The audio and text for this poem are no longer available.

"Birches" by Robert Frost, Public domain.(buy now)

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, (music by this artist) born in Mooringsport, Louisiana (c. 1888). He is known for his versions of "Goodnight Irene" and "Rock Island Line." He was an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana when a white man named John Lomax arrived with his 18-year-old son, Alan, asking to record any songs the prisoners knew. Lomax was traveling across the South making field recordings for the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Leadbelly obtain a pardon and took him to New York where he was a big hit.

It was on this day, in 1952, that William Shawn succeeded Harold Ross as the editor of The New Yorker magazine.

It's the birthday of Richard P. Blackmur, (books by this author) reclusive literary critic, born in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He was expelled from high school in 1918 after a dispute with the headmaster, and he never completed a formal education. He read the classics at the local library, but always felt uneasy about his homemade education and did his best to conceal its shortcomings. He went on to become a leading American literary critic and taught at Princeton.

When we two parted
   In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
   To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
   Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
   Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
   Sunk chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
   Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
    And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
    And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
    A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o'er me—
    Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
    Who knew thee too well:—
Long, long shall I rue thee,
    Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met—
    In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
    Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
    After long years,
How should I greet thee?
    With silence and tears.

"When We Two Parted" by Lord Byron. Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, (books by this author) born in East Pittsburgh (1937). He is best known for his fiction and nonfiction accounts of police work in the United States, particularly California.

Wambaugh is the son of a policeman. He joined the Marines at age 17 and married a year later. Then he became a Los Angeles patrolman and detective for 14 years. He began to "moonlight" as a writer during his police career, and in 1971 he published The New Centurions. It was greeted with acclaim. Evan Hunter of the New York Times Book Review said, "Let us dispel forever the notion that Mr. Wambaugh is only a former cop who happens to write books. This would be tantamount to saying that Jack London was first and foremost a sailor." John Greenway wrote in National Review that the novel was "incomparably the best revelation of the lives and souls of policemen ever written."

Wambaugh took extended leave from the police department after he published The Blue Knight (1972), which depicted the final days in the career of a corrupt policeman. It was during this time that Wambaugh wrote his most important book, The Onion Field (1974). It is based on a true story of young police officers taken hostage by small-time criminals. They took the officers to a distant onion field, where the criminals murdered one of the officers. The Onion Field earned comparisons to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965).

The tone of Wambaugh's writing changed after he read Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1955). Wambaugh said, "Heller enabled me to find my voice."

Until Joseph Wambaugh, most police officers were depicted in print and in film as either overly pious or violent heroes. Wambaugh's characters are "just coping." Nearly all contemporary police characters are influenced by his characterizations.

It's the birthday of the philosopher, essayist and statesman Francis Bacon, born in London (1561). Bacon is best known as a philosopher and essayist, but he accomplished much of his writing after his political career ended in scandal. He is also known as the writer of Essays, a collection that includes work spanning several years. 

Bacon was a member of Parliament by age 23, but he disagreed with Queen Elizabeth's tax program and had difficulty moving forward in his career. A friend convinced the Queen to place Bacon on her Learned Council. Bacon repaid this friend by participating actively in his prosecution years later, for which Bacon was roundly criticized. Many years later, Bacon pleaded guilty to accepting bribes as Lord Chancellor. Bacon was banished from holding office and sentenced to the Tower of London, but that sentence was revoked and Bacon was allowed to write in his retirement.

Bacon's main contribution to philosophy was his application of the inductive method of modern science. He supported full investigation and rejected any rational theories based upon incomplete or insufficient data.

Francis Bacon said, "Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes."

It's the birthday of the poet Howard Moss, (books by this author) born in New York (1922). He served as poetry editor of The New Yorker for nearly 40 years. When asked his definition of a good poem, Howard Moss said, "One I like."

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, (books by this author) born George Gordon in London, England (1788). He is best known for his poem Don Juan, which he never completed. It was considered one of the most important poems in English since Milton's Paradise Lost. Byron is also known for having lived an extravagant lifestyle, and he was considered controversial in his own time.

