Poem: "Rejoicing with Henry" by Maxine Kumin, from Selected Poems: 1960-1990. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.
Rejoicing with Henry
Not that he holds with church, but Henry goes
Christmas morning in a tantrum of snow,
Henry, who's eighty-two and has no kin
and doesn't feature prayer, but likes the singing.
By afternoon the sun is visible,
a dull gun-metal glint. We come to call
bearing a quart of home-made wine a mile
and leading Babe, our orphaned hand-raised foal.
This gladdens Henry, who stumps out to see
Babe battle the wooden bridge. Will she
or won't she? Vexed with a stick she leaps across
and I'm airborne as well. An upstate chorus
on Henry's radio renders loud
successive verses of "Joy to the World."
In spite of all the balsam growing free
Henry prefers a store-bought silver tree.
It's lasted him for years, the same
crimped angel stuck on top. Under, the same
square box from the Elks. Most likely shaving cream,
says Henry, who seldom shaves or plays the host.
Benevolent, he pours the wine. We toast
the holiday, the filly beating time
in his goat shed with her restive hooves. That's youth
says Henry when we go to set her loose,
Never mind. Next year, if I live that long,
she'll stand in the shafts. Come Christmas Day
we'll drive that filly straight to town.
Worth waiting for, that filly. Nobody says
the word aloud: Rejoice. We plod
home tipsily and all uphill to boot,
the pale day fading as we go
leaving our odd imprints in the snow
to mark a little while the road
ahead of night's oncoming thick clubfoot.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of scientist and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, (books by this author) born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England (1642). As a professor of mathematics, Newton made discoveries about the nature of light and color, and he developed a more advanced telescope. But then he began to think about why planets travel in orbits around the sun, and why they never stopped. Those questions resulted in his laws of motion: that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
He said, "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Today is Christmas Day. About 96 percent of Americans say that they celebrate Christmas in one way or another; but Christians didn't start celebrating Christmas until the fourth century A.D. Apparently, the earliest Christians weren't nearly as interested in Jesus' birth as they were in his resurrection from the dead. Historians believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel to be written about Jesus, around 50 A.D., and it doesn't even mention Jesus' birth. It starts with his adult baptism.
Only the Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus' birth, and they give slightly different accounts. In the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the Son of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is Joseph who learns in a dream that Mary is pregnant with the Son of God.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Mary and Joseph went to the city of Bethlehem because of the Roman census, and since there was no room at the inn, they were forced to take shelter in the barn, where Jesus was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The Gospel of Matthew tells how a group of wise men go to find the baby that has been prophesized as the future king of the Jews. They follow a bright star in the East until they find Jesus, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christian bishops only began to celebrate Jesus' birth after a great debate over how human Jesus had really been. Some Christians believed he was just a spirit, with no body at all. But after much discussion, the church in Rome took the official stance that Jesus had possessed a real human body. Scholars believe that the church began celebrating Jesus' birth as a way of emphasizing his bodily humanity. The first mention of a Nativity feast appears in a Roman document from 354 A.D., and that document is the first to list December 25 as his official birthday.
No one knows exactly why the date of December 25th was chosen, but it was probably because December 25th was the date set for a Roman festival honoring the sun god Mithras. It also coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was widely celebrated throughout the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately for the church, Saturnalia was usually celebrated with drunken revelry. And for Christians, for the next thousand years or so, Christmas became the wildest party of the year. There were huge feasts and street parties that often led to riots. It was writers who helped turn Christmas into more of a domestic holiday. The poem "The Night Before Christmas," published in 1823, was one of the first works of literature to suggest that Christmas should be focused more on children than adults. And Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol, in 1843, helped popularize the idea that Christmas should be about family.
Poem: "Thirst" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver. © Beacon Press.
