Poem: "Riveted" by Robyn Sarah, from A Day's Grace. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.
It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.
Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.
It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end - riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, which became the key to understanding how all organisms pass genetic information onto their offspring. James Watson was only 23 years old at the time. Crick was older, but he hadn't even finished his PhD. They were working in a lab in Cambridge, England, where they didn't even have the right equipment to examine DNA. That equipment was located at King's College in London. Watson tried to get a job there by setting his sister up with one of the King's College scientists, but it didn't work out.
They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to beat him in the race to the answer. They learned that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was taking X-Ray pictures of DNA, and they decided that the only way to discover the structure was to look at those pictures.
Watson got to know Rosalind Franklin's lab partner, Maurice Wilkins, and one night he persuaded Wilkins to show him one of the X-ray pictures that Franklin had taken of a DNA molecule. On the train ride back to Cambridge, Watson sketched the picture on a newspaper. When he got back to his lab, he and Crick spent several days building theoretical models of the molecule. They hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Once they realized what they had accomplished, they went to the local bar to celebrate. Toasting their discovery, Watson shouted, "We have discovered the secret of life!" They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.
It's the birthday of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, born in New York City (1913). Her father was an insurance salesman and an amateur poet. She grew up loving poetry, and published many poems in magazines as a young woman. But after she got married, she stopped trying to publish. She said, "Publishing takes a sort of canniness that I didn't really think went with poetry. I was afraid of writing to please somebody else instead of myself."
So she went on writing poems, without publishing them, for almost 50 years. It wasn't until after her children were grown, her husband had died, and she had lost her eyesight that she published a book of her work. They went through thousands of the poems she had written to find 87 for her book Ants on the Melon, which came out in 1996. She was 83 years old. She went on to publish two more books: Beliefs and Blasphemies (1998) and Living on Fire (2000).
When asked where she got her inspiration, she said, "A cup of coffee. Always black, always strong and always just one. It takes the cork out of the bottle."
It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, born in New York City (1893). He was a child prodigy on the violin and gave his first concert performance when he was 10 years old. He also trained as an acrobat and performed with a small circus until he was 16, when he ran away to Chicago and became a journalist. Of his first few years in Chicago he said, "I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep... and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."
Hecht got involved in the Chicago literary renaissance, along with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He published his first novel in 1921Erik Dorn, about a jaded journalist who can only speak in newspaper headlines. He also began writing and collaborating on plays. He didn't have any success until he and a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur decided to write a play about the newspaper industry called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).
Ben Hecht said, "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."
It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, born in Perigueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel off to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language.
Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was 38 years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. More than anything, he loved to write letters, but after a few years in retirement, his best friend died and he suddenly had no one to write to. So he started writing letters to an imaginary reader, and those letters became an entirely new literary genre: the essay.
Poem: "The Water" by Robert Lowell, from Selected Poems. © Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.
It was a Maine lobster town
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,
and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,
and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.
Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,
but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.
The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.
One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.
We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, born in San Francisco, California (1941). He's the author of several collections of poetry, including Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997.
He said, "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."
It's the birthday of the novelist Ralph Ellison, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He only published one novel in his lifetime but it was one of the great novels of the twentieth century: Invisible Man (1952). He had to abandon a previous novel about World War II to finish it, and it took him seven years to write. He spent the rest of his life working on his next book, but he never finished it. The almost 2,000 page manuscript was edited down and published after his death as Juneteenth (1999).
It's the birthday of the poet Howard Nemerov, who was born in New York City (1920). His father was the president of one of the fanciest clothing stores in New York City, and young Howard was expected to go into his father's business. Instead, he said, "[I became] Howie, boy-intellectual." From the moment he was introduced to literature, he decided that he never wanted to do anything else but read, write and talk about it.
He promptly became a literature professor to support his writing and he was a teacher for the rest of his life. He's known for his funny, playful poems, and he believed that poems and jokes were similar art forms. He wrote, "Jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same."
