Poem: "Proverbial Ballade" by Wendy Cope from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. © Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission.
Fine words won't turn the icing pink;
A wild rose has no employees;
Who boils his socks will make them shrink;
Who catches cold is sure to sneeze.
Who has two legs must wash his knees;
Who breaks the egg will find the yolk;
Who locks his door will need his keys
So say I and so say the folk.
You can't shave with a tiddlywinks,
Nor make red wine from garden peas,
Nor show a blindworm how to blink,
Nor teach an old raccoon Chinese.
The juiciest orange feels the squeeze;
Who spends his portion will be broke;
Who has no milk can make no cheese
So say I and so say the folk.
He makes no blot who has no ink,
Nor gathers honey who keeps no bees.
The ship that does not float will sink;
Who'd travel far must cross the seas.
Lone wolves are seldom seen in threes;
A conker ne'er becomes an oak;
Rome wasn't built by chimpanzees
So say I and so say the folk.
Dear friends! If adages like these
Should seem banal, or just a joke,
Remember fish don't grow on trees
So say I and so say the folk.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1888 that the public was first admitted to the Washington Monument. The cornerstone of the monument had been laid 40 years earlier, on July 4th. But there wasn't enough money to complete the project, and the construction went on and off for four decades until February 21, 1885. It was 555 feet tall, with 893 steps to the top. There was a steam-powered elevator installed that took 10 to 12 minutes to ride.
It was the tallest building in the world, and people flocked to it when it opened on this day. In the first nine months, more than 600,000 people visited, and by the turn of the century, more than 1.5 million had come. One woman wanted to be married in the elevator while suspended in the middle of the monument. One man wanted to scatter his wife's ashes from the window. Gabby Street, a pitcher for the Washington Senators, stood at the base and caught a ball dropped from the top, traveling at 125 miles per hour. In 1915, the first suicide occurred down the elevator shaft. The monument continues to be the site of important eventsthe woman's suffrage rallies of the '20s, the civil rights marches in the '60s, anti-war demonstrations in the '70s, and the Million Man March in 1995.
It's the birthday of memoirist Jill Ker Conway, (books by this author) born in New South Wales, Australia (1934). She began her three-part memoir with The Road from Coorain (1990), about growing up in the Australian outback and going to school in wartime Sydney. Then she wrote True North (1995), about her Harvard education, and continued telling her story, as the first woman president of Smith College, in A Woman's Education (2001).
It's the birthday of composer Camille Saint-Saëns, born in Paris (1835). He was a child prodigy, with perfect pitch and a fantastic memory. He learned the piano and organ, and played the music of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart in recitals. He composed nice waltzes and galops by the age of five, and wrote his first symphony at 16. His first famous opera was Samson and Dalila (1877). He wrote lots of other operas too, but they were less well known outside of France.
He was always surprised that the greater public gave him such high praise, yet constantly wanted to hear Samson and Dalila and ignored his other work. Over the course of his lifetime, he composed more than 300 pieces, including 13 operas, and he was the first major composer to write specifically for the cinema. He's best known for Samson et Dalila, his Third (organ) Symphony, (1886), his Second and Fourth Piano Concertos, and Carnival of the Animals (1886) for piano and orchestra. He toured frequently, conducting his oratorios and premiering his piano concertos all over Europe and the United States, sometimes accompanied only by his servant, Gabriel, and his pet dogs. Saint-Saëns was very polite but highly opinionated. He wasn't outwardly emotional, but he poured out long, flowery letters to his friends. He did everything with speedhe talked, walked, wrote, conducted rehearsals, and composed very quickly.
He said, "I like good company, but I like hard work still better." He didn't like the dreary weather of Paris, and skipped off to Algiers in the winters. It was there he died at age 86. He was given a huge state funeral on Christmas Eve and was buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery. At his grave, the composer Alfred Bruneau said, "[His pieces] have won a place that they will hold so long as beauty lasts, so long as orchestras and choirs shall gather together to move and charm us."
It's the birthday of Charles R (Rudolph) Walgreen, owner of the Walgreens drug store chain, born near Galesburg, Illinois (1873). He lost part of his left hand's middle finger when he was working in a shoe factory. The doctor who attended to him convinced him to become a druggist's apprentice, at $4 an hour. He did, and after fighting in the Spanish-American War, became a pharmacist and eventually bought out the store he was working for, in 1901. It was just 50 feet by 20 feet, on Chicago's South Side, and Walgreen had to take out a huge loan to afford it.