(Text not published due to copyright restrictions)
Literary and Historical Notes:
"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;"
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Jean Toomer, (books by this author) born Nathan Pinchback Toomer, in Washington, D.C. (1894). He never finished college and worked a series of jobs. Then in 1921, when he was 25 years old, he went south to Sparta, Georgia, where he worked at an agricultural institute for two months. While there, he heard spirituals sung by poor black women, witnessed the social oppression of Southern blacks, and saw the beauty of the land and sky of the rural South. He began work on his novel Cane on the train back to Washington, and it was published two years later in 1923 and marked the beginning of the literary renaissance in Harlem.
It is the birthday of humorist David Sedaris, (books by this author) born near Binghamton, New York (1956). Sedaris worked many odd jobs, including dishwasher, apple picker, and writing instructor. While living in Chicago, he made a living by painting apartments and squirrel-proofing houses. For most of his life, Sedaris had kept a diary in which he documented at least one incident from every day of his life. When he moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute, he began reading from his diary in front of audiences. His readings became so popular that he caught the attention of National Public Radio, and in 1991 he gave his first reading on the air, "The Santaland Diaries," a true story about his job as an elf at a Macy's department store one Christmas season.
Sedaris soon signed a contract with a major publisher, and his collections of essays, Barrel Fever (1994) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), became best-sellers. His most recent book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004).
It's the birthday of author Henry Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1891). He married a taxi dancer named June Mansfield Smith, who read Dostoyevsky and Proust, and who encouraged Miller to quit his job and devote himself to writing. They moved to Paris in the 1930s, where Miller began writing Tropic of Cancer, which was basically a fictional memoir of his own life at the time. It was banned in the United States, along with Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. in 1961, but the book was charged with obscenity, and it went through more than 60 court cases. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book's publication. The case effectively ended censorship on the basis of obscenity in the U.S.
It was on this day in 1776 that George Washington led a surprise attack on a group of Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey. The plan was to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness on Christmas night. It took about 14 hours for all of Washington's 2,400 soldiers to cross the river, and they finally reached the east bank of the Delaware at around 3:00 a.m. on this day. It was snowing that morning and bitterly cold, and they still had a 10-mile march to Trenton. Two men who stopped to rest along the way froze to death. Washington had wanted to arrive while it was still dark, but they reached the camp just after sunrise. It didn't matter, though. Most of the Hessians were still asleep, and they were taken completely by surprise. Within an hour, all the Hessian regiments had surrendered.
It was the first major victory Washington's army had managed, and it helped inspire more men to enlist in the Continental Army. Only two American soldiers were wounded in the fighting, one of which was a young lieutenant named James Monroe, who would go on to become the fifth president of the United States.
It's the birthday of Mao Zedong, (books by this author) born in Hunan province, China (1893). He helped lead the Communists to victory over the Nationalists in 1949, and became one of the most powerful, brutal, and influential world leaders in history. His program to improve China's economy, called "The Great Leap Forward," disrupted the country's agricultural production, resulting in widespread famine. It's estimated that 20 million people died of starvation between 1958 and 1962. But Mao never apologized for the error. Instead, he arranged to have huge posters of himself put up all around the country. And in 1966, he published his book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, which became known as "Little Red Book." It became required reading for every citizen of China, making Mao Zedong one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century.
Poem: "Careless World" by Louise Katz, from Isobar. © Chapiteau Press. Reprinted with permission.
This is a careless world without your voice.
Courtesy is gone; nobody tips their hats.
There is no one to name the shrubs and birds,
To suggest a heavier coat.
You watched while I stood by the window
Saying goodbye to Sixth Avenue.
The pavement was always being torn away.
Watching the hammers
I kissed the glass four times;
Once for you and mother
And Richard and me.
You knew that four was a special number,
My number for watching things end.
You, at the door, made the room mine.
In five months I have lost your voice.
Its tone, a clearing throat;
Trailing off, "be a good girl."
