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Poem: "To A Frustrated Poet," by R.J. Ellmann, used by permission of the poet.

To A Frustrated Poet

This is to say
I know
You wish you were in the woods,
Living the poet life,
Not here at a formica topped table
In a meeting about perceived inequalities in the benefits and allowances offered to
employees of this college,
And I too wish you were in the woods,
Because it's no fun having a frustrated poet
In the Dept. of Human Resources, believe me.
In the poems of yours that I've read, you seem ever intelligent and decent and patient in a way
Not evident to us in this office,
And so, knowing how poets can make a feast out of trouble,
Raising flowers in a bed of drunkenness, divorce, despair,
I give you this check representing two weeks' wages
And ask you to clean out your desk today
And go home
And write a poem
With a real frog in it
And plums from the refrigerator,
So sweet and so cold.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Irish poet Christopher Nolan, born in Mullingar, Ireland (1965). He suffered a serious brain injury at birth which left him paralyzed and speechless until the age of eleven, when a powerful new drug allowed him to type using a stick strapped to his forehead. He began to write stories and poems that were published as Dam-Burst of Dreams in 1981. His next book was an autobiography, Under the Eye of the Clock: The Life Story of Christopher Nolan (1987), which won the prestigious Whitbread Prize in England. He wrote: "Wearing a pointer attached to a band around my head I had to fight a rebellious, spasm-ridden body for expression through the typing of every single letter. My mind was alive with creativity, but sadly the vessel had no outlet. Imagine then the absolute joy of discovering a leak through which I could slowly squeeze out a sample of my poetic musings."

It's the birthday of writer Robert M. Pirsig, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1928). He became famous with the publication of his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), an exploration of metaphysics wrapped up in an account of a motorcycle trip from Minneapolis to the West Coast. He said: "A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself."

It's the birthday of American sculptor Horatio Greenough, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1805). He studied art in Italy before returning to the United States, where he attracted the attention of a wealthy patron whose support helped him become the first American artist to devote himself entirely to sculpture. In 1832, he was commissioned by Congress to create a sculpture of George Washington to stand in the Capitol Rotunda. The sculpture he created was based on the statue of Zeus at Olympia, by the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias. Greenough's Washington wore sandals, held a sword, and was bare-chested. This semi-nudity was so scandalous that Congress opted to put the statue in the Smithsonian Institution instead of displaying it more publicly in the Capitol Rotunda.

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Poem: "My Mother's Pansies," by Sharon Olds, from Blood, Tin, Straw (Random House).

My Mother's Pansies

And all that time, in back of the house,
there were pansies growing, some silt blue,
some silt yellow, most of them sable
red or purplish sable, heavy
as velvet curtains, so soft they seemed wet but they were
dry as powder on a luna's wing,
dust on an alluvial path, in a drought
summer. And they were open like lips,
and pouted like lips, and they had a tiny fur-gold
v, which made bees not be able
to not want. And so, although women, in our
lobes and sepals, our corollas and spurs, seemed
despised spathe, style-arm, standard,
crest, and fall,
still there were those plush entries,
night mouth, pillow mouth,
anyone might want to push
their pinky, or anything, into such velveteen
chambers, such throats, each midnight-velvet
petal saying touch-touch-touch, please-touch, please-touch,
each sex like a spirit-shy, flushed, praying.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Jennifer Egan, born in Chicago, Illinois (1962). She had stories published in The New Yorker, and won a short-story award from Cosmopolitan magazine, before her first novel appeared in 1995. The novel was The Invisible Circus. She followed it up a year later with a collection of short stories, Emerald City and Other Stories (1996). Her novel Look at Me (2001) was nominated for a National Book Award.

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist Joseph (Joe) Klein, born in New York City (1946). He started out as a reporter in Boston, moved on to an editor's desk at Rolling Stone and Newsweek, a columnist's berth at The New Yorker, and an on-air political consultant spot for CBS News. In 1996, the novel Primary Colors was published anonymously, setting off a flurry of speculation about its author. The author was obviously a Washington insider, since the novel was so closely based on the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Finally, a computerized stylistic analysis, combined with a handwriting analysis of the novel's corrected proofs, revealed Klein as the author. His latest book is The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (2002).