Byron was born with a clubfoot, and he was sensitive about his lameness throughout his life. This did not prevent him from living flamboyantly and becoming romantically involved with several women, including the wife of a viscount.

Byron was fond of animals, especially his dog, Boatswain, and Byron nursed the animal when it became infected with rabies. His lifestyle, good looks, and lameness contributed to what we call the Byronic legend. 

Byron's maternal grandfather, also his namesake, committed suicide the year after Byron was born. As a result, Byron's mother Lady Catherine had to sell her property and title to pay for her father's large debts. Byron's father was named "Mad Jack" Byron, and he squandered his wife's remaining fortune before they separated. Byron moved with his mother to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in poverty until Byron reached the age of 10 and became the sixth Baron Byron.

After studying at Cambridge, Byron became a well-known poet and politician in London, though he was just as well known because of constant rumors concerning his romantic life. Byron left England after his marriage to Annabella Milbanke abruptly ended, and he spent time in Geneva with Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Then Byron moved to Italy, where he lived for two years. It was during this time that Byron wrote Don Juan and other famous poems.

Byron's life ended in bizarre fashion. After leaving Italy, Byron was contacted by representatives of Greek rebels seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire. They asked for his help, and Byron eagerly gave it. He spent freely from his own fortune to upgrade the rebel military, he assumed control of part of the military forces, and he collaborated with the rebel leader regarding plans of attack. But Byron became sick before he saw any military action. The typical remedy of bleeding only made his condition worse, and he died.

Lord Byron said, "Actions are our epochs."

On the afternoon talk shows of America
the guests have suffered life's sorrows
long enough. All they require now
is the opportunity for closure,
to put the whole thing behind them
and get on with their lives. That their lives,
in fact, are getting on with them even
as they announce their requirement
is written on the faces of the younger ones
wrinkling their brows, and the skin
of their elders collecting just under their
set chins. It's not easy to escape the past,
but who wouldn't want to live in a future
where the worst has already happened
and Americans can finally relax after daring
to demand a different way? For the rest of us,
the future, barring variations, turns out
to be not so different from the present
where we have always lived—the same
struggle of wishes and losses, and hope,
that old lieutenant, picking us up
every so often to dust us off and adjust
our helmets. Adjustment, for that matter,
may be the one lesson hope has to give,
serving us best when we begin to find
what we didn't know we wanted in what
the future brings. Nobody would have asked
for the ice storm that takes down trees
and knocks the power out, leaving nothing
but two buckets of snow melting
on the wood stove and candlelight so weak,
the old man sitting at the kitchen table
can hardly see to play cards. Yet how else
but by the old woman's laughter
when he mistakes a jack for a queen
would he look at her face in the half-light as if
for the first time while the kitchen around them
and the very cards he holds in his hands
disappear? In the deep moment of his looking
and her looking back, there is no future,
only right now, all, anyway, each one of us
has ever had, and all the two of them,
sitting together in the dark among the cracked
notes of the snow thawing beside them
on the stove, right now will ever need.

"The Future" by Wesley McNair, from Talking in the Dark. © David R. Godine, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of France's most famous novelists, Stendhal, (books by this author) born Marie Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France (1783). We're not sure exactly why Stendhal chose the pseudonym that he did. Some scholars suggest he chose it because it is an anagram of the word "Shetland." Others think he chose the name because it is also the name of a German city. Whatever the reason, today Stendhal is well known for the dry style of his writing and for his insightful character analysis.

Stendhal was raised in an oppressive Jesuit home in Grenoble, and he did not get along with his family. He moved to Paris as soon as possible, and he soon became a dragoon in Napoleon's army. He traveled widely throughout Europe, lived in Paris for a time, and in 1812 Stendhal again served in Napoleon's army, accompanying the failed mission to Russia.

Stendhal began his literary career only after Napoleon's fall in 1814. He had developed a fondness for Milan, Italy, during his travels in Europe, and he lived there until 1820. During this time, Stendhal began writing in a realistic style quite different from other writing being produced in the Romantic period in which he lived. As a result, Stendhal dedicated his work to "the Happy Few," the term he used for those who recognized his brilliance. Indeed, Stendhal's writing was not fully appreciated until the 20th century.