There was considerable drug store competition in Chicago at the time, so Walgreen fixed up his store as soon as he got his hands on it. He put in brand-new light fixtures, widened the aisles, had an employee at the front door to greet each customer. It was the only drug store where you could buy pots and pans. He acquired another store and continued to specialize in customer service. Almost all drug stores had soda fountains, but they only did well in the hot weather. Walgreen kept his counters open year-round, and had hot food served during the winter months. His wife, Myrtle, cooked all the food in their home kitchen. She rose before dawn and brought everything to his two stores by 11:00 a.m.chicken, tongue, egg salad, bean, and cream of tomato soup. In 1922, a man working at a Walgreen soda fountain created the first malted milkshake, and it was a roaring success.
Poem: "Thelonious Monk" by Stephen Dobyns from Common Carnage. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission.
A record store on Wabash was where
I bought my first album. I was a freshman
in college and played the record in my room
over and over. I was caught by how he took
the musical phrase and seemed to find a new
way out, the next note was never the note
you thought would turn up and yet seemed
correct. Surprise in 'Round Midnight
or Sweet and Lovely. I bought the album
for Mulligan but stayed for Monk. I was
eighteen and between my present and future
was a wall so big that not even sunlight
crossed over. I felt surrounded by all
I couldn't do, as if my hopes to write,
to love, to have children, even to exist
with slight contentment were like ghosts
with the faces found on Japanese masks:
sheer mockery! I would sit on the carpet
and listen to Monk twist the scale into kinks
and curlicues. The gooseneck lamp on my desk
had a blue bulb which I thought artistic and
tinted the stacks of unread books: if Thomas
Mann depressed me, Freud depressed me more.
It seemed that Monk played with sticks attached
to his fingertips as he careened through the tune,
counting unlike any metronome. He was exotic,
his playing was hypnotic. I wish I could say
that hearing him, I grabbed my pack and soldiered
forward. Not quite. It was the surprise I liked,
the discordance and fretful change of beat,
as in Straight No Chaser, where he hammers together
a papier-mâché skyscraper, then pops seagulls
with golf balls. Racket, racket, but all of it.
music. What Monk banged out was the conviction
of innumerable directions. Years later
I felt he's been blueprint, map and education:
no streets, we bushwhacked through the underbrush;
not timid, why open your mouth if not to shout?
not scared, the only road lay straight in front;
not polite, the notes themselves were sneak attacks;
not quietlook, can't you see the sky will soon
collapse and we must keep dancing till it cracks?
for Michael Thomas
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, (works by this author) born in a village in Parma, Italy (1813). His parents owned a tavern and were not very well-off. But his father recognized musical talent in Giuseppe and bought him a spinet (an upright harpsichord), which he kept for the rest of his life.
By the age of 12, Verdi was the organist for his church. He started playing for other churches farther away from home, and then he went off to music school. He lived in the town of Busseto, and boarded with a wealthy grocer who liked Verdi and wanted to support him, and whose daughter Verdi ended up marrying. When Verdi went for the position of maestro di musica in Busseto, a scandal erupted. One faction supported Verdi and the other, headed by the clergy and the local bishop, were rooting for his rivala more traditional, conservative, and older musician. The town was in such discord over the matter that they completely banned music in church until the question was solved.
Eventually, they compromised and made Verdi the maestro for secular music and his rival the leader for church music. Verdi wrote marches, overtures, and other pieces for the Busseto Philharmonic Society and the town marching band. But then he set his sights elsewhere and got an opera, Oberto, performed at La Scala, the most important theater in Italy, in 1839. It was a modest success.
Then tragedy struck, when his wife died of encephalitis. They had already lost their two children in infancy. He vowed he would never write music again. But he couldn't resist when he read the powerful libretto for Nabucco. He turned it into a stunning opera, premiering on March 9, 1842. The audience applauded for 10 minutes after the first scene, and after the chorus, the audience demanded an encore, even though they were prohibited by the Austrian government at the time. Even the stagehands, who rarely paid attention to the performance, would stop what they were doing to watch and applaud the show.