It's the birthday of novelist and teacher Sir Malcolm Bradbury, born in Sheffield, England (1932). In 1970, he and Angus Wilson established the first creative writing program in Great Britain at the University of East Anglia. For the first year, they only had one pupil, Ian McEwan, who went on to win the Booker Prize for his novel Amsterdam. Malcolm Bradbury, who said: "I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms: open and personal, intelligent and inquiring. I value it for its skepticism, its irony, and its play."

It's the birthday of American poet Isabella Gardner, born in Newton, Massachusetts (1915). She started her career as an actress, then went on to become the associate editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry. He books of poetry include Birthdays From the Ocean (1954), West of Childhood: Poems, 1950-1965 (1965) and Isabella Gardner: The Collected Poems (1990).

It's the birthday of English poet Dame Edith Sitwell, born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England (1887). She was also a well-known eccentric, who like to appear in elaborate Elizabethan costumes and who once gave a performance of her poetry by reading it through a megaphone. Late in her life, she became a popular guest on English television. She said: "I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish."

It's the birthday of Queen Elizabeth the First of England, born in Greenwich, England (1533). She was the daughter of King Henry the Eighth and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She became queen in 1558, and during her reign, England established its dominance as a sea power with the defeat, in 1588, of the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth also presided over a remarkable flourishing of literature in England. It was during her reign that Shakespeare rose to prominence and established himself as the greatest poet and playwright in the English language. Her reign ended in 1603.

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Poem: "Al and Beth," by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

Al and Beth

My Uncle Al worked in a drugstore
three blocks above Times Square,
dispensing pills and cosmetics.
All day long crazy people
and thieves came into the store
, but nothing seemed to faze him.

His sister, Beth, was the opposite ...
romantic. She used to sing
on ships that sailed from New York
to Central and South America.
When the tourists came trailing back
on board with their maracas,
Beth would be in the Aztec Room
singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
and "I Get a Kick out of You."

Once when I argued with Al
about something that America
was doing . . . "My country
right or wrong," he told me.
I suppose so, if you've come
from a village in Russia no one
ever heard of, with no drains,
and on saints' days the Cossacks
descend on you with the blessing
of the Church, to beat out your brains.

And when, after a fortnight
being seasick, there's the statue,
and buildings reaching up
to the sky. Streets full of people.
The clang of a bell, someone yelling
as you almost get run over.
More things happening every second
in New York, than Lutsk in a year.

Al lived on Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn,
all of his life, with the wife
his mother had picked out for him.
Beth never married. She was still waiting
for Mr. Right.

          Of such is the Kingdom
of Heaven. Say that I sent you.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Ann Beattie, born in Washington, D.C. (1947). She is known for her minimalist short stories about dysfunctional baby boomers in books like The Burning House (1982). Her most recent book is the novel The Doctor's House (2002). She said, "People forget years and remember moments."

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious, born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide. Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night, and wrote it in 10 weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a bestseller, the locals in her town were horrified. People showed up on her front lawn yelling obscenities and throwing rocks.

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. After he published his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), he was considered the best living American writer, and he was probably the most famous writer in the world. But he began to write less and less fiction in the 1930s. He went on long hunting and fishing expeditions. He became an intrepid journalist, covering the civil war in Spain. He moved to Cuba and organized a private spy network to uncover Nazi sympathizers. He patrolled the Gulf of Mexico in his fishing boat, looking for Nazi submarines, though he didn't find any. He covered the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and he was one of the only armed journalists fighting alongside the other soldiers. After participating in the war, he had a hard time getting back to writing. He said, "[It's] as though you had heard so much loud music you couldn't hear anything played delicately." He finally published his first novel in 10 years in 1950, Across the River and Into the Trees, about World War II. It got terrible reviews. Critics said that maybe he was overrated as a writer. Journalists started contacting him, asking to write his biography, as though he were already dead. Hemingway had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book, about different aspects of the sea. He got the idea for it while looking for submarines in his fishing boat. The book had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea. He knew that the book was almost too short to be a novel, but he was tired of not publishing anything. The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.

