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Poem: "Closing in on the Harvest," by Leo Dangel from Home From the Field. © Spoon River Poetry Press. Reprinted with Permission. (buy now)

Closing in on the Harvest

No one could stop him.
A bad heart, he still
worked in the field
and said he would die
on the tractor.
Out on the Super-M
picking corn, somehow
he got off, though,
and sat on the ground,
leaning against the tire,
where we found him.
His eyes were wide open,
looking mean as hell,
like when he was alive
and chores weren't done,
but his hand
lay on his chest, gentle,
making us think
he was pledging something.
We could smell
the dry wind.
The tractor radio was on
to the World Series—
Cardinals 7, Yankees 5,
Bob Gibson on the mound,
one out to go—
the steel corn wagon
was not quite full.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of James Rufus Agee, (books by this author) born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). He wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), A Death in the Family (1957), and the screenplay for The African Queen (1951). In 1936, he went to Alabama with the photographer Walker Evans to do a human interest story for Fortune Magazine about the effect of the Depression on ordinary people. Evans made portraits of three sharecropping families, but Agee couldn't finish the essay that was supposed to go with them. He said that if he failed, people would feel sorry for the sharecroppers; if he succeeded, people would understand that their lives, though plain and fraught with difficulty, were nonetheless filled with grace.

He finally finished his essay, but Fortune never published it. It was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men five years later and sold only six hundred copies, although it is widely read today. He wrote, "Here I must say, a little anyhow: what I can hardly hope to bear out in the record: That a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, much less impart to another."

It's the birthday of the actress Fanny Kemble, (books by this author) born in London (1809). She wrote Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1863), an account of the conditions the slaves on her husband's plantation were forced to endure. It helped to convince the British not to support the Confederacy, but it cost her her marriage and the custody of her children.

On this day in 8 B.C., the Roman poet Horace died (books by this author). He hated the chaos of Rome, and when his patron gave him a farm in the Italian countryside, he wrote,

"I prayed for this: a modest swatch of land
where I could garden, an ever-flowing spring
close by, and a small patch of woods above
the house. The gods gave all I asked and more.
I pray for nothing more, but
that these blessings last my life's full term."

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Poem: "The Rites of Manhood," by Alden Nowlan from What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread. © Nineties Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Rites of Manhood

It's snowing hard enough that the taxis aren't running.
I'm walking home, my night's work finished,
long after midnight, with the whole city to myself,
when across the street I see a very young American sailor
standing over a girl who's kneeling on the sidewalk
and refuses to get up although he's yelling at her
to tell him where she lives so he can take her there
before they both freeze. The pair of them are drunk
and my guess is he picked her up in a bar
and later they got separated from his buddies
and at first it was great fun to play at being
an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but by now he wants only to
find a solution to the infinitely complex
problem of what to do about her before he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol
—and what keeps this from being squalid is
what's happening to him inside:
if there were other sailors here
it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it
later, but he's alone and the guilt can't be
divided into small forgettable pieces;
he's finding out what it means
to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Dennis Brutus, (books by this author) born in Zimbabwe (1924). He's the author of Sirens, Knuckles and Bones (1962). He served a sentence of eighteen months of hard labor on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.

It's the birthday of Stefan Zweig, (books by this author) born in Vienna (1881). He wrote short stories, a dozen biographies, and a memoir, The World of Yesterday (1943), in which he wrote: "In Berlin I sat in cafes with dead drunks and homosexuals and morphine addicts; very proudly I shook the hand of a rather well-known convicted con artist. All the characters in realist novels I could not bring myself to believe in crowded the small rented rooms and cafes in which I sat, and the more terrible their reputations were, the more interested I was in becoming personally acquainted with them."

It's the birthday of Sir Leslie Stephen, born in London (1832). He edited the Dictionary of National Biography (1885), and wrote The History of Thought in the Eighteenth Century. He was Virginia Woolf's father.

It's the birthday of William Blake, (books by this author) born in London (1757). He wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). He lived in poverty, ignorant of the rest of the literary world of London, scraping out a living from his trade as an engraver, and writing and drawing under inspiration he considered divine. He said about his long poem Milton, "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time, without pre-meditation and even against my will." He lived in a world of dreams and visions. One day he and his wife were sitting naked in their garden, reciting to each other passages from Paradise Lost. Blake was not embarrassed when a visitor came by. He said, "Come in! It's only Adam and Eve, you know."

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Poem: "This Is the Hay That No Man Planted" by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Printed with the permission of the estate of Elizabeth Coatsworth. (buy now)

This Is the Hay That No Man Planted

This is the hay that no man planted,
This is the ground that was never plowed,
Watered by tides, cold and brackish,
Shadowed by fog and the sea-born cloud.

