I take a seat in the third row
and catch the eulogies. It's sweet
to see old friends, some I don't know.
I wear a tie, good shoes, and greet
a stranger with a kiss. It's bliss
for an insecure guy to hear
deep words. I'll live on them, not miss
a throb, and none of us will fear
the night. There are no tears, no sad
faces, no body or sick word
of God. I sing, have a warm chat
with friends gone sour, wipe away bad
blood. And sweet loves? I tell a bird
to tip them off. Then tip my hat.

"At My Funeral" by Willis Barnstone, from Life Watch. © BOA Editions Ltd, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1986 that the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. That evening, President Ronald Reagan eulogized the lost astronauts in one of the finest addresses of his presidency. He said, "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped 'the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

It's the birthday of the French novelist Colette, (books by this author) born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Sauver-en-Puisaye, France (1873). She is best known as the author of Cheri (1920) and Gigi (1945), but Colette published over 50 novels in her lifetime, many of them autobiographical.

Colette's first books are known as the Claudine series, and they were published under the name "Willy," which was the pen name of her first husband. These books follow the improper adventures of a young French woman. According to one story, her husband would lock Colette in a room until she had written enough words. This treatment, while cruel, also meant that Colette wrote four novels in four years.

Colette began working in the music halls of Paris when she divorced her husband. She became the talk of Paris for baring a breast on stage. She caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge for doing a pantomime of sexual intercourse during a sketch. It was also during this time that Colette began having affairs with women, as she would do between marriages throughout her life. She became involved with her manager, a woman known as "Missy," who was also a niece of Napoleon III.

When World War I broke out in Europe, Colette began working as a freelance journalist, but she also converted her home into a hospital for the war wounded. She remarried and gave birth to a daughter, who later claimed that her parents had neglected her. Colette also had a mysterious relationship with her stepson, and many people speculated that they had an affair. The publication of Cheri in 1920 only fueled that speculation. It is the story of an aging woman engaging in an affair with a young, inexperienced man.

The publication of Cheri also brought Colette great fame as a writer. By the end of the 1920s, Colette was widely regarded as France's greatest woman writer. She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy, and in her later years, she achieved the same legendary status as Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate living in Paris.

In 1935, Colette married her third husband, a pearl salesman who had lost his business in the Depression. He was Jewish and as a result had difficulty finding work. Colette supported him financially and helped him hide when Germany occupied France in World War II. Colette's most famous novel, Gigi, was published in 1945, when she was 72 years old. Three years later the novel was adapted into a film, and in 1958 it was adapted into a popular musical.

When Colette died in 1954, she was given a state funeral, and thousands of mourners attended the service.

Colette said, "By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet."

It's the birthday of Jackson Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming (1912). He is best known for his innovations in abstract impressionist painting. He was often called "Jack the Dripper" because of his radical painting style.

Pollock's family moved to Arizona and California when he was a boy, and during this time Pollock first saw Indian sand paintings, which fascinated him. He later attended art school in California, where he studied seriously and drew a series of anatomy drawings.

In 1929, Pollock began studying under Thomas Hart Benton, the realist mural painter, at Manhattan's Art Students League. Pollock said, "He drove his kind of realism at me so hard I bounced right into nonobjective painting." Pollock became deeply influenced by Pablo Picasso's work and the work of other surrealist painters, and this led Pollock to experiment with his painting. He developed the "drip" technique, where he would draw or drip paint onto enormous canvases. Sometimes he applied paint directly from the tube, and other times he used aluminum paint to make his work more brilliant. He was so energetic in his attacks on the canvas that his approach to painting became known as "action painting."

Jackson Pollock said, "Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you."

It's the birthday of the English novelist and critic David Lodge, (books by this author) born in London, England (1935). He is the author of several novels, many of which resemble Lodge's own life.