When asked what his poems were about, Nemerov said, "[I write about] bugs; birds; trees; running water; still, reflecting watereven people sometimes." His Collected Poems came out in 1977.
Richard Wilbur was born on this day in New York City (1921). His father was an artist who painted pictures for advertisements, and Wilbur often posed as the young boy in the advertisements, swallowing the advertised vitamins or running home from the grocery with the advertised cereal. His father supported his interest in poetry, and he sold his first poem to a children's magazine when he was eight years old.
He entered the military during World War II, and he was supposed to go into cryptography. But his superior officer thought he had dangerously radical ideas, and reassigned him to the frontline infantry, where he witnessed his fellow soldiers being machine-gunned around him or driven over by jeeps. He said, "[Once] my foxhole-mate and I... dove into a rubbly ditch to avoid an eighty-eight shell... he wept to discover that the candy bar in his handa Butterfingerwas now full of broken glass."
During lulls in the fighting, Wilbur sat in his foxhole reading Edgar Allan Poe and writing poems about the war. But instead of writing about the battles he wrote more about the quiet moments, such as all the evenings he spent peeling potatoes in cold, dark Army kitchens. Those poems became his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. 10 years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.
He was one of the America's leading poets at a time when most of America's leading poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the mild mannered life of a successful writer and literature professor. Of the major poets of his generation, he is one of the last still living and writing. His Collected Poems came out last year.
Richard Wilbur said, "I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another... and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things."
Robert Lowell was born in Boston (1917). He came from one of the most distinguished and famous families in Boston. He went to Harvard University like all his male ancestors had done, but he dropped out after two years. His friend Ford Madox Ford introduced him to the poet Allen Tate. Lowell pitched a tent in Tate's front yard and began writing poems at a furious pace. He said he learned from Allen Tate that, "[Poetry must] be tinkered with and recast until one's eyes pop out of one's head."
He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon.
But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew, his relatives and friends, and the most ordinary details of his daily life. He said, "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own."
His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time, and he wrote it in a conversational free-verse style. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.
Lowell had an erratic life, suffering from manic depression, and three difficult marriages. One of his few stable relationships was with his friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop. After they met for the first time, Bishop said, "It was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry... like exchanging recipes for making a cake."
They didn't see each other often after that, because they both traveled so much, but they kept in touch through letters. Lowell loved Bishop's poetry, and he made sure that she got all the grants and fellowships and professorships that she needed to keep writing. 10 years after they'd met, he admitted that he had once almost asked her to marry him.
He wrote to her, "I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc. the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had."
He died in a taxi in 1977. His Collected Poems came out in 2003.
Poem: "Theater" by William Greenway, from Fishing at the End of the World. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission.
Like the neighborhood kind
you went to as a kid, full
of yellow light and red
velvet curtains and everybody
there, friends, bullies throwing
popcorn, somebody with red hair.
The roof is leak-stained like the bloody
footprints of the beast from 20,000 fathoms,
there's a yo-yo demonstration by
a greasy man in a sequined suit,
the girl you love is there somewhere
but you can't find her, or if you do
she's with some jerk with muscles.
And the show won't start. There's whistling
and stomping, paper airplanes and 3-D
glasses until you don't even care
anymore because your head is tired,
a stone atop a tendril, and you just
want to sleep, when, sure enough,
the curtain finally rises,
and here it comes.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the publisher Max Schuster, born in Kalusz, Austria (1897). He was working as the editor of a trade magazine when he met a man named Richard L. Simon, who sold pianos for a living. The two shared the same office building, and they began having lunch together everyday. They were both interested in the publishing business, and decided to start a publishing house of their own.
They had all kinds of plans and ideas for their new publishing venture, but no authors to publish. One day, Simon overheard his aunt say that she wished there were a collection of crossword puzzles she could give to a sick friend. At the time, crossword puzzles were a new invention, printed only in newspapers. Simon and Schuster decided to try printing a collection of crossword puzzles for their first book. It sold half a million copies in less than a year. It helped launch a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and put Simon and Schuster on the publishing map.