Stendhal was best known in England during his life, and in 1817 he began writing for British journals. He also became involved in an unhappy love affair, and as a result he wrote De l'amour (1822), a psychological analysis of love.

Stendhal's first novel, Armance (1827), was panned by critics, but he responded by writing one of the most important novels in French literary history, The Red and the Black, (1831). The story follows an ambitious young man who uses seduction to get what he wants, and who is executed for killing his mistress. Five years later, Stendhal began writing his other great novel, The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), while living in Paris or again traveling throughout Europe.

Stendhal also published nonfiction in his lifetime, including a biography of Rossini, which is today lauded for its musical criticism more so than its factual accuracy. His own memoir, Memoirs of an Egotist (1892), was published long after his death.

Stendhal said, "One can acquire everything in solitude except character."

It's the birthday of the poet Derek Walcott, (books by this author) born in Castries on the island of Saint Lucia (1930). The island is one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott is known for his epic poem Omeros (1990), which retells The Odyssey and is set in the Caribbean, and for being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1992.

Walcott published his first collection of poetry, 25 Poems (1948), when he was 18. But his breakthrough as a poet came much later, with the publication of In a Green Night (1962). In the meantime, Walcott studied at St. Mary's College and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, before moving to Trinidad in 1953. He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which went on to produce many of his early plays. Walcott also worked as a journalist in Trinidad, before the publication of In a Green Night brought him international attention.

Derek Walcott said, "The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination."

It's the birthday of the painter Edouard Manet, born in Paris (1832). He is best known as a bridge between realism and impressionism.

Manet's father was a magistrate, and he wanted his son to pursue a career in law also. Manet saw things differently, in part because his uncle often had taken the young Manet to the Louvre, where he would urge his nephew to pursue painting seriously. When Manet failed his naval examinations in 1850, he began to study under the academic painter Thomas Couture, and then he traveled Europe where he was influenced by the painters Frans Hals and Diego Velásquez.

Manet's paintings were considered controversial in his own time. Even his masterpiece Olympia was criticized because it featured a prostitute in a suggestive position. His technical innovations were viewed as heresy by some academics. But today his paintings appear in art museums across the world, and have sold for as much as $26 million.

And he said, "There is only one true thing: instantly paint what you see. When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

"How To Kill" by Keith Douglas, from Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems. © Faber & Faber, Ltd, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of author Edith Wharton, (books by this author) born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She came from a distinguished New York family, and she grew up stifled under all the rigid social customs of high society. She said, "I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades." She decided she wanted to be a writer at an early age, but her parents did not encourage her. She said, "Authorship was considered something between a black art and a form of manual labor."

Wharton was grateful that her parents took her traveling in Europe for much of her childhood, because she got away from many of the New York debutante parties, and she was able to spend most of her time reading. It was in Europe, when she was about 20 years old, that she first met the writer Henry James, though she barely had the courage to speak to him at the time.

Her parents married her off to a man she didn't love when she was 23, and she had to spend the next decade in New York, living the life of a society matron, hosting parties, and leaving herself almost no time to write. Having lived in Europe, she now found New York City to be an awful place to live. She said, "New York is cursed with its universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried, cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without towers, porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."

She eventually had a nervous breakdown, and it was while she rested at a sanitarium that she began to write seriously. One of her doctors suggested that writing might impair her recovery, but after The Greater Inclination (1899), her first book of short stories, got great reviews, she disregarded the doctor's advice.

A few years later, she met Henry James again, and the two became great friends. She had just published a few historical novels, which weren't every successful. His advice was that she write about contemporary New York City, the time and place she new best. He said, "Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours."

Wharton took James's advice, and the result was her first great novel, The House of Mirth (1905), about the frustrated love affair between Lawrence Selden and a young woman named Lily Bart. Wharton wrote: "He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. ... She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty."

