MONDAY, 26 MARCH, 2007

Poem: "Away" by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. © Library of America. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Campbell, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904). He saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Riders as a child and decided to learn everything there was to know about Indians. He read his way through the children's room at his local library by the time he was 11, and started right in on reports from the Bureau of Ethnology.

In college, he turned to studying Arthurian legend. He abandoned a Ph.D. dissertation about Holy Grail stories and went to live in a shack, where for five years he continued to read. In 1949, he published a monumental study of mythology called The Hero With a Thousand Faces; it traced the common theme of the spiritual quest in myth. All sorts of writers found it a treasure trove for their own work, from the poet Robert Bly to the filmmaker George Lucas, who said that without it, he would never have been able to write Star Wars.

It was on this day in 1920 that This Side of Paradise was published, launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) to fame and fortune. The first version of the book was called The Romantic Egotist, and Fitzgerald had started writing it in the fall of 1917 while awaiting commission as an army officer. He wrote most of the manuscript at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent chapters as he wrote them to a typist at Princeton where he had been a student. In March 1918, he submitted the novel to Charles Scribner's Sons. Scribners rejected the novel but encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it. He submitted a new version titled The Education of a Personage to Scribners in September 1918, but that second version was also rejected.

In July 1919, after his discharge from the army, Fitzgerald returned to his family's home at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. He pinned revision notes to his curtains and rewrote much of the novel. In August 1919, Fitzgerald finished a new draft, now titled This Side of Paradise. He gave it to a friend from St. Paul for a final edit and sent the new typescript to Scribners on September 4, 1919. Two weeks after he mailed the manuscript, Fitzgerald received Maxwell Perkins' letter accepting the book. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside and stopped cars on the street to announce the news.

It's the birthday of the playwright Tennessee Williams, (books by this author) born Thomas Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). When he was 12 years old, his family moved from small-town Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where they were forced to live in a crowded tenement building. It was around that time that the family began to suspect that Williams's older sister, Rose, was mentally ill. She became increasingly shy and reclusive, and there was talk that she might need to be institutionalized.

Williams started writing when he was in high school, and sold one of his first short stories to Weird Tales magazine. But after his first year of college, his father forced him to take a job at a shoe store. He worked there for two years and later called the experience "a season in hell." He barely slept at all in those two years, staying up all night drinking coffee and writing, and his lack of sleep finally led to a breakdown.

After his recovery, Williams decided to make a total break with his family. He began traveling the country, working as a bellhop, elevator operator, usher, teletyper, warehouse handyman, and waiter in a Greenwich Village nightclub. Then, in 1943, Williams learned that Rose had been given a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to cure her mental illness. He was deeply disturbed by the news, and it inspired him to finish a play he'd been thinking about for a long time, based loosely on his own family, called The Glass Menagerie (1944). The play became a big success in 1944, and Williams went on to write A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), The Night of the Iguana (1961), and Suddenly Last Summer (1958).

Tennessee Williams said, "A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Frost, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1874). His father was a journalist and a hard drinker who died of tuberculosis when Frost was 11 years old. Frost moved with his mother to New England to live near family. He didn't do well in college. He dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard without taking a degree. He wanted to marry his high school sweetheart and tried to impress her with a book of poems he'd written. When she wasn't impressed, he considered drowning himself in a swamp, but decided not to go through with it at the last minute.

He finally married the girl and supported himself as a teacher for a few years, writing poetry on the side. Then, in 1900, he and his wife lost their first child, which sent Frost into a deep despair. So his grandfather took pity on him and bought him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, in hopes that it would give him a steady income. Frost never really took to farming, but it gave him something to write about, and it was in those years on the farm that he began to write the poems that would make his name.

He published his first two collections, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), the latter of which contains many of Frost's early masterpieces, including "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "After Apple-Picking," and "Home Burial."

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Poem: "Son at Seventeen" by Francette Cerulli from The Spirits Need to Eat. © Nine-Patch Press. Reprinted with permission.