Simon and Schuster went on to become one of the most successful publishing houses in America. Instead of publishing books that authors had already written, they usually came up with the ideas themselves and assigned them to authors. They helped invent the self-help genre by publishing Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1938), and they went on to publish books about how to dance, how to buy real estate, how to invest, do your taxes, play checkers, train a dog, keep house, and succeed in business.
It's the birthday of the novelist John Irving, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). His first successful novel was The World According to Garp (1978). He's written many more novels since then, including The Cider House Rules (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). In addition to writing books, he also wrestled professionally until he was 34 years old, and he was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. His next book, Until I Find You, will come out this summer.
It's the birthday of the children's book author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He was the son of German immigrants. His mother was an accomplished high diver, and his father was a target shooter who held the world record for marksmanship at 200 yards.
He studied literature, and planned on becoming an English professor. But a woman in one of his classes noticed the drawings he doodled in the margin of his notebook during a lecture on Milton, and she told him he should become a cartoonist. He took her advice and also decided to marry her.
Seuss made a living selling cartoons to magazines, and he also drew cartoons for advertisements. The Standard Oil Company hired him to create monsters that live in the car, and he created the Moto-Raspus, the Moto-Munchus, and the Karbo-nockus. He published his first book for children And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937.
He went on to publish a series of fairly successful books for older children and then, in 1955, an educational specialist asked him if he would write a book to help children learn how to read. Seuss was given a list of 300 words that most first graders know, and he had to write the book using only those words. Seuss wasn't sure he could do it, but as he looked over the list, two words jumped out at him: "cat" and "hat."
Seuss spent the next nine months writing what would become The Cat in the Hat (1957). That book is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. Parents and teachers immediately began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of its publication it was selling 12,000 copies a month.
A few years later, Seuss's publisher bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet with his book Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses exactly 50 different words, and only one of those words has more than one syllable: the word "anywhere." It became the forth best-selling children's hardcover book of all time.
It's the birthday of Tom Wolfe, born in Richmond, Virginia (1931). As a young boy, he would say a prayer every night before he went to bed, thanking God that he was an American. He's been obsessed with America ever since. He majored in American Studies at Yale, but he thought he might learn more about America by getting a job as a reporter, so that's what he did.
He went on to write a series of best-selling books of non-fiction about many aspects of American life: stock car racing, the drug culture, architecture, surfing, and the space program. He came to believe that the novel was dead as an art form and that the only way to say the really important things about American life was through non-fiction.
But then, in the 1980's, he decided to try writing a novel. He had been doing research on the criminal justice system in New York City, and he got the idea for a story about a court case that could involve as many different aspects of New York society as possible: the rich, the poor, the lawyers, the media, the activists, the politicians, and all the bystanders.
He spent months going to trials at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building and the Bronx County Courthouse, and he took notes on all the stories he heard, the clothes people wore, the way everyone talked, and whatever else he could absorb, and he put it all in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which became a huge best-seller in 1987.
His most recent book I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) is about the party rituals and sex lives of contemporary college students. For his research, Wolfe went to 12 different universities, and attended dozens of frat parties. He said, "I was so old, and I always wore a necktieI must have seemed somewhat odd to them." He made sure to use all the most current slang and pop culture references. He asked his own children, both recent college graduates, to check the book over for mistakes. The book got mixed reviews from most major newspapers and magazines, but it's gotten better reviews from college newspapers, most of which admit that it's pretty accurate.
Poem: "What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me" by Christopher Reid, from Katerine Brac. © Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission.
What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me
That she was glad to sit down.
That her legs hurt in spite of the medicine.
That times were bad.
That her husband had died nearly thirty years before.
That the war had changed things.
That the new priest looked like a schoolboy and you could barely
hear him in church.
That pigs were better company, generally speaking, than goats.
That no one could fool her.
That both her sons had married stupid women.
That her son-in-law drove a truck.
That he had once delivered something to the President's palace.
That his flat was on the seventh floor and that it made her dizzy to
think of it.