Wharton went on to write many more novels about frustrated love, including Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), which was the first novel written by a woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

In her lifetime, most of her novels were best-sellers, even though they had unhappy endings. But after the rise of modernist fiction by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Wharton's novels began to seem dated. She never understood why stream-of-consciousness writing came into fashion. She said of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), "Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook's intervening."

After her death, many critics considered Wharton a stuffy old woman who wrote novels about manners, and most of her books went out of print. Then in 1975, the biographer R.W.B. Lewis discovered that she had conducted a passionate affair during her marriage, and that she had been much more radical in her letters and her journals than her fiction. Suddenly, feminists and others began to reevaluate her work. Several of her novels were made into movies, most of her books came back into print, and she is now considered one of the great American novelists.

Edith Wharton said, "Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope."

It's the birthday of war poet Keith Douglas, (books by this author) born in Tunbridge Wells, England (1920). His father was a military man who got laid off by the British army after World War I. His parents struggled to pay the bills, and they separated when he was eight years old. He never saw his father again. He was a student at Oxford when World War II started. He enlisted in the army in 1939 and was stationed in North Africa.

Soon after he arrived, a battle broke out, but he was told to stay out of the combat because he didn't have enough experience. He stole a truck and drove into battle anyway. It turned out that his truck was badly needed in the battle, and his commanding officer was so impressed by his bravery that he put Douglas in charge of a tank battalion. He kept a diary for the next two years, describing the desert campaign from El Alamein, Egypt to Zem Zem, Tunisia. The diary was later published as Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), and it's considered one of the best memoirs of World War II.

Douglas spent several months in a hospital in 1943, and from his hospital bed he wrote a series of unflinching poems about the battles he had witnessed. He said to a friend, "My object is to write true things. ... I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present. ... To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others." After he got out of the hospital, he participated in the invasion of Normandy, and he died in battle on June 6, 1944. His poems were published in The Collected Poems of Keith Douglas (1951).

Ye flowery banks o' bonie Doon,
    How can ye blume sae fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
    And I sae fu' o' care?

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,
    That sings upon the bough;

                Thou minds me o' the happy days,
                      When my fause luve was true.

                Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,
                       That sings beside thy mate:
                For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
                       And wist na o' my fate.

                Aft have I roved by bonie Doon
                       To see the wood-bine twine,
                And ilka bird sang o' its luve,
                        And sae did I o' mine.
                Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose
                       Frae aff its thorny tree;
                And my fause luver staw my rose,
                       But left the thorn wi' me.

"Bonie Doon" by Robert Burns. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He's the man who wrote the lines: "Oh, my luve's like a red, red rose, / That's newly sprung in June; / Oh, my luve's like the melodie / That's sweetly played in tune."

He only published one book in his lifetime, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), but many of the poems were set to music and are still sung today in Scotland and around the world. A few years after his death, friends began to gather on his birthday to celebrate his life, and the event slowly grew in size and became a Scottish tradition. This day is now a Scottish national holiday.

It's the birthday of William Somerset Maugham, (books by this author) born to English parents in Paris, France (1874). His early childhood was comfortable and happy, but his mother died when he was eight and he never got over the loss. He kept three pictures of her next to his bedside for the rest of his life. His father died a few years later, and he had to go live with an unaffectionate uncle. He developed a terrible stutter and became incredibly shy. He later said, "Had I not stammered I would probably ... have gone to Cambridge ... become a don and every now and then published a dreary book about French literature." Instead, he read voraciously and eventually began to write fiction.

Maugham decided to study medicine, because he knew his uncle would disown him if he admitted that he wanted to be a writer. After medical school, he became an obstetrician, and got a job making house calls to deliver babies in the worst slums of London. He stayed up for hours every night to work on his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), which was about the extreme poverty he had witnessed as a doctor. The book was successful enough to allow him to quit his job and devote his life to writing.

He went on to become one of the most popular authors of his lifetime, writing many plays, essays, short stories, and memoirs. He's best known for his novel Of Human Bondage (1915), based on his own childhood. He once read the book on the radio, and when he came to the passage describing the death of the main character's mother, he broke down weeping and was barely able to continue.

Maugham said, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

And, "Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all."