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the man credited for proving that disease is caused by germs: Louis Pasteur born in Dole, France (1822). He was a scientist who specialized in the properties of acids when, one day, a local distillery owner asked him to figure out why the fermentation of beet sugar into alcohol sometimes failed. At the time, people knew about the existence of microbes, but most scientists thought they were insignificant oddities. By studying the process of fermentation under a microscope, Pasteur discovered that the process is a result of microbes digesting their food. And he found that fermentation failed when another type of microorganism interfered with the process.
Pasteur became one of the first scientists to grow cultures of bacteria and study their effects on nature. He began to theorize that microbes might be responsible for all kinds of things, from spoiled wine and milk to the decomposition of dead animals. He showed that milk and wine could be preserved for longer periods simply by heating them just enough to kill off the microbes. The process became known as pasteurization, and it revolutionized the food industry. He went on to develop the first vaccines for anthrax, cholera, and rabies. He is now regarded as the father of bacteriology. It's because of him that our mothers started teaching us to wash our hands before dinner.
Louis Pasteur said, "Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world."
It's the birthday of author Louis Bromfield, born in Mansfield, Ohio (1896). He served in World War I, and then took his family on a vacation to France, and wound up staying there for 13 years. He became part of the expatriate society in Paris, and some of his best friends were Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.
And it was while he was living away from America that he wrote his novel The Farm (1933), which many consider his masterpiece, about a boy growing up on a farm that his family has owned for generations, which slowly becomes corrupted by greed and industrialization.
Bromfield finally returned to his home state of Ohio in 1938, and he decided to buy three rundown farms whose soil had been exhausted by bad farming practices. He instituted new scientific, sustainable farming techniques and restored the fertility of the land, reforested the surrounding area, and produced healthy livestock and wildlife. He continued to write novels and screenplays for the rest of his life, but he devoted most of his energy to writing books of nonfiction about his farm as a kind of agricultural laboratory, including Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948).
It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin set sail from England on the HMS Beagle, beginning the journey that would take him to the Galapagos Islands and inspire his theory of evolution.
It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Zona Gale, (books by this author) born in Portage, Wisconsin (1874). She wrote more than 30 novels, plays, and collections in her lifetime, but she is probably best known for the novel-turned-play Miss Lulu Bett, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1921.
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed, (books by this author) born in London, England (1930). He traveled back and forth between England and the United States as he was growing up, and it made him feel like a foreigner wherever he was. He went to Oxford for college and wrote his first novel about it, called A Middle Class Education (1961). He has written several satirical novels about the business of journalism, including The Hack (1963) about a miserable man who writes uplifting poems and stories for a Catholic magazine. Most recently, he has written several memoirs, including My Life as a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995).
Poem: "A little kingdom" by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. © The Library of America. Reprinted with permission.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1895 that Auguste and Louis Lumiére opened the first movie theater at the Grand Café in Paris. Their father ran a photography shop, and when Louis joined his father's business, he invented the dry plate process for developing photographs, and that invention made them all rich. They used that money to invest in other photographic projects, including a machine they called the cinematograph, which was a combination camera, film printer, and projector.
The first film they showed to a paying audience on this night in 1895 was called "Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory." It was a short, single shot with an immobile camera, and it showed a concierge opening the factory gates, from which dozens of workers walked and bicycled into the street. It ended with the concierge closing the gates again. It wasn't a movie in the modern sense. It had no characters, no storyline. It was just an animated photograph. But, the Lumiéres' movie house was a big success. Within a few months of its opening, more than 2,000 people lined up every night to buy tickets.
It's the birthday of the 28th president of the United States, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, (books by this author) born in Staunton, Virginia (1856). He was one of the few American presidents who came to office after a career in academia. He'd started out as a professor of history and political science at Princeton University, and in 1902, he was appointed president of Princeton. But he ran into a series of disagreements with the Board of Trustees over his ambitious plans to remake the university. He was on the verge of getting fired in 1910, when he received an offer to run for governor of New Jersey. He took the offer, and wound up winning the election by a landslide.