Verdi used the same librettist for his next opera, Lombardi. The librettist had a procrastination problem, and Verdi had to lock him in a room in order to get him to write enough on time. Once Verdi made the mistake of sticking him in the room with his wine collection, and hours later the librettist emerged drunk. Verdi wrote a total of 26 operas, most notably Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871), and Falstaff (1893).
It's the birthday of playwright, screenwriter and director Harold Pinter, (books by this author) born in East London (1930). He was the son of a Jewish tailor, and he was raised in a small, working-class neighborhood that he had to escape during World War II. He acted in plays at school, and he liked to read Kafka and Hemingway. Pinter tried out London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he didn't like it and left after two years. He debuted his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, in the West End in 1958.
It didn't do well, but he continued to write plays and eventually created a body of work that people call the "comedies of menace." In these plays, situations that should be ordinary turn absurd or ominous because of characters acting out of character for inexplicable reasons. The plays usually take place in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by indefinable outside forces. Pinter wrote The Homecoming (1965), about a man who brings his wife home to meet his all-male family. She stays with his family to be their caretaker and whore, and he goes back to his job teaching philosophy, realizing that nobody needs him.
Pinter said that the opening of that play in New York City in 1967 was one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life. He said the audience was full of moneythe women in mink, the men in tuxedoes. And as soon as the curtain opened, they hated the play. Pinter said, "The hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it." But, he said, "The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had]. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified. ... There's no question that the play won on that occasion."
It's the birthday of Thelonious (Sphere) Monk, (works by this author) who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (1917) but grew up in New York City. He started piano lessons at a young age. By age 13, he had won the weekly amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater so many times that he was no longer allowed to compete.
Six years later, he joined the house band at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and a few others invented a new kind of jazz known as bebop. It involved unusual repetition of phrases and an offbeat, angular pattern of sound. In the '40s he started making recordings, and in the '50s he came out with two of his most popular albums, Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. With these albums, he gained international attention as a pianist and a composer.
The Thelonious Monk Quartet, which included John Coltrane, began a hugely successful regular gig at the Five Spot. Monk played at jazz festivals with other famous jazz legends around the country until the 1970s, when he stopped touring. His most famous compositions include "'Round About Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "Blue Monk," and "Misterioso."
Poem: "Onion, Fruit of Grace" by Julia Kasdorf from Eve's Striptease. © University of Pittsburg Press. Reprinted with permission.
Onion, Fruit of Grace
Onion, fruit of grace,
you swell in the garden
hidden as the heart of God,
but you are not about religion.
Onion, frying into all those Os,
you are a perfect poet,
and you are not about that.
Onion, I love you,
you sleek, auburn beauty,
you break my heart though
I know you don't mean
to make me cry.
Peeling your paper skin,
I cry. Chopping you,
I cry. Slicing off
your wiry roots,
I cry like a penitent
at communion, onion.
Tasting grace, layer by layer,
I eat your sweet heart
that burns like the Savior's.
The sun crust you pull on
while you're still underground,
I've peeled it.
Onion, I'm eating
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Elmore Leonard, (books by this author) born in New Orleans (1925). His father worked for General Motors, and the family traveled around a lot until they finally settled in Detroit, where he still lives with his wife, and with his children and grandchildren nearby. He said, "I live in Detroit because I like it [and] because I know the names of all the streets."
After college, Leonard decided he would write Westerns or detective novels, depending on which made more money. He sold his first Western for $1,000 and quickly churned out eight more, including the popular Hombre (1961). Then in the '60s, Westerns became less popular, so he switched to detective fiction. It took a while for him to be successful. To support his wife and five children, he worked in advertising and for the Encyclopedia Britannica, working on his novels every morning between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. By 1983, he had written 23 novels, including Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Stick (1983), and La Brava (1984). In 1995, his book Get Shorty was turned into a movie starring John Travolta. And the movie Jackie Brown, directed by Quentin Tarantino, was based on his book Rum Punch (1992).
Elmore Leonard said about his writing, "I leave out the parts that people skip."