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, (books by this author) born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She came from a family of distinguished scholars and literary critics. She said, "[The] Stephens are difficult, especially as the race tapers out towards its finish — such cold fingers, so fastidious, so critical, such taste. ... How I wish they had hunted and fished instead of dictating dispatches and writing books."

She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. Her brothers all went to the best universities, and she wrote letters to them about her reading. She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father's death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she'd been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.

Of Charles Dickens, she wrote, "Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire." Of George Moore, she wrote, "Literature has wound itself about him like a veil, forbidding the free use of his limbs."

In 1917, Woolf and her husband founded Hogarth Press, a printing press that they ran out of their home. It allowed her to publish whatever she wanted, without having to submit her work to editors, and as a result she began to produce a series of experimental novels that might not have been published otherwise, in which she attempted to capture the inner lives of her characters.

Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.

She wrote: "We all indulge in the strange, pleasant process called thinking, but when it comes to saying ... what we think, then how little we are able to convey! The phantom is through the mind and out of the window before we can lay salt on its tail, or slowly sinking and returning to the profound darkness which it has lit up momentarily with a wandering light."

She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had died that year. She wrote to a friend, "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that!" Later that summer, she wrote in her diary "There's no doubt in my mind, that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice."

Her next book was her first masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party.Woolf wrote: "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what [Mrs. Dalloway] loved; life; London; this moment of June."

Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. Many of her essays were collected in The Common Reader (1925).

In one of her most famous essays, "The Death of a Moth," Woolf described the experience of watching a moth trapped between two windowpanes. She wrote, "Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body ... as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it."

And in her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One's Own (1929), she wrote: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity, which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison."

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I , in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

"The Lanyard" by Billy Collins, Reprinted with permission of the poet. (buy now)

Today is Australia Day, the day on which Australians celebrate the establishment of the first British settlement in that country in 1788. Captain James Cook had been the first European to discover the island continent in 1770, and he informed the British government that it might make a good place for a settlement. By 1780, Great Britain's prisons were growing overcrowded because they had lost their colonies in America, which was where they had been sending prisoners. So they decided to start sending convicts to Australia, which was then called New South Wales.

The first shipment consisted of about 730 convicts, among them highway robbers, jewel thieves, and a woman who had tried to steal 24 yards of black silk lace. The military guards carried no ammunition, so that their guns could not be used against them in a mutiny. Two attempted mutinies were put down during the voyage. Forty-eight people died before they reached their destination, which was considered a remarkably successful survival rate. They arrived on this day in 1788 and settled an area they called Sydney Cove, around which would grow the city of Sydney.

It's the birthday of cartoonist, novelist, and playwright Jules Feiffer, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1929). He said of his childhood, "The only thing I wanted to be was grown up. Because I was a terrible flop as a child. You cannot be a successful boy in America if you cannot throw or catch a ball." He decided early on that he wanted to be a comic strip artist, and when he was a teenager, he showed his work to the cartoonist Will Eisner, and Eisner gave him a job. Feiffer said, "[It was] ten dollars a week part-time — erasing pages, filling in blanks, and dreaming great dreams."

But he was drafted in 1951, and he did not take well to the army. He said, "I was treated with open contempt by one form of authority or the other in the army on a 24-hour basis." The experience inspired him to write a bitterly cynical cartoon strip about a four-year-old boy who is drafted by mistake. He tried to sell the strip to a variety of major newspapers, but nobody would buy it. So he finally turned to a new weekly newspaper in his neighborhood called the Village Voice. Over the next decade, the Village Voice became nationally prominent, and Feiffer's cartoons became nationally syndicated.

His strip in the Village Voice was one of the first cartoon strips to deal with adult themes such as sex, politics, and psychiatry. For most of his career, he has drawn and written all of his work in Central Park, which he considers his office. His cartoons are collected in books such as Feiffer's Marriage Manual (1967) and Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency (1974).

It's the birthday of children's book author and editor Mary Mapes Dodge, (books by this author) born Mary Mapes in New York City (1831). She was born into a prestigious New York family. Her grandfather was a personal friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. Her father was an inventor and an entrepreneur who planned to revolutionize the farming industry with new chemical fertilizers. One of the investors in his fertilizer idea was a man named William Dodge, who later married young Mary Mapes.