Son at Seventeen

My son, an expert by overexposure,
recognizes the song before I do,
the best one of the year
about how sex is good for everybody.

This large man who was a boy a year ago
cranks up the radio till the car
is a bulging capsule of sound,
heavy on the bass.

As he drives, he sings every word loudly,
with cellular belief.
He will have it all, give it all
in his time, probably soon.

My heart begins to vibrate dangerously
at the lowest frequencies.
Tonight I feel old enough to be mother to a man.

I mime my fear to him,
My hand on my chest, my eyes wide.
I can feel it in my chest, I scream.

He stops singing long enough to nod,
Delighted that I have noticed.
It gets better, he yells.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer Sarah Vaughan, known as "The Divine One," born in Newark, New Jersey (1924).

It's the birthday of Louis Simpson, born in Jamaica, the British West Indies (1923). He's written 17 volumes of poetry, including At the End of the Open Road (1963), which won a Pulitzer that year.

It's the birthday of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1916). He played with Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon, and others.

It was on this day in 1958 that Nikita Khrushchev (books by this author) assumed control of the Soviet Union when he took over as premier of the country, five years after the death of Joseph Stalin. Unlike most of the early Soviet leaders, who were all members of the Russian middle class, Khrushchev actually came from the working class. His father was a coal miner, and his grandfather had been a serf. Khrushchev worked his way up through the ranks of the party until he became a close ally of Joseph Stalin, and during the mass executions of 1930s, when Stalin purged the party of all his suspected political enemies, Khrushchev was one of only three provincial secretaries to survive.

So upon Stalin's death in 1953, when Khrushchev began to work behind the scenes to take control of the party, there was no reason to believe he wouldn't just continue Stalin's reign of terror. But instead, in 1956, Khrushchev gave a four-hour speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, viciously attacking Stalin's legacy and abuses of power, detailing all the innocent people Stalin had imprisoned, tortured, and murdered during his reign. The night Khrushchev gave the speech, no one knew exactly what he was planning to say. Witnesses said later that some members of the audience fainted from the shock of hearing Stalin criticized. Several audience members committed suicide a few days later.

The speech was never officially announced to the public, and Khrushchev never admitted to having made it, but word of the speech immediately began to leak out to intellectual circles and the foreign press. It was a bombshell, and it helped bolster Khrushchev's power at home and abroad. He became the premier two years later, on this day in 1958.

Khrushchev spent his last few years living quietly in Moscow. But in 1970, the year before he died, he published the first volume of his memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers.

It's the birthday of the novelist Julia Alvarez, (books by this author) born in New York City (1950). She spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, before moving to the United States. Her first big success was the novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), about four sisters making their way as Dominican refugees in New York.

It's the birthday of the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, (books by this author) born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1963). He was diagnosed as hyperactive as a kid, and didn't get along with his classmates or his teachers. The only things that calmed him down were comic books and movies. From the time when he was a toddler, his mother let him watch whatever movies he wanted. He watched everything from kung fu movies to French art house films.

He started taking acting classes, and in his spare time he rewrote screenplays of movies he'd already seen from memory. Instead of going to film school, he got a job at video rental store that had one of the largest video collections in Southern California. Several other aspiring filmmakers worked there, and they would watch movies all day at work, discussing camera angles and dialogue. He spent five years working at the video store, writing screenplays, but he wasn't getting anywhere in his career.

He finally got a break when he met an actor who knew another actor who knew Harvey Keitel, and Keitel agreed to look at one of Tarantino's scripts. Keitel was impressed enough to volunteer to help Tarantino produce the film, and to act in it himself. The result was Reservoir Dogs (1992), which made Tarantino internationally famous. His next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and it went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay.

These days, in addition to making movies, Tarantino organizes the semi-annual Quentin Tarantino Film Festival, which is devoted to B movies of various genres, including kung fu movies, horror movies, biker movies, cheerleader movies, and women-in-prison movies.

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Poem: "Coastal Farmlet" by David Ray, from Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Coastal Farmlet

"A man wants nothing so badly as a gooseberry farm."

