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Poem: "Mose," by Sterling A. Brown.


Mose is black and evil
And damns his luck
Driving Mister Schwartz's
Big coal truck.

He's got no gal,
He's got no jack,
No fancy silk shirts
For his back.

But summer evenings,
Hard luck Mose
Goes in for all
The fun he knows.

On the corner kerb
With a sad quartette
His tenor peals
Like a clarinet.

O hit it Moses
Sing att thing
But Mose's mind
Goes wandering;--

And to the stars
Over the town
Floats, from a good man
Way, way down—

A soft song, filled
With a misery
Older than Mose
Will ever be.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Conrad Richter, born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father, both his grandfathers and all his uncles were preachers. As a young boy, he loved to hear them tell stories about his ancestors who had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers. He was especially fascinated that one of his ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and another had been a Hessian mercenary in the opposing British Army.

He got a job as a newspaper reporter, and he wrote fiction on the side, but most of his stories were conventional and derivative of other writers. Then in the late 1920s, his wife got sick and doctors suggested a change of climate, so they moved to New Mexico. Richter became obsessed with the history of the Southwest, and he began traveling around interviewing older men and women and gathering old record books, newspapers, letters, and diaries of the early pioneers. After five years of research, he wrote a book about the Southwestern settlers called Early Americana, and Other Stories (1936), and it was considered one of the best works of historical fiction ever written about Western pioneers. He went on to write many more books, including a trilogy about frontier life in Ohio: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arna[ud] Wendell Bontemps, born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother's death when he was twelve, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931. He spent the rest of the Great Depression moving around the South, teaching at different colleges, trying to support his family and find time to write. He and his family lived in a series of ramshackle houses with tin roofs and poor ventilation. It often got so hot that he had to write his books on the front lawn under the shade of a tree. Finally, money got so tight that he and his wife had to move in with his father, who told him to give up writing and go back to brick masonry. The room his father gave him was too small for a writing desk, so he wrote his next novel on top of a sewing machine. Based on an actual slave uprising, the novel was published in 1936 as Black Thunder, and many people consider it his masterpiece. After Bontemps's third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African American literature, editing such books as The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.

It's the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce, born Leonard Schneider in the town of Mineola on New York's Long Island (1925). He got his start in comedy working as an emcee for a strip club, where he told jokes as he introduced the performers, and eventually he got his own show. At the time, comedians told jokes methodically, with a set up and a punch line, over and over. Bruce developed a new form of comedy where he just stood on stage and talked about things like politics, society, religion, and race; and he free-associated on those topics to make people laugh. People compared his comedy to jazz.

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Paul Simon, born in Newark, New Jersey (1941). His father was a musician and his mother was a music teacher. When he was in sixth grade, he got a part in the school play as the White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland. A boy named Art Garfunkel played the Mad Hatter. The two became friends after walking home from rehearsal every day. They started a singing duo, playing sock hops and high school dances, and they made a hit record when they were only sixteen years old. Simon and Garfunkel recorded their first folk album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in 1964 but it only sold a few thousand copies. They figured their career was probably over, but, unbeknownst to Simon and Garfunkel, their record label had added electric guitars to the song "The Sounds of Silence" and released it as a single. They had just moved back in with their parents and were sitting in Simon's car, wondering what to do next, when they heard the song come on the radio, and the DJ said it had gone to number one. Simon turned to Garfunkel and said, "That Simon and Garfunkel, they must be having a great time."

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Poem: "87" from 100 Selected Poems, by e.e. cummings.


o by the by
has anybody seen
little you-I
who stood on a green
hill and threw
his wish at blue

with a swoop and a dart
out flew his wish
(it dived like a fish
but it climbed like a dream)
throbbing like a heart
singing like a flame

blue took it my
far beyond far
and high beyond high
bluer took it your
but bluest took it our
away beyond where

what a wonderful thing
is the end of a string
(murmurs little you-I
as the hill becomes nil)
and will somebody tell
me why people let go

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Katha Pollitt, born in New York City (1949). She grew up in an activist household, and from the time she was a young girl her parents were encouraging her to write angry letters to newspapers. During college, she helped take over Harvard University's ROTC building to protest the Vietnam War. When her parents found out what she'd done, they sent her flowers. She published her first book of poetry, The Antarctic Traveler, in 1982, and started supporting herself writing book reviews. Eventually, she found she was more interested in expressing her own ideas than talking about the books she was reviewing, so she dropped the books and became an essayist. She started writing a column called "Subject to Debate" for The Nation magazine in 1994, and many of her columns have been collected in Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (1994), and Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (2001).