That he brought her presents from the black market.
That an alarm clock was of no use to her.
That she could no longer walk to town and back.
That all her friends were dead.
That I should be careful about mushrooms.
That ghosts never came to a house where a sprig of rosemary had
That the cinema was a ridiculous invention.
That the modern dances were no good.
That her husband had had a beautiful singing voice, until drink
That the war had changed things.
That she had seen on a map where the war had been fought.
That Hitler was definitely in Hell right now.
That children were cheekier than ever.
That it was going to be a cold winter, you could tell from the height
of the birds' nests.
That even salt was expensive these days.
That she had had a long life and was not afraid of dying.
That times were very bad.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. In 1872, Georges Bizet wrote to a friend, "I am asked to write three acts for the Opéra-Comique [...] It will be bright, but of a brightness that allows style."
When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. It's set in an exotic Spain among gypsies and bullfighters. One element that surprised audiences was that the heroine smokes on stage, something considered less than proper then. Carmen's debut was not a failure, although some history books have portrayed it that way. The opera ran for 37 performances even though it came out late in the season, and it came back the next season, too.
Nietzsche heard Carmen twenty different times, and thought of it as a musical masterpiece. Tchaikovsky first heard Carmen in 1880. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals. Carmen is still the most popular French opera of the 19th century.
It's the birthday of the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). The telephone's invention was actually an accident that came about when Bell was trying to perfect the telegraph.
Alexander Graham Bell said, "When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."
It's the birthday of English poet and novelist Edward Thomas, born in London (1878). He's best known for using natural word choices and colloquial speech rhythms in metric verse, a style he worked on with Robert Frost. The two poets became friends in 1913, while Frost was in England.
Thomas had written a positive review of Frost's first poetry collection, and Frost encouraged Thomas to write his own poetry. Frost described Thomas as "the only brother I ever had." It took him a while before he followed Frost's advice, but Thomas started writing poetry in December of 1914.
Edward Thomas wrote mostly about nature and solitude even though many of his contemporaries and their writing were preoccupied with World War I. One critic said Edward Thomas's poetry was "The last body of work to seek to define a rural concept of beauty that was finally invalidated by the First World War." Thomas enlisted in July of 1915, and he was sent to fight in 1917. He was killed in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, just 28 months after he started writing. He had written 143 poems.
Edward Thomas wrote, "There is not any book / Or face of dearest look / That I would not turn from now / To go into the unknown / I must enter, and leave, alone, / I know not how."
It's the birthday of British philosopher and novelist William Godwin, born in Cambridgeshire (1756). He started off as a minister but started writing when his extreme beliefs made him fall out of favor with his congregation. He'd eventually become an atheist. His most important book was Political Justice (1793), but this was only one of the defining pieces of his literary career. He's best known as the father of Mary Godwin, who would go on to marry and become Mary Shelley, and write Frankenstein.
Poem: "Writing" by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.
The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen's point or brush's tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger's to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the 'Slender Gold.' A nervous man
writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.
Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is March 4, the original date for the inauguration of presidents in the United States. And so, on this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. Lincoln easily won his re-election in 1864, and by the time of his inauguration the Civil War was nearly at an end.
The day of the inauguration, Pennsylvania Avenue was little more than mud and standing water, due to weeks of wet weather. Still, the turnout was unprecedented. Trains carrying spectators arrived to the sound of bands playing "The Battle Cry of Freedom." The inaugural ceremonies included a battalion of African-American troops in the escort party, accompanying Lincoln to his address. Lincoln took the executive oath on the East Portico, with the newly-completed Capitol dome in clear view. In his brief address, Lincoln talked about reconciliation between the Union and the ailing Confederacy.
The address, just four paragraphs and 26 lines, concludes: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
One of the spectators in the crowd was an actor named John Wilkes Booth. Six weeks later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln.
It was on this day in 1837 that Chicago was incorporated as a city, with a population of 4,170.
It's the birthday of the English novelist Alan Sillitoe, born in Nottingham, England (1928). He wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), about a young man working at a factory.