Lodge was born in suburban London to a traditional Catholic family, and he was raised in the years following World War II. His early novel, The Picturegoers (1960), is about a Catholic family in South London who take in a university student as a lodger. Other early novels bear striking resemblance his life: Ginger, You're Barmy (1962) draws upon Lodge's own compulsory service in the British military, and The British Museum is Falling Down (1970) follows the comical story of a Catholic graduate student working on his thesis. Aside from his semi-autobiographical novels, Lodge closely protects his privacy.

Lodge is the creator of the fictional town of Rummidge, which is based on Birmingham, England, and has been the setting for several novels. He has also created the imaginary American state of Euphoria, located between North California and South California, and is home to a state university in the city of Esseph, which is a fictionalized version of Berkeley, where Lodge taught for a brief time. His novels set in academia are usually satirical in nature.

David Lodge said, "A novel is a long answer to the question 'What is it about?' I think it should be possible to give a short answer — in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described."



Halfway to work and Merriman already has told me
What he thinks about the balanced budget, the Mets'
Lack of starting pitching, the dangers of displaced
Soviet nuclear engineers, soy products, and diesel cars.


I look out the window and hope I'll see a swan.
I hear they're bad-tempered but I love their necks
And how they glide along so sovereignly.
I never take the time to drive to a pond


And spend an hour watching swans. What
Would happen if I heeded the admonitions of beauty?
When I look over at Merriman, he's telling Driscoll
That the President doesn't know what he's doing
With China. "China," I say out loud but softly.
I go back to the window. It's started snowing.

"Opinion" by Baron Wormser, Subject Matter: Poems. © Sarabande Books, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey, (books by this author) born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). He's best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), about a gang of four "environmental warriors" who liberate sections of the Utah and New Mexico wilderness through sabotage.

When he was 17 years old, he saw the desert for the first time as he hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country. He returned to the East to work for a short time as a caseworker in a welfare office, but then he went back to the Southwest to work as a fire lookout and ranger in Arches National Park. He worked there for three years and turned the experience into the book Desert Solitaire (1968).

Desert Solitaire begins: "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome - there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment."

It's the birthday of writer Anton Chekhov, (books by this author) born in Taganrog, Russia (1860). His father came from a long line of serfs, but his grandfather had bought the family's freedom before Anton was born. When Chekhov was 16, his father's grocery store went out of business. The whole family left for Moscow, except Anton, who was left behind to finish school and earn money. He lived in the corner of a house and scraped out a living by tutoring family friends. He later called his adolescence a "never-ending toothache."

After he graduated from high school, he left for Moscow to study medicine. While he was at medical school, he started writing for comic magazines to earn money for his family and himself. He knocked out short, funny stories in his spare time, and later said it was a relief to write in the evenings after spending the day studying chemistry and anatomy. For years, he couldn't decide whether to devote his life to medicine or literature, so he split his time between the two. In 1884, he got his medical degree and began his career as a doctor, which he called "a sporadic second career which was to bring much hard work but little income." He often treated peasants whose poverty reminded him of his childhood, and he wouldn't ask for very much money in return for his care. He set up free clinics in provincial Russia, and he fought the cholera and famine epidemics of 1891 and 1892.

He was always a little embarrassed about his love for writing and used pseudonyms for years. He told a friend, "Medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." After graduating from medical school, he continued to write stories for weekly magazines and newspapers. His friends encouraged him to try writing something more ambitious, but he didn't think he was as good a writer as everyone told him he was. The magazines he wrote for gave him strict limits on the number of words per story, and he often started and finished the short pieces in one sitting. He wrote to a friend that he treated writing "frivolously, casually [and] nonchalantly." It wasn't until he received encouraging advice from an editor that he began to write seriously and under his own name.

Chekhov is one of the inventors of the modern short story. His stories were usually short, full of passive characters, and without much of a plot. They didn't have big emotional climaxes, and they usually ended with a moment that revealed something about the main characters' lives.