Here comes no sound of bobolink's singing,
Only the wail of the gull's long cry,
Where men now reap as they reap their meadows
Heaping the great gold stacks to dry.

All winter long when deep pile the snowdrifts,
And cattle stand in the dark all day,
Many a cow shall taste pale sea-weed
Twined in the stalks of the wild salt hay.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the birthday of three writers known for their books for children: Louisa May Alcott, Madeline L'Engle and C. S. Lewis.

Louisa May Alcott (books by this author) was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). She had started out writing sensational stories about duels and suicides, opium addiction, mind control, bigamy and murder. She called it "blood and thunder" literature. But in 1867, an editor suggested that she try writing what he called "a girl's book," and she said she'd try. The result was Little Women (1868), and it was a huge success. She was obligated to keep writing more books in the same vein, which distressed her, but she did it anyway.

Madeleine L'Engle (books by this author) was born in New York City (1918). She grew up with parents who were deeply in love with each other, but who didn't give her much attention. When she was 12, her parents took her to Switzerland. She thought they were just visiting, but while they were there, her parents brought her to a boarding school and left her there. Around the same time, she began writing fiction to invent a family for herself.

Her big breakthrough book was a science fiction novel called A Wrinkle in Time (1962) about a group of children who have to rescue their father from a planet where individuality has been outlawed.

C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis (books by this author) was born in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He said of his childhood, "I am a product ...[of] books. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloak room, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves."

Lewis's parents were Anglicans and took him to church as a boy, but he found religion cold and boring. He preferred pagan mythology: Irish, Norse, and Greek myths he read in storybooks. He created an imaginary country called "Boxen" and wrote stories about it. He said, "My early stories were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures — 'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

He began teaching philosophy at Oxford, where he met J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a devout Christian and Lewis was an atheist, but they shared a love for mythology. They took a long walks around the Oxford grounds, debating the existence of God. Tolkien tried to persuade Lewis that the story of Jesus was a myth but that it had also actually happened.

The morning after one of those walks, Lewis went with his brother to the zoo. He said, "When we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion." He became the most prominent Christian apologist in the world. He recorded a series of lectures for radio, which were broadcast in England during World War II, and many people gathered around their radios to take comfort from his ideas in the midst of bombing raids. The lectures were collected into his book Mere Christianity (1952).

But he is best remembered for the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia, which he started publishing in 1950. Lewis decided to write for children, even though he never had any children himself and had never had any strong relationships with children. He wanted to give children what he had gotten himself from fairytales when he was a child.

C.S. Lewis said, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

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Poem: "Yes" by Catherine Doty, from Momentum. © Cavan Kerry Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It's about the blood
banging in the body,
and the brain
lolling in its bed
like a happy baby.
At your touch, the nerve,
that volatile spook tree,
vibrates. The lungs
take up their work
with a giddy vigor.
Tremors in the joints
and tympani,
dust storms
in the canister of sugar.
The coil of ribs
heats up, begins
to glow. Come

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the playwright David Mamet, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1947).

It's the birthday of Jonathan Swift, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1667). He published Gulliver's Travels in 1726.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Mark Twain, (books by this author) Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri (1835). He's best known to us today for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in his own lifetime his best-selling books were his travel books, such as Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883).

He spent most of his life traveling. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and he loved observing the people who flowed in from the river: the gamblers, confidence men, boat captains, pioneers, and slave traders. He traveled east to try to make a living as a printer, but eventually came back to Missouri and took a job as an apprentice pilot on a riverboat. He would later say that his years working on the Mississippi River were his happiest.

When Civil War broke out — and tied up traffic on the river — Clemens followed his brother west to Nevada. He rode out on a stagecoach. While his brother worked for the governor, Clemens loafed around, drinking and playing poker all night long. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise. They offered him a full-time job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada.

He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. Virginia City was a rough town. Clemens interrupted one of his letters to his mother to write, "I have just heard five pistol shots down the street. ... I will go and see about it." It turned out that two policemen had been murdered a few blocks away.

He had always written entertaining letters to his family, and he treated his newspaper work like those letters: humorous, exaggerated, entertaining, but always conversational. He took the name "Mark Twain" from his riverboat experience. The phrase "Mark Twain" means two fathoms deep, which for a riverboat captain is just deep enough water to navigate.

In 1867, Clemens persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to send him on a steamboat pleasure cruise to Europe, and he got paid 20 dollars for each letter he sent home. Those letters brought him significant recognition, and in 1868 he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad, and that was the book that made him famous.