Mary Mapes Dodge lived with her husband in New York City for five years, and had two sons. Then one night in 1858, her husband left the house and never came back. It turned out that he had drowned, possibly of a suicide. She was devastated and took her sons to live on her father's farm. She moved into a room in the attic, which she decorated with moss, leaves, flowers, and a painting of the Rhine River on the ceiling. She spent many hours in the attic playing with her sons and telling them stories, and eventually she began to write the stories down and submit them to magazines.

She had long been interested in writing something about Holland, although she'd never been there. She had some Dutch friends who had emigrated from Amsterdam, and she asked them to tell her everything they knew about their home country, what things looked like and smelled like, and the things people did and the food they ate and the stories they told their children at night. She used all of these details to write a children's book called Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865), which became a best-seller. In the 15 years after it was published, it received more reviews than any other children's book in America.

The historical background of Holland that Mary Mapes Dodge wrote about in Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865) included a story about a boy who saved Holland by sticking his finger in a dike. That story was her own invention, but it became so famous that many people believed it was an old Dutch folktale.

In 1872, Charles Scribner and two of his partners were thinking of developing a magazine for children, and they wrote to Dodge to ask for her advice. She replied, "The child's magazine, needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the [adult's]. ... Let there be no sermonizing either, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of the dry bones of history. A child's magazine is its pleasure ground."

They were impressed enough by her response that they asked her to edit the children's magazine, which became known as St. Nicholas. Dodge chose the name, because she said, "Is he not the boys' and girls' own Saint, the especial friend of young Americans? That he is. ... And, what is more, isn't he the kindest, best, and jolliest old dear that ever was known? Certainly again."

St. Nicholas became one of the most successful children's publications of all time. It included work by writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. The magazine also encouraged young people to submit stories and poems for publication. Among the writers who first published their work in St. Nicholas were Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, Edmund Wilson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

      Under a willow
      close by a brook
      her lap for a pillow
      her eyes for a book
      she like a drummer
      practiced her art
      all spring and all summer—
      the drum was my heart.

Hear how the willow sighs to the sun:
It is over and done with, over and done!
Hear the cold brook, that can hardly run:
It is over and done with, over and done!

      Under what maple
      close by what lake
      will she lie next April?
      Whose heart will she break?

"Winter Song" by Aaron Kramer, from Wicked Times. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Lewis Carroll, (books by this author) born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson near Daresbury, Cheshire, England (1832). He is best known as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1872), and for the characters the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the White Rabbit, and many others. Carroll was also a gifted mathematician and photographer. His photographs of children are still considered remarkable to this day.

Carroll read Pilgrim's Progress as a young boy, in part to prepare for a life in the ministry. But he suffered an attack of whooping cough at age 17, a late age to get that illness, and as a result he developed a stammer to go along with his natural shyness. After recovering from his illness, Carroll decided that life as a minister would be too demanding.

Instead, Carroll lectured in mathematics at Christ's College, Oxford, where he had also attended university. Carroll found the work dull and considered most of his students stupid, but he wrote seriously during this time. In 1855, he said, "I do not think I have yet written anything worthy of real publication, but I do not despair of doing so some day." The next year he published under the famous pseudonym "Lewis Carroll" for the first time, when his poem "Solitude" appeared in a magazine called Train. The pseudonym is a play on Carroll's real name.

Carroll always felt at ease around children. It has been rumored that his stammer would disappear while he talked with children. Nobody can say for certain if this is true, but Carroll was well known as a storyteller, and he liked telling his stories to children. He first came up with the idea for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by telling stories to the children of the dean of Christ's College, who had a daughter named Alice.

Carroll enjoyed massive success from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and his pseudonym grew into an alter ego that became famous in its own right. Even today, more people know the legends surrounding Lewis Carroll better than they know the biography of the real man, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The stories of Alice and her adventures in the strange wonderland have remained popular to this day. Many readers speculate on the underlying meaning of the tales, but Carroll himself said he only intended the tales as carefree fantasy and nothing more.