It's the birthday of the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in Denison, Texas (1890). He was the last person to become president after having served as the commanding general of the United States Army. He grew up in a poor, deeply religious family, working on a creamery to help pay the bills. His mother was a pacifist, and when he chose to go to West Point for college, she broke down in tears. He served in World War I and worked his way up through the military ranks until World War II, when he was put in charge of strategic planning for the European stage of the war. After leading the successful invasion of French North Africa, he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and a few months later he planned the invasion of Normandy - the largest amphibious attack in history.

He became known as one of the friendliest generals in the army. He loved to stand around with soldiers, smoking cigarettes, talking about where everyone was from. He slept in the trenches with the privates, and when he traveled by jeep near enemy lines, he preferred to drive the jeep himself. He was also one of the only generals who loved talking to the press. He said, "[Journalists are] quasi members of my staff."

Even though he'd been such a successful military leader, he ran for president against Adlai Stevenson promising to get the United States out of the Korean War, and that's what he did. There wasn't another major military conflict in his two terms in office. He said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

It's the birthday of poet e. e. cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings) , born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894). He was a man who wrote joyful, almost childlike poems about the beauty of nature and love, even though he was actually a conservative, irritable man who hated noisy modern inventions like vacuum cleaners and radios. He spent most of his life unhappy, struggling to pay the bills, ostracized for his unpopular political views.

He had published several books of poetry, including Tulips and Chimneys (1923), when he traveled to Russia in 1931, hoping to write about the superior society under the rule of communism. He was horrified at what he found. He saw no lovers, no one laughing, no one enjoying themselves. The theaters and museums were full of propaganda, and the people were scared to talk to each other in the street. Everyone was miserable. When he got home, he wrote about the experience, comparing Russia to Dante's Inferno. Most of the publishers at the time were communists themselves, and they turned their backs on cummings for criticizing communist Russia. Many magazines refused to publish his poetry or review his books. But the attacks only made him more stubborn. He said, "To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."

He tried to write a script for a ballet, but it was never performed. He tried writing for the movies in Hollywood, but found that he spent all his time painting humming birds and sunsets instead of working on screenplays. He had to borrow money from his parents and his friends. He said, "I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart." A few years later, he decided to make some extra money by giving a series of lectures at Harvard University. Most lecturers spoke from behind a lectern, but he sat on the stage, read his poetry aloud, and talked about what it meant to him. The faculty members were embarrassed by his earnestness, but the undergraduates adored him and came to his lectures in droves. Even though he suffered from terrible back pains, and had to wear a metal brace that he called an "iron maiden," he began traveling and giving readings at universities across the country. By the end of the 1950s he had become the most popular poet in America. He loved performing, and loved the applause, and the last few years of his life were the happiest. He died on September 2, 1962.

In the first edition of his Collected Poems, he wrote in the preface, "The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike . . . . You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs."

It's the birthday of short story writer Katherine Mansfield, born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). She's the author of short story collections such as Bliss and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922); and she is known as one of the originators of the modern short story in English. Her father was an incredibly successful businessman in the growing economy of New Zealand, and he sent her away to school in England. After her eighteenth birthday, when her parents came to pick her up from her English school and bring her back to New Zealand, she found that she no longer had anything in common with them or their values. She wrote in her journal on the boat ride home, "They are worse than I had even expected. They are prying and curious, they are watchful and they discuss only the food . . . . For more than a quarter of an hour they are quite unbearable, and so absolutely my mental inferiors."

As soon as she got back to New Zealand, she became one of the wildest members of the small artistic community there. She had affairs with men and women; she traveled deep into the countryside and lived with the indigenous people; and she published a series of occasionally scandalous stories under a variety of pseudonyms. In a letter to an editor, asking for money, she wrote, "[I have] a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse." Eventually, her parents gave her an allowance so she could move to London, and she never returned to New Zealand.