It's the birthday of the French writer François (Charles) Mauriac, (books by this author) born in Bordeaux (1885). He made it his mission to write about Bordeauxa vine-growing, pastoral region of Franceand he used it as the setting for most of his novels. He became famous for his book A Kiss for the Leper (1922), about a wealthy but hideous man whose life is destroyed by an arranged marriage to a beautiful peasant woman. He also wrote The Desert of Love (1925), Thérèse (1927), and The Knot of Vipers (1932).
He was part of a long tradition of French Roman Catholic writers who explored the problems of good and evil in the world and in human nature. People thought his writing was dark and his characters were somber, but he didn't always agree. He said, "The serpents in my books have been noticed, but not the doves that have made their nests in more than one chapter."
On the eve of World War II, he spoke out against the Germans in a French newspaper he started, and he had to hide out during part of the war for his anti-German views. In the 1950s, he sided with Charles de Gaulle in his opposition to colonial policies in Morocco, and he condemned torture in Algeria by the French army. In 1952, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said, "I believe that only poetry counts. A great novelist is first of all a great poet."
It's the birthday of (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt, born into a prominent, wealthy family in New York City (1884). Her father was in ill health and an alcoholic. Her mother was famous in New York for her striking beauty, and she made Eleanor feel bad about her appearances, calling her "granny" and "very plain." Eleanor said, "I was a solemn child without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth." She was close for a time with her father, but by the age of 10 she was an orphan. She went off to live with her grandmother, and then to a school in London. While there, she was inspired by her headmistress, who was passionately devoted to liberal causes and social justice.
One day on a train to Tivoli, where Eleanor's grandmother lived, she bumped into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her distant cousin, and the two began a secret courtship that ended in marriage in 1905. She had six children with FDR, one of whom died in infancy. She was an active wife and mother, but also a volunteer for social causes. Her husband was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, and Eleanor accompanied him, expecting to do nothing more than support her husband. But she found herself taking an active role, working for the Red Cross and visiting wounded and shell-shocked troops in the Naval Hospital. She was appalled at the state of the hospitals and demanded that the government inspect the poor conditions affecting the sailors.
In 1921, FDR contracted polio and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Eleanor got even more involved in politics, joining various women's rights organizations of the 1920s. She tried to make up for her husband's disability by traveling around and meeting with important people whom her husband had trouble reaching. He was elected president in 1933, and Eleanor continued to be actively involved as the First Lady. Franklin and Eleanor were both champions of the disadvantaged. But at times Eleanor was even more adamant than her husband. She supported anti-lynching laws that her husband did not, and she wrote a confidential letter to the NAACP expressing frustration that her husband and Congress weren't complying.
In 1933, she was the first president's wife to give her own press conference. In 1936, she began writing a daily syndicated newspaper column as a means to advance communication between the president and the public. People loved her and called her "the first lady of the world." Franklin died in 1945, and Eleanor became a delegate to the United Nations and chaired the Human Rights Commission as they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
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Poem: "Everything Happens Twice" by Eve Robillard from Everything Happens Twice. © Fireweed Press. Reprinted with permission.
Everything Happens Twice
That bird sitting dazed on the railing
has flown into your window before.
The dead-end street you've turned onto
you did that just last month. The boss
calling you into his office
has nothing new to say.
There are only so many scripts.
Everything happens twice.
The friend who borrows your raincoat
will borrow your raincoat tomorrow. The parent
who never loved you enough
is doing it from the grave. You are writing
the very same poem
over & over again they are playing
that old, old song but it's never
the very last dance. So smile at the guy
who drinks too much-
the one with forget-me-not eyes. Sleep
with the one who calls you
by another woman's name.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Oktoberfest has its origins in a wedding that happened on this day in 1810. The Bavarian Crown Prince Louis, later King Louis I of Bavaria, married Princess Therese of Saxonia. The royal couple celebrated on the fields in front of the city gates with a horse race, and they invited the citizens of Munich to attend. All across Bavaria there were similar festivities, and everyone enjoyed the party so much that the following year they decided to do it again. Eventually it became a tradition. The Oktoberfest in Munich is now the largest festival in the world. Every year, nearly six million people attend, and they drink more than 10 million pints of beer.
It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after 10 weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña.
Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan. Legend has it that only Columbus believed the earth was round, but that's not true; most educated Europeans at the time knew the earth wasn't flat. However, the Ottoman Empire had cut off land and sea routes to the islands of Asia.
Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime, and over the next century his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Still, he died in 1506 without accomplishing his original goal of finding a western trading route to Asia.
It's the birthday of author and psychologist Robert Coles, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1929). He's the author of more than 60 books. As an undergraduate at Harvard he wrote poems and stories. He wrote an essay on William Carlos Williams and he sent Williams a copy. Williams, who was a doctor as well as a poet, told him it wasn't badfor a Harvard student.
He suggested Coles go into medicine, which Coles did, abandoning his literary ambitions and becoming an M.D. in 1954. Coles was in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement, planning to lead a low-key life as a child psychologist. But one day, during a visit to New Orleans in 1960, he saw a white mob surrounding a six-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges, who kneeled in her starched white dress in the middle of it all to pray for her attackers.
Coles decided to begin what would become his work for the next few decades, an effort to understand how children and their parents come to terms with profound change. He conducted hundreds of interviews on the effects of school desegregation, and he shaped them into the first volume of Children of Crisis (1967), a series of books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
In 1995, when Coles was 66, he co-founded a new magazine about "ordinary people and their lives." It was called DoubleTake, and it featured photography and writing in the documentary tradition. The magazine was printed on fine paper with big, beautiful photo reproductions, and it won lots of awards.
Robert Coles said, "We should look inward and think about the meaning of our life and its purposes, lest we do it in 20 or 30 years and it's too late."
It's the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress, (books by this author) born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). She was taken to Harlem, New York, to be was raised by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell, the daughter of a slave. Her grandmother encouraged her to write. She would sit at the window and point to people passing by and ask Alice what she thought they were thinking. Alice would make something up, and her grandmother would say, "Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep." Childress's plays include Trouble in Mind (1955), i (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969); and she's the author of the children's books A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and Rainbow Jordan (1981).
It's the birthday of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born in Geneva, New York (1910). His books of poetry include A Wreath for the Sea (1943), In the Rose of Time: Poems 1931-1956 (1956), and i (1971). But he's best known for his translations of ancient Greek literature, which became standards. He translated Homer's The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad (1963), Virgil's Aeneid (1983), and plays by Sophocles and Euripides. He was close friends with the writers James Agee and Flannery O'Connor, and he edited collections by both of them.
Poem: "Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field And Think Of You" by Barbara Crooker from Radiance. © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission.
Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field And Think Of You
because the blue hills are like the shoulder and slopes
of your back as you sleep. Often I slip a hand under
your body to anchor myself to this earth. The yellow
mustard rises from a waving sea of green.
I think of us driving narrow roads in France, under
a tunnel of sycamores, my hair blowing in the hot wind,
opera washing out of the radio, loud. We are feeding
each other cherries from a white paper sack.
And then we return to everyday life, where we fall
into bed exhausted, fall asleep while still reading,
forget the solid planes of the body in the country
of dreams. I miss your underwear, soft from a thousand
washings, the socks you still wear from a store
out of business thirty years. I love to smell your sweat
after mowing grass or hauling wood; I miss the weight
on your side of the bed.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Conrad Richter, (books by this author) 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, (books by this author) 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 12, 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, (books by this author) 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 16 years old.
The two recorded their first folk album, Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. 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."
Poem: "87" by E.E. Cummings from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Weidenfeld. Reprinted with permission.
o by the by
has anybody seen
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, (books by this author) 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, (books by this author) 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 Normandythe 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), (books by this author) 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-yourselfin a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody elsemeans 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 most peopleit's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. ... You and I are human beings; most people are snobs."
It's the birthday of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, (books by this author) 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 18 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 youyou leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fenceslittle rags and shreds of your very life."
Poem: "My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie" by Dennis Trudell from Marquees of Buffalo. © Parallel Press. Reprinted with permission.
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, (books by this author) 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 superman, 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 20th century. He said, "I know my fate. One day my name will be tied to the memory of something monstrousa crisis without equal on earth. ... I am no man, I am dynamite!"
It's the birthday of Mario Puzo, (books by this author) 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 successThe Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), about an ordinary Italian immigrant family.
It's the birthday of English novelist Sir P.G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse, (books by this author) born in Guildford, England (1881). He was one of the most popular writers of the first half of the 20th 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 16 plays, and composed lyrics for 28 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.