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Poem: "Ordinary Life," by Barbara Crooker, from Ordinary Life (By Line Press).

Ordinary Life

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch's little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa's ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken's diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of British novelist James Hilton, born in Leigh, Lancashire, England (1900). In the first decade of his writing career, he published more than 10 novels without receiving any attention. Then he wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips (1934), about an old, beloved schoolmaster whom Hilton based on his father. When the story was published in the United States it became a huge bestseller. All of his previous novels were reissued and they became bestsellers too. The most popular of the earlier novels was Lost Horizon (1933) about an imaginary Tibetan village called Shangri-La.

It's the birthday of Paul Goodman, born in Greenwich Village in New York City (1911). He's the author of Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960), about the alienation of American young people. The book made him a hero among lefty beatniks.

It's the birthday of literary critic Granville Hicks, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1901). He was one of the first literary critics to join the Communist Party during the Great Depression. He wrote several books analyzing American literature from a Marxist point of view, including The Great Tradition (1933).

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). Both of his parents died when he was a boy, and he was raised by a series of aunts. As a young man, he loved to drink and gamble, but he always felt guilty about it. He started keeping a diary, and wrote his first diary entry about his fear that he had contracted a venereal disease. He wrote pages and pages wondering why he couldn't help breaking all the rules that society had made for him, and he became fascinated by the idea that people are always trying to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do.

He volunteered to fight in a war against the Chechen mountain tribes, and went on to fight in the Crimean War. He wrote stories about the battles he witnessed and he described military battles as realistically as possible. He was one of the first writers to describe battles as chaotic and insane and meaningless.

In the 1850s, Russia was still operating under a medieval economic system with most of the peasants enslaved as serfs. Tolstoy opened a school for peasants on his family's estate and helped open more than 20 schools in surrounding villages. He believed in complete freedom in the classroom and let his students study whatever interested them. He also edited an educational journal and wrote that the upper classes had as much to learn from peasants as peasants had to learn from the upper classes.

Tolstoy got married in 1862, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He wrote, "Domestic happiness has swallowed me completely." His wife had 13 children, and she helped him copy out and edit all his manuscripts. She copied by hand the huge manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times. During the first years of his marriage, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted.

In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery. That novel was Anna Karenina (1875). He wrote it as a defense of marriage as the most important foundation of society. When it was published, most critics said it was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

After publishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy fell into a deep depression. He was healthy, and he had plenty of money, but he felt that life had no purpose. He noticed that the peasants on his estate wore ragged clothes, lived in leaky huts, and had no way of improving their lives, but they were happy. He came to believe that they knew the meaning of life, so he renounced all his property and became a peasant. He learned to make his own food and clothes, and lived in a hut. He started to write theology and philosophy and founded his own form of Christianity. He became a kind of prophet, and people from all over the world visited him and wrote to him, including Woodrow Wilson and Mahatma Gandhi. Leo Tolstoy said, "In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

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Poem: "The Size of Spokane," by Heather McHugh, from Hinge and Sign (Wesleyan University Press).

The Size of Spokane

The baby isn't cute. In fact he's
a homely little pale and headlong
stumbler. Still, he's one
of us-the human beings
stuck on flight 295 (Chicago to Spokane);
and when he passes my seat twice
at full tilt this then that direction,
I look down from Lethal Weapon 3 to see
just why. He's

running back and forth
across a sunblazed circle on
the carpet-something brilliant, fallen
from a porthole. So! it's light
amazing him, it's only light, despite
some three and one
half hundred
people, propped in rows
for him to wonder at; it's light
he can't get over, light he can't
investigate enough, however many
zones he runs across it,
flickering himself.