Mansfield lived so freely in the London bohemian scene that she eventually had to destroy her own diaries for fear of incriminating evidence. At one point, she married a man she barely knew, but left him before the wedding night was over, because she couldn't stand the pink bedspread and the lampshade with pink tassels in the hotel room. She had to settle down a bit when her mother came to London and threatened to put her in a convent. She said, "How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?"

She wrote sketches and essays for various newspapers and journals, but she didn't begin to write the stories that made her famous until her younger brother came to visit her in 1915. They had long talks over the course of the summer, reminiscing about growing up in New Zealand. She hadn't seen him in years and found that she had more in common with him than any other member of the family. He left that fall to start military duty as a soldier in World War I. She learned two months later that he had been killed while demonstrating how to throw a grenade. She was devastated, and she dealt with her grief by writing a series of short stories about her childhood, including "The Garden Party" which many consider her masterpiece. She died of tuberculosis a few years later in January 1923, at the age of 34. She wrote, "How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - little rags and shreds of your very life."

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Poem: "My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie," by Dennis Trudell.

My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie

On cable television. Because he can't sleep.
My father gets up in the middle of the night
to watch an old movie on cable television—
because he can't sleep. He has done this before.
He will do it again, and sometimes he eats
cookies. My father eating cookies and watching
an old movie again because he can't sleep.
He is eighty-seven years old. He lives alone.
Because my mother died . . . and sometimes he looks
at her absence on the black sofa. My father
turning back to the movie on cable television,
eating another cookie. The movie has a name,
but he doesn't know it. My mother died—
because this is not a movie with a happy
ending. Or any ending. My father returns
to bed and goes to sleep. Or does not,
and then later sleeps. The television reflects
the lamp he leaves on . . . . the black sofa.
Reflects an old mirror behind the sofa—

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. Some of his books are long lists of aphorisms, while others are written almost like novels or poetry. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of super-man, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him. Nietzsche spent most of his life suffering from debilitating headaches and deteriorating eyesight, and he eventually went crazy and spent his last years in an asylum. He's perhaps best known for claiming that "God is dead," but most people forget that he actually said, "God is dead . . . and we have killed him!" He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the twentieth century. He said, "I know my fate. One day my name will be tied to the memory of something monstrous—a crisis without equal on earth . . . I am no man, I am dynamite!"

It's the birthday of Mario Puzo, born in New York City (1920). He's best known as the author of the novel The Godfather (1969), which was made into a movie in 1972. People had written novels and made movies about the mafia before, but the mafia characters had always been the villains. Puzo was the first person to write about members of the mafia as the sympathetic main characters of a story. The son of Italian immigrants, he started out trying to write serious literary fiction. He published two novels that barely sold any copies. He fell into debt, trying to support his family as a freelance writer. One Christmas Eve, he had a severe gall bladder attack and took a cab to the hospital. When he got out of the cab, he was in so much pain that he fell into the gutter. Lying there, he said to himself, "Here I am, a published writer, and I am dying like a dog." He vowed that he would devote the rest of his writing life to becoming rich and famous. The Godfather became the best-selling novel of the 1970s, and many critics credit Puzo with inventing the mafia as a serious literary and cinematic subject. He went on to publish many other books, including The Sicilian (1984) and The Last Don (1996), but he always felt that his best book was the last book he wrote before he became a success - The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), about an ordinary Italian immigrant family.

It's the birthday of English novelist Sir P(elham) G(renville) Wodehouse, born in Guildford, England (1881). He was one of the most popular writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His father worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and because his mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, he was raised mostly by a series of aunts. His books are filled with evil and terrifying aunts, and he once wrote, "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof." While he was in high school, he found out that his father had gone bankrupt and wouldn't be able to pay for college. He got a job as a bank clerk and started publishing humorous stories and poetry on the side. He said, "[My] total inability to grasp what was going on [at the bank] made me something of a legend." He eventually switched to journalism, and it was as a journalist that he first traveled to the United States to cover a boxing match. He fell in love with America. He said, "Being there was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying." He moved to Greenwich Village in 1909, and began to publish the stories that made him famous in the Saturday Evening Post. From America, he wrote about an imaginary, cartoonish England, full of extremely polite but brain-dead aristocrats, and his work was wildly popular in the years leading up to the decline of the British Empire. He is best known for books such as My Man Jeeves (1919); Carry On, Jeeves (1927); Thank You, Jeeves (1934) and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) - books about a servant named Jeeves who is constantly saving his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all kinds of absurd situations.