I want a coastal farmlet.
I desire it very much.
I saw it advertised
in the classifieds and I presume
that coastal means our land
comes right down
to the sea with the whitecaps
lashing romantically, and farmlet
means we can grow
gnarled trees on our headland
and let sheep roam. It is about cheap
enough for us if we borrow, beg
and steal, pawn a few poems, also write
a harlequin romance or two, and it's
only 9000 miles from the place
we call home. There's not much
of a hitch except the Immigration
would not let us stay in the country
to live in our farmlet. But still,
I want it and think we should go
look at it, right now, this moment,
while tangy sweet gooseberries glow.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, (books by this author) born in Detroit (1909). He made it through the University of Illinois and then drifted around during the Great Depression, hopping freight trains. He eventually settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make." He also said, "Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose."

He is best known for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), about a card-dealing World War II veteran named Frankie Machine who's hooked on morphine. It was the first serious novel about a drug addict in American literature.

It's the birthday of Frederic Exley, born in Watertown, New York (1929). He wrote one great book, A Fan's Notes (1968). He wrote it as a memoir, but in those days memoirs didn't sell, and his publisher asked him to make it look more like a novel. The main character remained Fred Exley. His biographer described the Exley of the book as "Huck Finn gone alcoholic but still lighting out for the territory."

It's also the birthday of Russell Banks, (books by this author) born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940), who wrote Continental Drift (1985), The Sweet Hereafter (1992), and Cloudsplitter (1998).

He once said, "[If I] hadn't become a writer ... I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life."

It was on this day in 1941 that the novelist Virginia Woolf (books by this author) drowned herself in a river near her house in East Sussex. She had long suffered from periods of depression, and modern scholars believe these depressions may have been symptoms of manic-depressive illness, also known as bi-polar disorder.

In her diaries over the years, Woolf had often written about her volatile mood swings, and she seemed to think that they were brought on by her sense that her writing wasn't good enough. She was relatively healthy for most of the 1920s as she published many of her greatest novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). But she struggled with her book The Years (1937).

Woolf's mood only grew worse as the Second World War broke out in 1939. She and her husband moved to their country house in East Sussex when Germans began to bomb London, because they thought it would be safer. But their country house lay under the flight path of the German bombers. More than once, during the summer of 1940, Woolf watched from her garden as the German planes flew over, close enough that she could see the swastikas on the undersides of the wings.

By March of 1941, she was writing in her diary that she had fallen into "a trough of despair." She wasn't at all satisfied with her most recent book, and she felt as though the war made writing insignificant. She wrote, "It's difficult, I find, to write. No audience. No private stimulus, only this outer roar."

She finally wrote three letters, possibly as much as 10 days before she committed suicide, explaining her reasons for wanting to end her life. In the longest of the three, she wrote to her husband, "I feel certain that I am going mad again. ... I shan't recover this time. ... I can't fight it any longer. ... What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you." Woolf left the letters where her husband would find them, and then on this day in 1941 she walked a half-mile to a nearby river and put a heavy rock in the pocket of her fur coat before jumping into the water.

One of the last people to see Virginia Woolf in good spirits was the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who visited Woolf just a month before her death. Bowen later wrote of the visit, "I remember [Virginia] kneeling on the floor ... and she sat back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful, hooting way. This is what has remained with me."

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Poem: "The Art of Disappearing" by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © The Eighth Mountain Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the memoirist Alexandra Fuller, (books by this author) born in Glossop, England (1969). Her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight was a big success when it came out in (2002). It's the story of her childhood, growing up in what was then the African country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Her parents were white settlers in Rhodesia, trying to make a living as tobacco and cattle farmers, and they were trying to do this as a civil war was being fought between the white government and the black nationalist rebels. Whenever the family left the house, they always traveled in groups, and they had to keep a lookout for mines and booby traps, as well as scorpions, snakes, and crocodiles. By the time she was seven years old, Alexandra Fuller had learned to strip, clean, load, and fire a machine gun. Her parents warned her never to sneak into their room at night, because they might shoot her by accident.