At first, he found that he didn't much enjoy politics. But his talent for oratory and his sweeping reforms of New Jersey government caught the attention of the national Democratic Party. In 1912, he was nominated to run for president after barely two years of government experience. And thanks to the fact that Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, the Republican vote was divided, and Wilson won.
Wilson had been a member of the American Peace society and he leaned toward pacifism. As president, he advocated arms reduction and international arbitration of disputes between nations. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Wilson immediately declared that the United States would remain neutral in the conflict, and he repeatedly tried to bring the warring nations to a negotiating table.
In 1917, Wilson drew up a plan for establishing world peace. He believed that if the nations of the world were ever going to get along, they had to form an international organization in which they could work out their disputes. He called this international organization The League of Nations. But nine days later, German submarines began attacking American naval ships. Even though he'd won a second term on the promise to keep America out of the war, Wilson decided that the United States could no longer remain neutral. He justified entering the war by saying, "The world must be made safe for democracy."
It was the first time that the U.S. had chosen to intervene in world affairs outside of the Western hemisphere. By the end of the war, the United States had emerged as one of the most powerful nations in the world. Wilson went to the peace conference in Paris in 1919 with the idea of selling his League of Nations to Europe as a way to prevent any such war from ever occurring again.
But his plan was a huge failure. Before he arrived in Paris, he was a widely respected world leader. But once the Europeans met him, they couldn't stand him. The British prime minister said that Wilson behaved like a heathen come to rescue the missionaries. The French prime minister said that talking to him was like talking to Jesus Christ. He was just too idealistic, and he wasn't prepared for the selfishness of the world leaders who wanted to turn the peace negotiations into a land grab.
The one thing Wilson got the European leaders to agree to was the inclusion of a League of Nations as part of the treaty. But when he returned to the United States, he couldn't even convince his own Congress to approve the treaty. Some senators offered ways of compromising the plan, but Wilson refused to compromise. He went on a cross-country speaking tour to appeal directly to the people, but during the tour, he suffered a massive stroke. He partially recovered from the stroke; he never again functioned fully as president.
Woodrow Wilson said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
Poem: "64" by William Shakespeare, from William Shakespeare: The Sonnets. © Little, Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission.
When I have seen by time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,
When sometime lofty towers I see down razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage,
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store,
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist William Gaddis, (books by this author) born in Manhattan (1922). He went to Harvard University, where he was the editor of the Lampoon magazine until he got expelled after a run-in with the campus police. So he got a job as a fact checker for The New Yorker magazine. He wrote a book called The Recognitions (1955), about an aspiring painter who sells out his talent to become a forger of Dutch masterpieces. The book was almost a thousand pages long, and it made numerous references to art history, theology, mythology, and literature. Gaddis said, "When I finished it, I thought well, I guess this will change the world. It didn't. ... I thought I would win the Nobel Prize. ... Nothing happened."
He took 20 years to write his next novel, J.R. (1975), about an 11-year-old boy who builds a financial empire that he manages from his grade school's public phone booth. It won the National Book Award. Critics went back and reread his first novel and began to call it a masterpiece.
William Gaddis said, "There have never in history been so many opportunities to do so many things that aren't worth doing."
It was on this day in 1916 that James Joyce (books by this author) published his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The idea for the book had originated with an autobiographical essay that Joyce had written way back in 1904, when he was still living in Ireland. He'd submitted it to a journal, but it was rejected on the basis that it was too frank about sexual matters. When Joyce got the rejection letter, he sat down at his kitchen table and sketched out a plan to expand the essay into a novel about his own childhood. He told his brother Stanislaus about the idea, and the two of them began to refer to it as his "lying autobiography." They talked about characters from their family and their neighborhood that Joyce should include in the story. He decided that the character in the novel based on himself would be named Stephen Dedalus, and he tentatively titled the novel "Stephen Hero."
