sunrise
She glowed with her own sunrise
Gold in the grey of morning
World without town or forest
Without wars or sorrows
She paused between two trees
And it was as if in secret
Not wanting to be seen
She chose to visit us
So early in the morning.
It's the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), born in New York City (1862). She wrote about frustrated love in novels like The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
She came from a rich New York family who lived off the inheritance of their real estate and banking tycoon ancestors, and she spent several years of her early childhood traveling around Europe. When she was 10, her parents resettled in New York, around 23rd and Park Avenue. She was a teenage bookworm, reading insatiably from her family's expansive library and feeling alienated and adrift in the New York high-society circles her family moved in. At 23, she married a family friend, a classy, good-looking sportsman named Edward "Teddy" Robbins Wharton, who wasn't particularly fond of books. He went on extravagant spending sprees and had numerous affairs. It was a long and miserable marriage.
She met Henry James in Europe and became good friends with him. He encouraged her to write about the New York City she knew so well and disliked. He said, "Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours." And it was Henry James who introduced her to his friend Morton Fullerton, a dashing, promiscuous, intellectual American expat journalist who reported for the London Times from Paris. Edith Wharton fell hard for him and filled her diary with passages about how their romance made her feel complete. She wrote him pleading letters, and about a year into their affair, when she was in her late 40s, moved full time to Paris, where he resided. The affair ended in 1911, the year she published Ethan Frome.
Wharton stayed married to Teddy for a couple more years, though the two lived apart from each other during the last part of their 28-year marriage. She loved living in Paris, and there she mingled with people like André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Theodore Roosevelt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once told: "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."
Modernist writers were among her contemporaries, but she didn't use modernist techniques like stream of consciousness in her own writing, and she wasn't a fan of it in others'. She once said about James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), "Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook's intervening."
She died in Paris at the age of 75. At the time of her death, she was working on a novel called The Buccaneers, about five rich American girls who set out to marry landed British men, so that they can have English feudal titles in their names, like "Duchess." In her last days, she lay in bed and worked on the novel, and each page that she completed she dropped onto the floor so that it could be collected later, when she was through.
Edith Wharton said, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it."
It's the birthday of writer and zoologist Desmond Morris (books by this author), born in Purton, England (1928). By the age of 22, he was making Surrealist films and exhibiting art with Joan Miró. At the same time, he studied zoology at Oxford and published scientific papers about animal behavior. In 1958, he published his first scientific book: The Reproductive Behavior of the Ten-spined Stickleback.
That same year, Morris organized a show called The Lost Image, exhibiting paintings by a chimpanzee alongside those of human children and adults. The chimp was named Congo, and Morris had worked with him for almost two years. When Morris first gave Congo a pencil, the ape drew a line, but he slowly worked up to circles and other shapes. Morris said: "It was truly art for art's sake. Congo became increasingly obsessed with his regular painting sessions. If I tried to stop him before he had finished a painting, he would have a screaming fit. And if I tried to persuade him to go on painting after he considered that he had finished a picture, he would stubbornly refuse." For The Lost Image, Morris showed how both Congo and human children progressed toward structure and imagery, and he contrasted that with the Abstract Impressionist painters, who were trying to get rid of structure and imagery; consequently, all the paintings in the exhibition looked somewhat similar. Congo was a hit — both Picasso and Miró purchased the ape's work (in fact Miró traded two of his pieces for one of the Congo's paintings), and Salvador Dalí said, "The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!"
For the next 10 years, Morris published books and produced television shows about animals. He had the idea to write a book about human behavior, describing it the way he usually wrote about animal behavior. He dragged his feet for a while, worried that such a subject would damage his reputation as a scientist, but his publisher was wildly enthusiastic, assuring him that the book would be a huge seller. Finally, Morris went to work, and by that time he had thought so much about the book that it only took him three months to write. He wrote each day in what he called a "white heat," beginning in the afternoon and writing straight through until 7 a.m. When the manuscript was finished, a bidding war began to publish it in serial form; Morris's publisher decided to go with popular Daily Mirror rather than a more highbrow newspaper, convinced that it would help sell more books in the long run. Sure enough, when The Naked Ape was published in 1967, it became an international best-seller. Although the book was mainly about the evolutionary move from forest-dwellers to hunters and carnivores, Morris did quite a bit of speculating about human sexuality, which is the part that got a lot of attention.
None of Morris's previous books had sold more than 4,000 copies; The Naked Ape sold more than 12 million. He said, "The speed and timing of all this has rather shattered me." He found himself owing a hefty tax bill to the British government, so he and his wife up and moved to Malta, where he pursued writing full time, lived in a huge villa with a lemon grove, and drove a Rolls Royce. Morris has written more than 30 books, including The Human Zoo (1969), The Human Animal (1994), The Naked Woman (2004), and most recently, The Artistic Ape (2013).
It's the birthday of playwright and poet William Congreve (books by this author), born in West Yorkshire, England (1670), most famous for his Restoration comedy The Way of the World (1700). His characters are people of nobility and fashion, for whom manners are more important than morals; Mirabell and Millamant, the lovers in The Way of the World, establish an unconventional marriage arrangement. It was controversial in its day, but famous for its sparkling dialogue:
"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."
"Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure; Married in haste, we may repent at leisure."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®