Wodehouse was an extremely shy man. When his wife rented them an apartment in New York, he made her promise to get one on the first floor, because he never knew what to say to the man who ran the elevator. People who knew him said that he was incredibly dull, that he was never funny in person, and that he didn't seem to have any emotions. He said, "I haven't got any violent feelings about anything. I just love writing." Over the course of his life he wrote almost a hundred books of fiction, wrote for sixteen plays, and composed lyrics for twenty-eight musicals. When asked about his technique for writing, he said, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit." He is known for his metaphors and similes. He described one character as "A tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'" He wrote of another, "He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg." In his lifetime, he was generally considered a writer of light entertainment, but he's since been recognized as a master prose stylist.

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Poem: "Break of Day," by Galway Kinnell.

Break of Day

He turns the light on, lights
the cigarette, goes out on the porch,
chainsaws a block of green wood down the grain,
chucks the pieces into the box stove,
pours in kerosene, tosses in the match
he has set fire to the next cigarette with,
stands back while the creosote-lined, sheet-
metal rust-lengths shudder but just barely
manage to direct the cawhoosh in the stove—
which sucks in ash motes through gaps
at the bottom and glares out fire blaze
through overburn-cracks at the top—
all the way to the roof and up out through into
the still starry sky starting to lighten,
sits down to a bowl of crackers and bluish milk
in which reflections of a 40-watt ceiling bulb
appear and disappear, eats, contemplates
an atmosphere containing kerosene stink,
chainsaw smoke, chainsmoke, wood smoke, wood heat,
gleams of the 40-watt ceiling bulb bobbing in blue milk.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He's the author of the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); and he's one of the most quotable authors in the English language.

His mother was a famous poet, journalist and Irish nationalist; and his father was a noted ear and eye doctor. He went to college at Oxford, where he began affecting an aristocratic English accent and dressing in eccentric suits and velvet knee breeches. He stayed in England after college, and made a name for himself as a brilliant conversationalist in the high society of London. A movement in art and literature called Aestheticism was becoming popular at the time, and Wilde became known as one of its leading spokesmen. The movement's motto was "Art for art's sake." Wilde began lecturing on the importance of art and beauty in people's everyday lives. He said, "We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art." And he said, "Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong."

He worked for a women's magazine, and he wrote essays, stories, and plays. But he didn't become well known as a serious writer until he came out with his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891, about a beautiful young man who remains young while a portrait of him grows old. Wilde then burst upon the British theater scene with four consecutive comedy hits: Lady Windermere's Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Wilde attended the opening of Lady Windermere's Fan wearing a green carnation in his suit. After the final curtain went down and the crowd erupted in applause, Wilde came out on stage and said: "Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on a great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself."

Wilde was married and had two children, but he was never completely comfortable with family life. He experimented with homosexuality, and fell in love with a young poet from Oxford named Lord Alfred Douglas. Eventually, Wilde was charged with sodomy and went to trial. He was found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison. On the last day of the trial, Wilde wrote to Lord Douglas, "This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. . . . Your love has broad wings and is strong, your love comes to me through my prison bars and comforts me, your love is the light of all my hours." Wilde was released from prison in 1897, and died three years later, in a cheap hotel in Paris.

Oscar Wilde wrote:

"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

" The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."

" It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

It's the birthday of Noah Webster, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). When he was 43 years old, he began writing the first American dictionary, which was published in 1806. Spelling and pronunciation were different in different parts of the country, and Webster wanted to standardize American English. He also wanted the American language to have its own rules rather than relying on British dictionaries like Samuel Johnson's 1755 edition. It's thanks to Webster that the American and English spellings are different for words like "catalog," "honor," "theater," and "center."