Within a year of sketching out his plans for the novel, Joyce had written 25 chapters and more than 900 pages. But in that same year he had also decided to leave Ireland with his girlfriend, Nora Barnacle. They eventually settled in Trieste, where he got a job teaching English to support his writing. The teaching job was exhausting, and it barely paid any money, and pretty soon Joyce had two children to support, and the writing became more and more difficult.
So rather than finishing "Stephen Hero," Joyce began concentrating on short stories. Before he'd left Ireland, he'd published a few stories in a newspaper called The Irish Homestead, but when he sent them his new stories, they were all rejected as too vulgar. Joyce kept writing, though, and eventually finished a collection of short stories he called Dubliners. The publisher accepted the manuscript for Dubliners, but asked Joyce to clean up the language in a few places. Joyce tried to be accommodating, but each time he sent the edited manuscript back to the publisher, the publisher had new objections.
In desperation, Joyce decided to return to his novel. But suddenly, it seemed too conventional, too Victorian. So he scrapped all 900 pages he had already written and started from scratch. In the new version of the novel, he decided that instead of just telling a coming-of-age story, he would tell the story of the main character's emerging consciousness.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of Stephen Dedalus as he grows up, going to boarding school for the first time, discovering his sexuality, feeling guilty about his sexuality, deciding to become a priest, having a crisis of faith, and finally deciding to leave Ireland to become a writer.
Joyce had spent nearly 10 years in Trieste trying to get his fiction published when, near the end of 1913, he learned that both of the books he had written would be published. Dubliners came out the following year (1914), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published on this day in 1916. In just two years James Joyce had gone from total obscurity to being celebrated as one of the most promising new writers in the English language.
Poem: "Walking Home from Oak-Head" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver. © Beacon Press.
(Text not published due to copyright restrictions)
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Douglas Coupland, (books by this author) born on a Canadian military base in Baden-Solingen, Germany (1961). He is best known for his controversial novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991). He invented the term "Generation X," which was later attached to a whole generation of people, and he continues to write about pop culture.
Coupland started off as a sculptor, working with wood and fiberglass, earning his degree in studio sculpture in 1984. He did all kinds of jobs to make money, working as a gas station attendant, making copies of blue prints, and even designing baby cribs. Coupland's writing career began mostly from luck, when an editor at Vancouver magazine read a postcard he had written to a friend. He liked Coupland's style and hired him to write for the magazine. And that was the beginning of his career as a writer.
It's the birthday of Bo Diddley, born Elias Bates in McComb, Mississippi (1928). As a young man he wrote songs such as "Uncle John" and "Who Do You Love?" which became the foundation for early rock and roll. He made a series of huge hits for Chess Records, but by the 1970s, he was so down-and-out that he was playing one-night jobs with garage bands for 200 dollars and the cost of a hotel room. He told his band before every show, "This is the way it works. The drummer should watch my hips and the bass player should watch my shoulders."
It's the birthday of novelist Paul Bowles, (books by this author) born in New York City, New York (1910). In 1931 Bowles met Gertrude Stein. He was considering moving to Paris, but she suggested he go to Tangier, Morocco. He did, and that became the setting of his first and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949).
It's the birthday of entrepreneur Asa Griggs Candler, born in Villa Rica, Georgia (1851). In 1886, he bought sole rights to John Pemberton's original formula for Coca-Cola. He formed the Coca-Cola Company in 1890. Candler was a leader in advertising, and he helped turn Coca-Cola into a household product by using calendars, billboards, point-of-sale posters, and other novelties to keep the Coca-Cola trademark in the public eye.
It's the birthday of short-story writer, poet, and novelist (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1865). His father was a British artist who got an appointment to run an art school in Bombay, but after a series of typhoid and cholera outbreaks, Kipling's parents decided to send him back to England for his own safety.