It's the birthday of Eric Idle, (books by this author) born in South Shields, Durham, England (1943). He's one of the six founding members of the British comedy group Monty Python. Idle often played old ornery women, as well as creepy old men and annoying talk show hosts. He has written several books for children and adults, as well as a play, Pass the Butler. His first novel, Hello Sailor, came out in 1974, and his second, The Road to Mars, in 1999.

It's the birthday of actor, director, producer, and playwright Howard Lindsay, born Herman Nelke in Waterford, New York (1889). He worked for years with the playwright Russel Crouse, and together they wrote several hit plays, including The Sound of Music (1959), Mr. President (1962), and State of the Union, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. Lindsay and Crouse's biggest hit was Life With Father (1939), which ran for 3,224 performances over seven years, the longest-running non-musical play in the history of Broadway.

Howard Lindsay said, "Every so often, we pass laws repealing human nature."

It's the birthday of politician Eugene (Joseph) McCarthy, (books by this author) born in Watkins, Minnesota (1921). He was a U.S. Senator and challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968, before Johnson chose to drop out of the race. He also wrote several books about politics in America, as well as many collections of poetry, including Ground Fog and Night (1979) and Other Things and the Aardvark (1970). He died on December 10, 2005.

Eugene McCarthy said, "Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."

On this day in 1886, John Pemberton perfected a headache and hangover remedy he had cooked up over a fire in his backyard. It contained coca leaves and extract of kola nut, and he advertised it as an "Esteemed Brain Tonic and Intellectual Beverage." He had been making something called "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," but Atlanta had just passed a prohibition law, and he had to come up with an alcohol-free formula. He sweetened the new elixir with sugar instead of wine, and his bookkeeper suggested he name the beverage "Coca-Cola." The following year, the prohibition law was repealed; and Pemberton decided Coca-Cola was a losing proposition. He sold off his interest in the formula and went back to making French Wine Coca.

FRIDAY, 30 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Visitation" by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sweetwater, Saltwater

We dress you in purple silk,
pearls in gold shells at your ears.

We sing to you, pray
to be led beside the still waters.

At nightfall, as we leave you,
rain pours over black umbrellas.

One grandchild, tall as her mother,
stands on the steps holding lilies,

her own face
wet with rain,

her own way of looking
into the night: free ...

you're free now
she murmurs;

lightly, in the marrow,
she carries you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Jon Hassler, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1933). He grew up in Plainview, Minnesota, and began working at the local grocery store when he was eleven years old. He later said, "I've always thought of the Red Owl Grocery Store in Plainview, Minnesota, as my training ground, for it was there that I acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist, namely ... the fun of picking the individual out of a crowd and the joy of finding the precise words to describe him. I dare say nobody ever got more nourishment than I did out of a grocery store."

He taught at high schools and community colleges for twenty years before he began writing seriously. His first novel, Staggerford, came out in 1977, when Hassler was 42 years old.

It's the birthday of novelist Tom Sharpe, (books by this author) born in London (1928). After his father died, he served time in the Marines, graduated from Cambridge, and then went to South Africa, where he worked in the shanty-towns and wrote anti-apartheid plays. Only one of them was produced, The South African. After its first performances in London, Sharpe was imprisoned and deported by South African authorities. He's spent the rest of his life teaching and writing in England, where wrote several novels that make fun of British academia, including a trilogy about an unconventional lecturer at a technical college named Henry Wilt—Wilt (1977), The Wilt Alternative (1979) and Wilt on High (1985).

Tom Sharpe said, "There's nothing worse than an introspective drunk."

It's the birthday of playwright Sean O'Casey, (books by this author) born John Casey in Dublin (1880). He wrote three classic plays about lower-class Dublin families during times of revolution and violence in Ireland: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

Sean O'Casey said, "And, "All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Black Beauty (1877), Anna Sewell, (books by this author) born in Yarmouth, England (1820). When she was 14 years old, she fell while running and injured her ankles so badly that she had trouble walking for the rest of her life. She became dependent on horses for transportation, and drove her father to and from work every day on the family's horse-drawn carriage.