It's the birthday of German novelist Gunter Grass, born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) (1927). He's best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. He joined the Hitler Youth in the 1930s, and he was drafted into the army when he was sixteen years old. He fought in World War II, then held jobs as a farmer, a miner, a stonemason, and a jazz musician. In 1956, he started writing The Tin Drum, and it was published three years later. The main character has decided to stop growing, in protest of the cruelties of German history. He gains the ability to scream loudly enough to break glass, and he communicates only through his toy drum. The Tin Drum is the first novel of a trilogy that also includes Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). Grass's most recent work is Crabwalk (2002), a bestseller about how German guilt has become taboo. Grass said, "Whenever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated."

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in trains and hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with eleven one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920 his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his posthumous play Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

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Poem: "Men Come, Men Go, but Laundry is Forever," by Sara King.

Men Come, Men Go, but Laundry is Forever

Two towels mean he's been here,
and one towel means he's gone.
Beer bottles gathering dust mean
he's been gone awhile.

Then a new name on the phone machine,
wine glasses on the floor,
my children exchange glances,
eyebrows up and down.

So who is this guy? they ask me.
Just some friend, I say.
Does this friend have a name?
It's John, Okay?
And you're not going to meet him,
unless he's going to stay.
But he doesn't.

I declare him irresponsible,
unstable, self-centered.
He says I don't play volleyball,
I'm not skinny, and I'm not Jewish.
Then his photographs come down,
and his towel.
His toothbrush hits the trash.
I resume my old ways of keeping house—
I don't.

Do you think you'll ever remarry, Mom?
It's too late, I tell them.
I'm running out of towels.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, born in New York City (1915), widely considered to be the greatest living playwright in America. His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family had a large Manhattan apartment, a chauffeur, and a summer home at the beach. Then, in 1928, his father's business collapsed. He watched his parents sell their most valuable possessions, one by one, to pay the bills, until finally the family had to move in with relatives in Brooklyn. Miller had to share a bedroom with his grandfather. He was thirteen years old. It was terrifying for him to watch his father go from being so powerful to being so helpless. He said, "It made you want to search for ultimate values, for things that would not fall apart under pressure." He paid his way through college with a job in a research laboratory, feeding hundreds of mice every night. He had never been interested in theater before, but he thought he would enter a play writing contest to make some extra money, and he won with the first play he'd ever written. He won the same contest the following year, and decided that he was born to write plays. Unfortunately, the first play he wrote out of college, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed after four performances.

He considered giving up but decided to try writing one more play. His next play, All My Sons (1947), was about a man who has been selling faulty machinery to the army, and finds out that he has caused the death of twenty-one soldiers. The play ran on Broadway for 328 performances, and was made into a movie the following year. Miller used the money he made from All My Sons to buy four hundred acres of farmland in Connecticut. In 1948, he moved to Connecticut by himself, and spent several months building a ten by twelve foot cabin by hand. As he sawed the wood and pounded the nails, he thought about the main characters of his next play: a salesman, his wife, and his two sons. He knew how the play would begin, but he wouldn't let himself start writing until he had finished the cabin. When it was finally completed, he woke up one morning and started writing. He wrote all day, had dinner, and then wrote until he had finished the first act in the middle of the night. When he finally got in bed to go to sleep, he found that his cheeks were wet with tears, and his throat was sore from speaking and shouting the lines of dialogue as he wrote. The play was Death of a Salesman (1949), about a man named Willy Loman who loses his job and realizes that he doesn't have much to show for his life's work. Miller wrote, "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." It has gone on to be the most widely produced play in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Argentina. It has been particularly popular in China and Japan. Miller has gone on to have an extremely long and productive career, publishing short fiction, essays, an autobiography, and many more plays. His most recent play, Resurrection Blues, premiered in 2002 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It's the birthday of novelist Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904). He was inspired to write his first major novel when he met a woman who wrote an advice column for a local newspaper. She showed him a few of the letters she had received from readers, expecting that he would find them funny. Instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were, and he wrote his novel Miss Lonely Hearts (1933), about an advice columnist who is overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. It got great reviews, but within weeks of its publication, the publishing house went bankrupt. West tried working for a few literary journals, but they all folded. He wrote a parody of the Horatio Alger novels his father had given him called A Cool Million (1934), but it got bad reviews and it didn't sell. He finally decided to move to California and try to write for the movies. He drifted around Hollywood for a few years, unable to find a job, living off money from friends. He got to know the people who lived on the margin of Hollywood, people who had hoped they would make it as movie stars, but who failed and became stuntmen, extras, criminals, and prostitutes. He loved the way they talked, and considered compiling a dictionary of Hollywood slang. Instead, he wrote a novel about them called The Day of the Locust (1939). It's now considered one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood.