It's the birthday of the crime novelist James Ellroy, born Lee Earle Ellroy in Los Angeles (1948).
Poem: "Winter Lambs" by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise. © Graywolf. Reprinted with permission.
All night snow came upon us
with unwavering intent
small flakes not meandering
but driving thickly down. We woke
to see the yard, the car and road
The neighbors' ewes are lambing
in this stormy weather. Three
lambs born yesterday, three more
Felix the ram looked
proprietary in his separate pen
while fatherhood accrued to him.
The panting ewes regarded me
with yellow-green, small
I have a friend who is pregnant
plans gone awryand not altogether
pleased. I don't say she should
be pleased. We are creation's
property, its particles, its clay
as we fall into this life,
agree or disagree.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1933 that the Nazi Party won 44 percent of the vote in German parliamentary elections, enabling it to join with the Nationalists to gain a slight majority in the Reichstag.
Hitler had become chairman of the Nazi party in 1921, and two years later he tried to topple the German republican government in the "beer-hall putsch." Nazi storm troopers surrounded government officials during a meeting at a beer hall in Munich. The troopers forced the officials to swear allegiance to the Nazi revolution. But the coup was defeated and Hitler fled, then he was captured and imprisoned. While in prison, Hitler dictated his autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to a sympathetic scribe, and the book became important to Nazism.
The failed coup made Hitler famous, and the Nazi party capitalized on the economic depression of 1929, as well as the heavy reparations Germany was made to pay for World War I, and they became a powerful force in Germany. In 1932, Hitler ran for president of Germany, but lost. The next year, he became the chancellor. Just before the parliamentary elections in 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire, which led to the Reichstag Fire Decree, which rescinded habeas corpus and other protective laws. The following week, March 5, 1933, the Nazi Party won a slight majority in the elections. Within three weeks, the Nazi-dominated Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers and ended the Weimar Republic in Germany.
It's the birthday of the novelist Frank Norris, born in Chicago (1870). Norris's father was a self-made man, a wealthy jeweler, and Norris grew up in luxurious homes in Chicago and then San Francisco. His mother read poetry to him, especially Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
At 17, Norris went to Paris to study drawing, even though he had very little talent himself. He found his talent as a writer when he became obsessed with Arthurian legends. Norris began writing long, narrative poems about medieval knights, and he forgot about visual art altogether. Then, at his father's urging, Frank Norris began attending the University of California. His father wanted Norris to take over the family jewelry business, but Norris was a poor student. He took only those courses that interested him, and he spent much of his time partying with his fraternity. He spent four years at the university, without graduating.
Then, Norris moved to Boston, and enrolled at Harvard as a special student. Norris had been imitating the writing of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but a teacher at Harvard introduced him to the writing of Emile Zola, a naturalist. Norris was impressed, and he began to write fiction from a naturalist perspective, which painted humans as irrational, instinctual animals.
Norris's most famous and important novel is McTeague (1899), about a man who kills his wife for money, and flees to Death Valley.
It's the birthday of Josephine Herbst, born in Sioux City, Iowa (1892). She is known for her novels Money for Love (1929) and The Executioner Waits (1934), and for her journalism that described life in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Herbst wrote articles on the Spanish Civil War and Cuba, but she wanted most to learn about Nazi Germany and the underground culture that was opposed to Hitler. She was assigned by the New York Post to travel to Germany, undercover, and learn all that she could. Herbst spent a month in Nazi Germany in 1935, and she was one of the first American reporters to warn about the meaning of the rise of Adolf Hitler.
It's the birthday of Leslie Marmon Silko, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and is best known for her novels Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1992). Her books are about the increasing disappearance of Native American cultures.
Poems: "Ham and Cheese on Rye" by Gary Busha, from Lines on Lake Winnebago. © Marsh River Editions. Reprinted with permission.
Ham and Cheese on Rye
I am an old man sitting on a sagging dock,
fishing in the rain, with not a fish in miles:
it is a perfect night for fishing.