The umpteenth time
I see him coming, I've had
just about enough; but then
he notices me noticing and stops-
one fat hand on my armrest-to
inspect the oddities of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some people cannot walk.
But everyone was
sunstruck once, and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how
astonishing this is? so practiced all our senses
we cannot imagine them? foreseen instead of seeing
all the all there is? Each spectral port,
each human eye

is shot through with a hole, and everything we know
goes in there, where it feeds a blaze. In a flash

the baby's old; Mel Gibson's hundredth comeback seems
less clever; all his chases and embraces
narrow down, while we
fly on (in our
plain radiance of vehicle)

toward what cannot stay small forever.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe and when she showed him some of her poems, he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929).

It's the birthday of Lutheran minister and publisher Isaac Kauffman Funk, born in Clifton, Ohio (1839). After serving as a minister, he founded a publishing house and began to publish anti-alcohol pamphlets and religious journals. In 1877, he partnered with a former classmate named Adam Willis Wagnalls, and they published many books together, including Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first English dictionary that gave definitions of words with the most current definition first and the oldest definition last, rather than the other way around. At the time, dictionaries were thought of as historical records of the language. Funk & Wagnall made dictionaries practical.

It's the birthday of Czech poet and novelist Franz Werfel, born in Prague (1890). He was one of the most important members of the German Expressionists, who wrote about inward emotions instead of outward reality. In 1934 he came out with his most famous novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It was the first novel about the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and it was published around the world. Werfel was living in France when the Nazis came to power. He had to go underground and burn all the manuscripts he had been working on because they were too dangerous to carry. He was hiding out for several weeks in Lourdes, France, where he heard the story of St. Bernadette, the 14-year-old girl who had seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Werfel vowed that if he escaped the Nazis, he would write his next novel about the girl. When he reached the United States he wrote The Song of Bernadette (1941), and it became a bestseller.

It's the birthday of editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, born in Whitley, England (1903). He was one of the most important English literary critics and edited the literary journal Horizon from 1940 to 1950, publishing authors like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. Connolly said that he drifted into being a literary critic through unemployability. Even though he became one of the best book reviewers in England, he always hated it. He said, "I review novels to make money, because it is easier for a sluggard to write an article a fortnight than a book a year." He published one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), but he thought it was so bad that he decided never to write fiction again. Instead, he wrote two great books about the misery of not being able to write great books, The Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944).

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Poem: "To a Terrorist," by Stephen Dunn, from Between Angels (Norton).

To a Terrorist

For the historical ache, the ache passed down
which finds its circumstance and becomes
the present ache, I offer this poem

without hope, knowing there's nothing,
not even revenge, which alleviates
a life like yours. I offer it as one

might offer his father's ashes
to the wind, a gesture
when there's nothing else to do.

Still, I must say to you:
I hate your good reasons.
I hate the hatefulness that makes you fall

in love with death, your own included.
Perhaps you're hating me now,
I who own my own house

and live in a country so muscular,
so smug, it thinks its terror is meant
only to mean well, and to protect.

Christ turned his singular cheek,
one man's holiness another's absurdity.
Like you, the rest of us obey the sting,

the surge. I'm just speaking out loud
to cancel my silence. Consider it an old impulse,
doomed to become mere words.

The first poet probably spoke to thunder
and, for a while, believed
thunder had an ear and a choice.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 2001, it was a clear, crisp, sunny morning in New York City. Students were in their second week of school. People were getting to work in cars, buses, and trains. Alessandra Fremura had planned on leaving for work at 8:00, but her babysitter was 20 minutes late. Virginia DiChiara couldn't get her golden retrievers to come in from the backyard, so she decided to have another cup of coffee. Kenneth Merlo was supposed to go in the office, but he decided to spend the morning helping a friend hook up her computer instead of going to his office. Michael Lomonaco stopped in the lobby of the World Trade Center to order some reading glasses from the one-hour eyeglass store. Michael Jacobs was running late when he reached the Trade Center lobby. He rushed to make the elevator, but the doors slid shut in his face. A musician named Michelle Wiley was at home in her apartment. She sat down at her piano in her nightgown and shower shoes, and stared out her window at the Twin Towers before beginning to play.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name O. Henry, William Sydney Porter, born in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). He is famous for inventing a particular kind of short story with a neat plot and a surprise twist at the end. In his most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi" (1905), a woman sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her a set of expensive hairbrushes.