Clemens wrote about his travels in Europe, his travels in the West, and his boating days on the Mississippi. But some of the most beautiful passages in his writing come from his descriptions of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the river with Jim. He wrote, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest."

It the middle of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Clemens decided he needed to do some research on his hometown, so he traveled back to Hannibal, Missouri, for the first time since he was a teenager. It was the most depressing trip of his life, because all the romanticized ideas about the place where he'd grown up were shattered. He met old women who had been just young girls when he was a child. He saw how poverty-stricken the townspeople were.

Samuel Clemens said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."

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Poem: "In the Middle" by Barbara Crooker, from Word Press. © 1998 and printed by permission from the author. (buy now)

In the Middle

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that the first installment of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations was published. Dickens (books by this author) was under financial strain at the time. He had recently purchased a giant mansion called Gad's Hill Place, which he had first admired when he was five years old. Unfortunately, the cost of the house and its upkeep was quite a burden on his bank account. He had also recently separated from his wife, and was forced to support her separate living expenses. Several of his sons were starting out on their own, and he had given them generous allowances. On top of it all, he had recently founded his own magazine, called All the Year Round, and sales of the magazine were dropping.

So in order to improve his financial outlook, he decided to start publishing a new novel. Critics consider it one of his most autobiographical books because it tells the story of a boy who is destined to become a blacksmith, but because of a chance meeting with a fugitive prisoner, he winds up becoming an aristocratic gentleman.

Each installment of Great Expectations sold more than 100,000 copies, more copies than each issue of the London Times newspaper at the time. Today it is among the most popular of Dickens's novels.

It was on this day in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln gave the State of the Union address at one of the lowest points of his presidency. An end to the Civil War was nowhere in sight. Just 10 weeks before, Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, turning the war into a war about slavery rather than just states' rights. But in the recent election, anti-Lincoln Democrats had made big gains in the Congress. Many people saw that as a sign that the North didn't want to fight to free the slaves.

Instead of expressing doubts in his speech, Lincoln argued that freeing the slaves was necessary to ensure that America live up to its own ideals. In his speech, on this day in 1862, Lincoln said, "The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. ... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."

It's the birthday of American detective novelist Rex Stout, (books by this author) born in Noblesville, Indiana (1886). He was 46 years old when he wrote his first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, a detective who weighs more than 300 pounds, collects orchids, and never leaves his house. The first Nero Wolfe novel was called Fer-de-Lance, and it was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1934. It was a huge success, and Stout went on to write another Wolfe novel almost every year for the rest of his life. He ultimately published 46 novels in the Nero Wolfe series.

It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Woody Allen, (books by this author) born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn (1935). He hated school as a kid. He said, "I loathed every day and regret every day I spent in school." Every day, when Allen got home from school, he immediately went into his bedroom and shut the door. He spent all his time reading, learning to play the saxophone, and teaching himself magic tricks.

He started writing jokes, and then directing movies. In the 1970s, he started working on an autobiographical movie. When Allen turned the rough cut of the movie into the studio, it was several hours long, with almost no plot, and he wanted to call it Anhedonia, which is the name of a psychological disorder in which a person is unable to experience pleasure. The studio helped him cut the movie down to a more reasonable length, and they found themselves cutting almost everything except for the scenes with Diane Keaton, who played Woody Allen's love interest. So they named the move after her character, and it became Annie Hall (1977). It went on to win the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actress.

Woody Allen said, "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

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Poem: "The Longly-Weds Know" by Leah Furnas, from To Love One Another. © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Longly-Weds Know

That it isn't about the Golden Anniversary at all,
But about all the unremarkable years
that Hallmark doesn't even make a card for.

It's about the 2nd anniversary when they were surprised
to find they cared for each other more than last year

And the 4th when both kids had chickenpox
and she threw her shoe at him for no real reason

And the 6th when he accidentally got drunk on the way
home from work because being a husband and father
was so damn hard

It's about the 11th and 12th and 13th years when
they discovered they could survive crisis

And the 22nd anniversary when they looked
at each other across the empty nest, and found it good.

It's about the 37th year when she finally
decided she could never change him

And the 38th when he decided
a little change wasn't that bad

It's about the 46th anniversary when they both
bought cards, and forgot to give them to each other

But most of all it's about the end of the 49th year
when they discovered you don't have to be old

to have your 50th anniversary!!!!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1963). She's best known for her novel Bel Canto (2001), about a hostage crisis in which terrorists take control over an extravagant party and hold the guests hostage for more than four months. Over time, some hostages and terrorists become friends and even lovers.