She didn't start writing Black Beauty until the final years of her life, when she was confined to her house because of her ankle injuries. Black Beauty is subtitled "The autobiography of a horse, Translated from the original equine." It's narrated by the horse himself, who was based on one of the horses Anna grew up with. The novel is full of detailed passages about how to care for horses, and it was largely thanks to Sewell that several laws against the mistreatment of horses were established in England.

Anna Sewell said, "There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham."

It's the birthday of Francisco José de Goya who was born in a small town in northeast Spain called Fuendetodos (1746). He was a successful artist in his 40s when he caught a mysterious illness that left him completely deaf, which forced him to quit his job. He later considered his deafness a kind of blessing, because it gave him an excuse to start painting things that he hadn't been commissioned to paint, like bullfights and the inmates of an insane asylum.

But at the height of his career, in 1808, Napoleon's army invaded Spain, and Napoleon's brother was installed on the Spanish throne. What followed was a six-year war of insurgency. Goya was allowed to keep his position as court painter, and he painted respectful portraits of French generals. But at the same time, he began to work in secret on a series of etchings that depicted war atrocities he had witnessed. The series became known as "Disasters of War." He went on to paint some of the darkest paintings of the 19th century, paintings that look like nightmares. His work had a huge influence on the Expressionist and Surrealist schools of painting in the 20th century.

And it's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh (books by this artist) was born in Zundert, Holland (1853). As a young man, he was deeply religious and went off to do missionary work in a coal-mining region in Belgium. One day he decided to give away all of his worldly goods and live like a peasant. But his religious superiors thought he was having a nervous breakdown. They kicked him out of the mission and he had to go home. Van Gough wrote in a letter to a friend, "They think I'm a madman, because I wanted to be a true Christian."

It was then that he started to draw and paint. He taught himself with art books and by studying the masters. He was especially interested in painting the daily life of peasants. He finally decided to move to the village of Arles in the south of France, because he said, "I want to look at nature under a brighter sky." It was in Arles that he began to develop the style he became known for, in which the images of flowers and trees and landscapes were exaggerated by extremely rough brush strokes and vivid colors.

Vincent Van Gogh said, "I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars."

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Poem: "Tracks" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The small birds leave cuneiform
messages on the snow: I have
been here, I am hungry, I
must eat. Where I dropped
seeds they scrape down
to pine needles and frozen sand.

Sometimes when snow flickers
past the windows, muffles trees
and bushes, buries the path,
the jays come knocking with their beaks
on my bedroom window:
to them I am made of seeds.

To the cats I am mother and lover,
lap and toy, cook and cleaner.
To the coyotes I am chaser and shouter.
To the crows, watcher, protector.
To the possums, the foxes, the skunks,
a shadow passing, a moment's wind.

I was bad watchful mommy to one man.
To another I was forgiving sister
whose hand poured out honey and aloe;
to that woman I was a gale whose lashing
waves threatened her foundation; to this
one, an oak to her flowering vine.

I have worn the faces, the masks
of hieroglyphs, gods and demons
bat-faced ghosts, sibyls and thieves,
lover, loser, red rose and ragweed,
these are the tracks I have left
on the white crust of time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Andrew Marvell, (books by this author) born in Winestead, England (1621). He wrote the famous poem "To His Coy Mistress" (1650), which begins,

"Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime ...
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity."

It's the birthday of writer and translator Edward FitzGerald, (books by this author) born in Woodbridge, England (1809). He's known for his translation of the Rubáiyát, a poem by an obscure Persian poet named Omar Khayyám, and the translation became one of the most popular and widely quoted poems in English.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Marge Piercy, (books by this author) born in Detroit, Michigan (1936). She grew up poor, one of the only white girls in a black neighborhood, but she started writing when she was 15 and became the first member of her family to go to college. She moved to a poor section of Chicago and supported herself with a series of dreary jobs. She started reading Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and got involved in countercultural groups like Students for a Democratic Society. After writing six novels that were all rejected by publishers, she published her first book, a collection of poems called Breaking Camp, in 1968. Then, in 1976, she published her novel Woman on the Edge of Time, about a woman imprisoned in a mental hospital who has a vision of a utopian future.