After school, he went off to the northwest corner of India, where the British were fighting a war with Afghanistan. Kipling got a job on an army newspaper, and he also began writing fiction and poetry. After six years of publishing his work, he sold everything he'd written for 250 pounds to a company that began selling paperback editions of his collected works in railway stations around India. Those paperback editions became more successful than anyone had ever expected, and suddenly magazines and newspapers were begging Kipling to write for them. He moved back to London, where he'd become a literary celebrity, but he found the life of a celebrity did not agree with him.
So he traveled the world for a few years, and finally settled in Vermont. And it was there, in a rented cottage surrounded by snow, that he began to reimagine the India of his childhood, and he wrote the book for which he's best known today, The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves who grows up with the other jungle animals until a tiger forces him to go back and live with people.
Poem: "Benediction" by Stanley Kunitz, from The Collected Poems. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.
God banish from your house
The fly, the roach, the mouse
That riots in the walls
Until the plaster falls;
Admonish from your door
The hypocrite and liar;
No shy, soft, tigrish fear
Permit upon your stair,
Nor agents of your doubt.
God drive them whistling out.
Let nothing touched with evil,
Let nothing that can shrivel
Heart's tenderest frond, intrude
Upon your still, deep blood.
Against the drip of night
God keep all windows tight,
Protect your mirrors from
Admit no trailing wind
Into your shuttered mind
To plume the lake of sleep
With dreams. If you must weep
God give you tears, but leave
You secrecy to grieve,
And islands for your pride,
And love to nest in your side.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Odetta, born Odetta Holmes Filious, in Birmingham, Alabama (1930). She thought at first that she'd be an opera singer, but she heard folk music in San Francisco and decided that was the kind of music that said what she wanted to say. She went on to win the National Medal for Achievement in the Arts.
It's the birthday of the novelist Nicholas Sparks, (books by this author) born in Omaha, Nebraska (1965). He wrote his first book as a young man, a horror novel called "The Passing," which he never tried to publish. He said, "In all honesty, it's a wonderful story except for the writing." But soon after that, Sparks met his future wife. Over the course of two months, he wrote her 150 love letters. They got married and had kids, and Sparks gave up trying to be a writer, eventually taking a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep.
Then, one night, he was watching the series finale of the TV show Cheers, and thinking about how long that show had been on the air made him realize how long it had been since he'd given up on trying to be a writer. Sparks decided to write a love story, inspired by his wife's grandparents, who had been married for 62 years when he met them, and they were still flirting with each other.
The result was his novel The Notebook, about a young man named Noah who tries to win over a girl named Allie by writing her dozens of love letters, only to learn years later that her wealthy parents never let her read those letters. It took sparks six months to write The Notebook. Two days after his agent sent the book to publishers, it was purchased for 1 million dollars. Sparks has gone on to become one of the few successful male romance novelists.
Nicholas Sparks said, "Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It's one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period."
It's the birthday of the painter Henri Matisse, (books by this artist) born in Le Cateau, France (1869). As far as historians can tell, there was absolutely no sign in Matisse's early life that he would go on to become an artist. He started out studying law, and though his law school was in Paris, Matisse never once attended an art museum while he was living there, not even the Louvre.
He returned home after law school to take a clerical job in a lawyer's office, when he was struck by a case of appendicitis. He was bedridden for weeks, and a neighbor suggested that he try passing the time by painting. His mother bought him a box of paints, and he read a how-to-paint book. He later described those first experiences painting as almost like a religious conversion. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man."
When Matisse recovered from his appendicitis, he enrolled in a local drawing class, and he spent hours at the Louvre, copying the techniques of the old masters. Then, in 1905, Matisse submitted a portrait of his wife called "Woman with the Hat." Critics were shocked by Matisse's painting, and so Matisse was surprised to learn at the end of the exhibition that his painting had sold to a couple of American expatriates known for their eccentric taste, Leo and Gertrude Stein.
Matisse became one of the most radical and influential painters of his lifetime, but he always dressed like a lawyer, wearing a suit even while he painted some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century.
Henri Matisse said, "I overdid everything as a matter of course."