Ann Patchett said, "If I weren't a novelist, the thing I would most like to do is build dioramas. I was one of those kids who built little worlds in shoeboxes. That's basically what novel writing is. You get to build every tree, every person, put them all in place, and decide when the sun comes up and goes down. That I can make a living at that is astonishing."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer T.C. (Thomas Coraghessan) Boyle, (books by this author) born in Peekskill, New York (1948). He was born Thomas John Boyle, but he changed his middle name to Coraghessan when he was 17. He said, "I suppose it's an affectation, of a sort, but what the hell. There are five billion of us on the planet all screaming for attention."

He never read books when he was growing up, but he loved the stories his mother read to him from newspapers. Both of his parents were alcoholics, and as a young man Boyle was a bad student and a troublemaker. He lived for several years as a drug addict, but after a friend overdosed, he decided to replace drugs with writing.

His first big success came when he published a story in The Paris Review called "Descent of Man," about a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee. Boyle has gone on to write many novels, including The Road to Wellville (1993) about health fads in the late 1800s, and Drop City (2003) about a hippy commune. His most recent book is Talk Talk, which came out this year (2006).

It's the birthday of short-story writer George Saunders, (books by this author) born in Amarillo, Texas (1958). He's the author of two short-story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000).

He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his dad sold coal to apartment buildings. In high school Saunders read Ayn Rand and decided that the only worthy work was technological work, so he went to the Colorado School of Mines and studied geophysical engineering. He got a job for an oil company in Indonesia, and started writing fiction on the side. But he found his own work painfully earnest. He said, "In all my stories, a stoic young man who has just arrived in Asia witnesses something brutal and then recoils in silent horror."

After reading Jack Kerouac, he decided that he needed to become a drifter in order to write, so he quit his job, moved back to the States, and worked as a roofer, a slaughterhouse laborer, and a convenience store clerk. He tried to write about his working-class life in the style of Hemingway, but everything came out trite and boring.

Then one night, he had a dream that he worked at a giant surreal theme park, and he decided to try to turn that dream into a short story. And that dream inspired him to start writing the short stories that became his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996).

George Saunders's short story "The Falls" begins, "Morse found it nerve-wracking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as school was being dismissed because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn't smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks, he was. Sometimes he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn't a pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relatively certain. Being overly certain, he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko."

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Poem: "Snow in the Suburbs," by Thomas Hardy. Public Domain. (buy now)

Snow in the Suburbs

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a lower twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1947 that Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York City. Williams spent months writing and revising the play, and he had three different working titles for it: The Moth, Blanche's Chair on the Moon, and The Poker Night. Then he moved to an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he could hear two streetcars rattling by, one named Desire and one named Cemeteries. He changed the setting of his play to New Orleans, and he changed the title to A Streetcar Named Desire. The play is about a southern belle named Blanche DuBois who comes to live with her sister, Stella, and Stella's working-class husband, Stanley. Stanley thinks Blanche is trying to swindle the couple, and his anger and physical aggression eventually drive her to insanity. At one point, Blanche says, "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!"

The play got a 30-minute standing ovation on opening night, and it ran for more than 800 performances. Stella was originally played by Kim Hunter, Blanche by Jessica Tandy, and Stanley by a 23-year-old Marlon Brando. The play was made into a movie in 1951 with most of the original cast, and it was nominated for 12 Academy Awards.

It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, (books by this author) born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), in a region that had once been part of Poland. His father was a poet and translator of English and French literature. Joseph and his father read books written in both Polish and French. By the time he was 12 years old, both of his parents had died of tuberculosis. He went to Switzerland to live with his uncle, but after a few years he decided he wanted to go off and see the world. He joined the French merchant marine, and began a long career as a sailor. He sailed to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, the South Pacific, and Africa. He joined the British merchant navy, and in 1886 became a citizen of Great Britain.

In the fall of 1889, Conrad settled in London for a few months. One morning, after he finished his breakfast, he told his maid to clear away all the dishes immediately. Normally, he would sit by the window and read from a book by Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare. But on this morning he felt unusually calm and perceptive. He later wrote, "It was an autumn day ... with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their leaves gone were like tracings of an Indian ink on a sheet of tissue paper." He began to write his first novel, Almayer's Folly, which would be published six years later. It's about a man from the Netherlands who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. Conrad said, "The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write." He said he felt "a hidden obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon."

Conrad went on to write many more novels, including Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907), and Nostromo (1904). But he's most famous for Heart of Darkness (1902), about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa. Conrad wrote, in Heart of Darkness, "It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence, — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone."

Conrad said the task of the writer is "to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."



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