She has since published many more novels and books of poetry, including Braided Lives (1982) and Available Light (1988). Her collection of poems Crooked Inheritance came out last year (2006).

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "I think, therefore I am," René Descartes, (books by this author) born in Touraine, France (1596). Though he's often been called the father of modern philosophy, he considered himself more of a mathematician and a scientist than a philosopher. He conducted all kinds of experiments. He studied refraction and the properties of rainbows. He dissected animals and wrote about how they were constructed like machines. He invented analytic geometry, a precursor to calculus. And he worked for a long time on a theory of science that was similar to what became the scientific method.

Descartes only got into philosophy after he learned that Galileo had been persecuted by the church. He worried that some of his scientific ideas could be similarly controversial, so he decided to write a book to prove that skepticism about the laws of nature was a necessary step in understanding nature. And that book became his Discourse on Method (1637), in which he described his own experience of coming to doubt everything, even his own existence, until he realized that the one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. He decided that if he was able to think then he must exist, and he so he wrote the famous line, "I think, therefore I am."

René Descartes said, "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

It's the birthday of novelist John Fowles, (books by this author) born in Essex, England (1926). His first novel was The Collector (1963), about a man who collects butterflies and then one day kidnaps a young woman and keeps her in his basement, hoping to win her love.

John Fowles said, "Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want."

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Poem: "Despair" by Anthony Hecht, from Collected Later Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.

Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.

But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is April Fools' Day, a holiday celebrating practical jokes of all kinds. The British collection of folk wisdom known as Poor Robin's Almanac (1662) says: "The first of April, some do say, Is set apart for All Fools' Day."

One theory about the origin of April Fools' Day is that it started in France in 1582. Up until then, New Year's Day was celebrated on April 1st, but when Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year's Day was moved to January 1st. At the time, news of such things traveled slowly, and it took many years for everyone to get up to speed. People who continued to celebrate New Years on April 1st came to be known as April Fools.

John Updike said, "Looking foolish does the spirit good."

It's the birthday of playwright Edmond Rostand, (books by this author) born in Marseilles, France (1868). He's best known as the author of the play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), about a dashing, brave and romantic man who is able to compose sonnets while engaged in a sword fight, but who also has the largest nose anyone has ever seen. Because of his huge nose, he decides he can never win over the love of his life, Roxanne.

It's the birthday of the pianist and composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, born in Novgorod, Russia (1873). He was a tall, imposing man and his hands were so big they could span an interval of 13 keys on the piano. He went on to become a big success, as a composer and a performer, after he debuted his Prelude in C-sharp Minor in 1892. The piece was so popular that audiences requested that he play it for the rest of his life.

He escaped from Russia just before the Revolution, and spent most of the rest of his life in the United States. When Vladimir Horowitz arrived in New York City, the two pianists sealed their friendship by going down into the basement of Steinway and Sons and playing Rachmaninoff's own Third Piano Concerto (1909). Horowitz played the solo part on one piano, and Rachmaninoff the orchestra reduction on another.

Rachmaninoff was in the middle of writing his famous Second Piano Concerto (1901) when his first symphony received a lukewarm response. He stopped writing music for three years, during which he felt as though he was like a man who had suffered a stroke, losing the use of his head and hands. He was able to overcome his nervous breakdown by visiting a psychiatrist, who cured Rachmaninoff by repeating the following line to him each time they met: "You will write your Concerto. ... You will work with great facility. ... The Concerto will be of excellent quality."

It's the birthday of novelist Francine Prose, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1947). She's the author of Judah the Pious (1973), Hungry Hearts (1983), and Bigfoot Dreams (1987). Her most recent book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006).

Francine Prose said, "For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on the bus."



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