Lewis Carroll said, "If only I could manage, without annoyance to my family, to get imprisoned for 10 years, without hard labour, and with the use of books and writing materials, it would be simply delightful!" And, "If you set to work to believe everything, you will tire out the believing-muscles of your mind, and then you'll be so weak you won't be able to believe the simplest true things."

It's the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (music by this composer) born in Salzburg, in what is today Austria (1756). He is considered one of the most important composers the West has ever seen, along with Ludwig van Beethoven.

Mozart's father, Leopold, was one of Europe's leading music educators, and he gave his son intensive training in the piano and violin. The young Mozart developed so quickly that he began composing original work at five years old. Then Leopold took Mozart and his sister on several tours throughout Europe, where Mozart would write piano pieces for his sister to perform. Mozart was often ill during this time, and the cold weather and constant travel may have contributed to his early death. But Leopold was more concerned with money than the well-being of his son.

Still, Mozart enjoyed parts of his journeys. He met many famous musicians and composers. During a trip to Italy, Mozart amazed his hosts when he listened only once to the performance of a Gregorio Allegri composition, and then wrote it out from memory, returning one more time to correct minor errors. Another time, Mozart encountered the glass armonica, and he so enjoyed its sound that he composed several pieces of music for it.

Mozart visited Vienna in 1781, when he was working for a harsh archbishop. The two had a disagreement, and according to Mozart he was fired with a literal kick in the seat of his pants.

Mozart remained in Vienna thereafter, and in 1782 he married Constanze Weber, the sister of a woman he had loved years before. The couple had six children, but only two of them survived into adulthood. It was in Vienna that Mozart wrote his famous operas The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) and The Marriage of Figaro (1786).

The circumstances of Mozart's early death are still speculated about today. Many people conjecture that he died of mercury poisoning while being treated for syphilis, while others think he died from an illness brought on by a meal of badly cooked pork. Others insist that Mozart was murdered by his rival Antonio Salieri.

It is also popularly believed that Mozart died poor and forgotten, but that is not true. His popularity had declined, but his work was still in demand in Prague and other parts of Europe. His financial difficulties stem from his inability to live within his means, not from a lack of income. Mozart was buried in a mass grave because the country was battling an outbreak of bubonic plague, and not because his family could not afford a proper burial.

Mozart said, "When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep — it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them."

And, "Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius."

It's the birthday of Jerome Kern, born in New York City (1885). He is best known as the composer of Broadway musicals like The Cat and the Fiddle (1931) and Roberta (1933).

Kern's mother encouraged his musical gifts from the time he was very young, but Kern's father wanted his son to join the family retail business. Kern followed his father at first. And then, when he was 16, Kern mistakenly ordered 200 pianos for the family retail store, when he was supposed to order only two. Kern had a long lunch with the factory owner who took his order, and the two of them got drunk, and so they failed to notice the mistake. Then all the pianos were delivered. Kern said, "You've no idea what that many pianos coming off a truck look like."

After this, Kern's father allowed him to study at the New York College of Music. Then Kern worked as a song-plugger and an in-house composer for a local publisher. When he was 19, Kern traveled to London, and he received his first real training in the theater. He also married his wife, Eva, there in 1910. Kern and his wife returned to America, where he enhanced the scores of European musicals and worked as a rehearsal pianist. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a lifelong friend, and the two collaborated on Show Boat in 1927. This musical gave us the songs "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." In 1933, Kern and Hammerstein produced Roberta, which included the famous song "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

Kern moved to Hollywood in 1935, and he enjoyed success there. He wrote "The Way You Look Tonight" for the movie Swing Time, and the song won an Academy Award. In 1941, Kern and Hammerstein wrote "The Last Time I Saw Paris" because Paris had just been occupied by Nazi Germany, and that song also won an Academy Award.

Kern died in 1945 with Hammerstein at his side. At the memorial service, Hammerstein said of his friend Jerome Kern, "He stimulated everyone. He annoyed some. He never bored anyone at any time."



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
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