It's the birthday of D(avid) H(erbert) Lawrence, born in Eastwood, England (1885). He wrote poetry and plays and literary criticism, but he's best known for his novels Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). He had an incredibly difficult life. He was a teacher, but he caught tuberculosis as a young man and eventually became too sick to teach. During World War I the British government suspected he was a German spy, because his wife was German and he opposed the war. He and his wife were forced to stay in England, living in renovated cowsheds and run-down cottages on the edge of poverty. Most of all, he struggled against censorship. More than almost any other writer at the time, he believed that in order to write about human experience, novelists had to write explicitly about sex. When he published his first important novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), he found that his editor had deleted numerous erotic passages without his permission. When he published his novel The Rainbow in 1915, Scotland Yard seized most of the printed copies under charges of obscenity. He was blacklisted as an obscene writer and none of the magazines in England would publish anything he wrote. He finished Women in Love in 1916, but couldn't get it published until 1920, and even then he could only publish it privately. D.H. Lawrence said, "Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot."

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Poem: "September Twelfth, 2001," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, born in Lviv, Poland (now Ukraine) (1921). He studied to be a doctor, but he had to go undercover and hide his Jewish identity when the Nazis invaded Poland. During World War II, he pretended to be a Christian mechanic and sabotaged as much Nazi machinery as he could without getting caught. After the war, he began to write fiction. He decided that regular realistic fiction wasn't sufficient to describe the world anymore, so he wrote fiction that took place thousands of years in the future. He's best known for his novel Solaris (1961), about a scientist who travels to a space station near a strange planet and meets the ghost of his wife. His most recent novel is Peace on Earth (1987), about a future where all wars are fought on the moon by machines, so that humans don't get hurt.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) (1943). He's the author of many poetry collections, including The Cinnamon Peeler (1989), and novels such as The English Patient (1992) and Anil's Ghost (2000). His parents got a divorce when he was a boy, and his mother took him to England and eventually to Canada. He didn't return to Sri Lanka until almost 30 years after he left. When he did go back, he wrote a memoir about the experience called Running In the Family (1982). He said, "The past is still, for us, a place that is not safely settled."

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, born in New York City (1892). He went to college to become a lawyer, but he fell in love with literature and decided to devote his life to it. At the time, the publishing world was a kind of gentlemen's club and Knopf had a hard time fitting in because he was Jewish. He was the first Jewish employee at Doubleday. One of his first projects was to republish all of Joseph Conrad's books in a set, which he did with the help of H.L. Mencken. At the time that Knopf got into the publishing business, before television and widespread radio, people said that Americans didn't read books—they just read the newspapers. Knopf thought that Americans might be more likely to read good books if books were beautiful to look at. He used beautiful, easy to read type and high quality paper, and he was the first publisher to cover his books with brightly colored jackets. When Knopf founded his own publishing company, he didn't have enough money to publish big-name American authors, so he published European authors instead. Most American publishers didn't care about European literature, so Knopf was able to cheaply publish writers like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. When several of his authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. became known as one of the best literary publishing houses.

It's the birthday of the essayist and editor H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). One of the most influential journalists of the 20th century, he became a journalist at a time when most educated Americans tried to speak and write like Europeans. Mencken hated Europe. He was one of the first journalists to write serious essays in conversational American English. But he was also critical of America. He invented a character that he called "Boobus Americanus," the average, ignorant American. He believed that it was his job to wake up the boobs of America by writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Mencken lived with his mother in the Baltimore house where he had grown up until her death when he was 45 years old. She brought him plates of sandwiches as he wrote non-stop in his study. At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. He said, "There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out." He published dozens of books, most of them about things he hated. He called his essays "prejudices." But lots of people think his masterpiece is a book he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919). The book is about the evolution of the American vernacular speech, and it includes long lists of slang terms for things like strong drink: "panther-sweat, nose-paint, red-eye, corn-juice, forty-rod, mountain-dew, coffin-varnish, bust-head, stagger-soup, tonsil-paint, squirrel-whiskey." When asked what he would like for an epitaph, he wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."



  • “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
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