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Poem: "The Ugly Stepsister," by Denise Duhamel.

The Ugly Stepsister

You don't know what it was like.
My mother marries this bum who takes off on us,
after only a few months, leaving his little Cinderella
behind. Oh yes, Cindy will try to tell you
that her father died. She's like that, she's a martyr.
But between you and me, he took up
with a dame close to Cindy's age.
My mother never got a cent out of him
for child support. So that explains
why sometimes the old lady was gruff.
My sisters and I didn't mind Cindy at first,
but her relentless cheeriness soon took its toll.
She dragged the dirty clothes to one of Chelsea's
many laundromats. She was fond of talking
to mice and rats on the way. She loved doing dishes
and scrubbing walls, taking phone messages,
and cleaning toilet bowls. You know,
the kind of woman that makes the rest
of us look bad. My sisters and I
weren't paranoid, but we couldn't help
but see this manic love for housework
as part of Cindy's sinister plan. Our dates
would come to pick us up and Cindy'd pop out
of the kitchen offering warm chocolate chip cookies.
Critics often point to the fact that my sisters and I
were dark and she was blonde, implying
jealousy on our part. But let me
set the record straight. We have the empty bottles
of Clairol's Nice 'n Easy to prove
Cindy was a fake. She was what her shrink called
a master manipulator. She loved people
to feel bad for her—her favorite phrase was a faint,
"I don't mind. That's OK." We should have known
she'd marry Jeff Charming, the guy from our high school
who went on to trade bonds. Cindy finagled her way
into a private Christmas party on Wall Street,
charging a little black dress at Barney's,
which she would have returned the next day
if Jeff hadn't fallen head over heels.
She claimed he took her on a horse-and-buggy ride
through Central Park, that it was the most romantic
evening of her life, even though she was home
before midnight—a bit early, if you ask me, for Manhattan.
It turned out that Jeff was seeing someone else
and had to cover his tracks. But Cindy didn't
let little things like another woman's happiness
get in her way. She filled her glass slipper
with champagne she had lifted
from the Wall Street extravaganza. She toasted
to Mr. Charming's coming around, which he did
soon enough. At the wedding, some of Cindy's friends
looked at my sisters and me with pity. The bride insisted
that our bridesmaids' dresses should be pumpkin,
which is a hard enough color for anyone to carry off.
But let me assure you, we're all very happy
now that Cindy's moved uptown. We've
started a mail order business—cosmetics
and perfumes. Just between you and me,
there's quite a few bucks to be made
on women's self-doubts. And though
we don't like to gloat, we hear Cindy Charming
isn't doing her aerobics anymore. It's rumored
that she yells at the maid, then locks herself in her room,
pressing hot match tips into her palm.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cowboy and writer H. L. Davis, born in Roseburg, Oregon (1894), in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. His father was an itinerant teacher, and the family moved to The Dalles, a town on the Columbia River. Davis got a job as a cowboy and a surveyor. He worked for a while, saved up 1500 dollars, quit his job, and left for Stanford University. When he got there, he found that his savings wouldn't even pay for one term, and he went back home. Davis wrote a collection of eleven poems called Primapara (1919) and sent them to Poetry magazine. The poems were extremely popular and were praised by Carl Sandburg and Robert Penn Warren. He was called the "bard of the Oregon Landscape," and his poems were unsentimental and wry. Davis said, "Stories have actually neither beginning or end. Every story is like a river: it began flowing with the beginning of the world, and will not cease 'til the world comes to an end."