Droplets run down my glasses, blurring my vision,
but there's nothing to see beyond the circle of light
from the dock, anyway.
I know they're out there, lurking in the weeds,
hiding in shadows, waiting until hunger brings them out,
forcing them to react without thinking, making them
bite against their will.
Like them, I feel the gnaw of hunger working. Like them
I try to hold off, stay put, keep from being like all the rest.
But time wins out, wears down the will,
and I reach inside my coat for a ham and cheese on rye.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, born near Durham, England (1806). She was the first to write and publish love poems in English from a woman's point of view. Many of her love poems were sonnets for or about her husband, the poet Robert Browning, whom she met after he sent her a telegram that praised her writing. She married him in 1846 in secret, when she was 40 years old. She ran away with him to Florence, Italy, because her father had forbidden her to marry.
It's the birthday of sculptor, painter, architect, and poet Michelangelo, born in Caprese, Italy (1475). During his lifetime he created some of the most important artistic work ever made, including the Pieta in St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome (1499) and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). He also wrote around 300 poems, as well as many letters. Most of the poems are love poems, and he started writing poetry when he was young, but he wrote his best poems in the last 20 years of his life.
In 1505 Michelangelo was commissioned to build a huge marble monument for Pope Julius II's tomb, and he worked on this piece for 40 years. Pope Julius kept interrupting him to make changes and to give him other jobs, and the monument was never actually completed. Only fragments of it survive today.
One of the jobs that the Pope gave Michelangelo that interrupted his work on the monument was the painting of frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It took him three and a half years to finish.
It's the birthday of humorist and fiction writer Ring Lardner, born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, in Niles, Michigan (1885). He was famous for his sports writing and the way he captured the way baseball players spoke in his writing.
When games were boring, Lardner would fill his articles with jokes and stories about the personal lives of players. He wrote for several Chicago newspapers, covering the Cubs and the White Sox. He wrote more than 4,500 articles and columns for newspapers throughout his life, as well as several other longer works of fiction. His first book was called You Know Me, Al (1916) about a made up baseball player named Jack Keefe, and it was supposedly a collection of letters Keefe had written.
One of Ring Lardner's good friends and drinking buddies was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald encouraged Lardner to publish a collection of short stories, and he did with the book How to Write Short Stories (1924). Lardner wrote a lot of satire, and he once wrote of Fitzgerald, "Mr. Fitzgerald sprung into fame with his novel This Side of Paradise which he turned out when only three years old and wrote the entire book with one hand. Mr. Fitzgerald never shaves while at work on his novels and looks very funny along towards the last five or six chapters." Some of Lardner's other fans included Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and Virginia Woolf.
Ring Lardner said, "Where do they get that stuff about me being a satirist? I just listen."
It is the birthday of novelist Gabriel García Márquez, born in Aracataca, Colombia (1927). He's best known as the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, and for his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). He's also known as the main figure in writing known as "magical realism" which combines storytelling with elements of the supernatural.
García Márquez lived with his grandparents until he was eight years old. He was a shy boy, and his nickname in school was "the Old Man." He never liked playing sports and started telling stories from a young age. He said, "My earliest recollection is of drawing 'comics' and I realize now that this may have been because I couldn't yet write. I've always tried to find ways of telling stories and I've stuck to literature as the most accessible."
García Márquez started writing for the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador and he was eventually sent to Europe as a foreign correspondent. The government shut down the paper while he was in Paris, and this left him without any way of making money. He said, "For three years I lived by daily miracles. This produced tremendous bitterness in me... But if I hadn't lived those years I probably wouldn't be a writer."
One day in January of 1965, the complete first chapter of One Hundred Years Of Solitude came to him suddenly while he was driving his car from Mexico City to Acapulco. He came home that night and told his wife not to bother him and locked himself in a room for eight to ten hours a day for the next 18 months and wrote the novel. The original manuscript was 1,200 pages long, and García Márquez pawned their heater and his wife's hair dryer to pay for the postage to send the novel out to publishers.