On this day in 1896, Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull premiered in St. Petersburg. The production was under-rehearsed. It was supposed to be a benefit for a well known comic actress, but there was no part for her to play, and the fans who had come to see her rioted. The performance was an utter failure, and Chekhov declared he would never write another play. But before the end of the year, he had begun work on Uncle Vanya (1897).

It's the birthday of Ntozake Shange, born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey (1948), author of the play For colored girls who considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975). She took the name Ntozake Shange in college. It consists of two Zulu names which mean "she who comes with her own things" and "who walks like a lion." Her parents were middle-class supporters of the arts, and Shange enjoyed an artistically rich childhood. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois were all regular guests at her family's house. Shange attended Barnard College in New York. She got married, then divorced, and attempted suicide several times. In 1975, her most famous work, For colored girls . . ., was first performed. She called it a "choreopoem," and it was written for a cast of seven colorfully dressed female actors. The piece blends poetry, acting, and dance to explore the ordeals of black women in the mid 1970s. It was very well received, and it was moved to Broadway before being taken on a national tour.

Shange said she never had any books by African-American women to read as a child. She recently said, "I write for young girls of color, for girls who don't even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. . . . I want to say, 'Here, look where you can live, look what you can think.'"

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Poem: "My mother gives me her recipe," by Marge Piercy.

My mother gives me her recipe

Take some flour. Oh, I don't know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
No, no! Like half or crescent
moons. You aren't listening.

You mix sugar and cinnamon and cloves,
some women use allspice, till it's dark
and you stir in the apples. You coat
every little moon. Did I say you add
milk? Oh, just till it feels right.
Use your hands. Milk in the cake part!

Then you pat it into a pan, I like
round ones, but who cares?
I forgot to say you add baking powder.
Did I forget a little lemon on the apples?
Then you just bake it. Well, till it's done
of course. Did I remember you place
the apples in rows? You can make
a pattern, like a weave. It's pretty
that way. I like things pretty.

It's just a simple cake.
Any fool can make it
except your aunt. I
gave her the recipe
but she never
got it right.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the surrender that ended the American Revolutionary War, in Yorktown, Virginia (1781). At two o'clock in the afternoon, the British general Lord Cornwallis surrendered about 8000 British troops to George Washington's army, although Cornwallis himself didn't attend. England didn't have enough money to raise another army, and they appealed to America for peace. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the war was officially over.

On today's date in 1987, it was Black Monday on Wall Street. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 508.32 points, or 22.6 percent, which set the record for the largest drop ever. The previous record had just been set the preceding Friday. An employee on the trading floor said, "It's busy. People are on the edge. You don't have the friendliness that you usually have. Everybody is a mad man."

It's the birthday of Guatemalan author and diplomat Miguel Angel Asturias, born in Guatemala City (1899). When he was still in his teens he became one of the founding members of the Popular University of Guatemala, which offered classes to students who could not afford the public university. In 1924, he moved to Paris and began to write. He was part of Paris's intellectual elite and socialized with writers like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. He also represented his country as an ambassador in France. His first popular work was The Architecture of the New Life (1928). In 1930 he published Legends of Guatemala, which records many of the legends of the indigenous people of his country. He returned to Guatemala in 1933 but struggled against censorship and repression for the rest of his life. In 1967, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Asturias said, "As true Latin Americans, the beauty of expression excites us and for this reason each of our novels is a verbal feat. Alchemy is at work. It is no easy task to understand in the executed work all the effort and determination invested in the materials used-the words."

It's the birthday of British spy writer John le Carré, born in Dorset, England (1931). He was born David John Moore Cornwell, but he needed to take a pseudonym because he held a diplomatic position. He worked for the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964, and during this time he began writing novels. He writes about international espionage, and many terms first used in his books have been adopted by the intelligence community. Honey-trap means sexual entrapment, babysitters are body-guards, and moles are deeply entrenched agents. Le Carré said, "In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British intelligence."

He wrote eighteen books, but his most famous was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). Graham Greene called it "the finest spy story ever written." Le Carré also wrote Our Game (1995) and The Tailor of Panama (1996). Le Carré said, "Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception."

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