His first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885. It got horrible reviews, and he walked out on it at intermission and vowed never to write another play. But two years later, it was produced again, this time to rave reviews. The success inspired him to go on to write the plays Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904), and Uncle Vanya (1897), which are now considered classics.

Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

It's the birthday of writer and politician Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, England (1737). His writings helped to inspire the American Revolution.



The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.

Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?

Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.

It's clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.

Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.

"In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo" by Raymond Carver, from Ultramarine: Poems. © Random House, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson's library of 6,487 volumes. In 1814, after capturing Washington, D.C., the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its 3,000-volume collection.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Richard Brautigan, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1935). He wrote Trout Fishing in America (1967), his best-known work, on a portable typewriter while sitting alongside the many trout streams. He committed suicide in 1984, two years after the publication of his last novel, So The Wind Won't Blow It Away. He was famous for his whimsical, surrealist style. He wrote: "The sun was like a huge 50-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match, and said, 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back."

It's the birthday of historian and author Barbara Tuchman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1912). She wrote The Guns of August (1962), a study of the events that led to the outbreak of World War I. She said, "War is the unfolding of miscalculations."



Over the course of decades style changed:
Your regular Joe stopped wearing hats,
Polished brogues, ties, starched white shirts.
America became casual and drove away

From the store on the corner of First and Main.
Even Sunday faded. Over his after-hours Scotch
The retailer pleaded to his pleated wife:
"What can I do when gentlemen no longer

Are gentlemen? What can I say to a world of rubes?"
Each morning he tied a perfect Windsor knot.
Later, he stared disconsolately out the windows
At the busy cars, brightened when someone came in.
"How could you buy a suit from a stranger?"
He asked himself. Each advertised day replied.

"Haberdasher" by Baron Wormser from Subject Matter: Poems. © Sarabande Books, 2004. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Kenzaburo Oe, (books by this author) born on the island of Shikoku, Japan (1935). He fell in love with literature at an early age, after his mother gave him a translation of Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). He spent most of his childhood playing in the forest near his house, and he often fantasized about flying away from his home like geese he saw above the forest.

He was in grade school during World War II, and he always remembered the moment Japan surrendered to the United States. He wrote, "The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most surprised and disappointed that the emperor had spoken in a human voice. ...How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" He was shocked when the American soldiers arrived in his village, and, instead of killing everyone, handed out chocolate bars and bubble gum.

He became the first member of his family to leave his island when he went to school in Tokyo. He began writing fiction with some success, and then in 1963, his first son was born with a cerebral hernia, which resulted in permanent brain damage. He was devastated when he got the news, and found that he felt ashamed, as though his son's handicap were his own fault. During that time, he took a trip to Hiroshima where he met people suffering from radiation sickness, and he began to see that his feelings about his son were similar to Japan's feelings about its past. He used his experience to write a novel called A Personal Matter (1964), about a father struggling to love his deformed son. It was a huge success, and Oe went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994.

It's the birthday of (Pearl) Zane Grey, (books by this author) born in Zanesville, Ohio (1872). He's one of the most popular writers of Westerns of all time. He started out as a dentist, and only wrote in his spare time. But then he fell in love with a woman who encouraged him to give up dentistry and focus on his writing, so that's what he did. He's the author of Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and many other novels.

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist John O'Hara, (books by this author) born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). His father was a wealthy doctor, and his family lived in the most affluent part of Pottsville, but because they were Irish Catholics, they were never really accepted by upper-class society. O'Hara didn't do well in school, and his father punished him by getting him steel-working jobs during the summer. When he finally graduated from high school, his father refused to pay for him to go to Yale. He always felt inferior for having missed out on an Ivy League education.

He got a job as a newspaper reporter and started writing fiction on the side. His upbringing had made him very sensitive to social distinctions, and he began to write fiction that examined, in precise detail, the way people dressed, the way they talked, what kinds of cars they drove, and what schools they went to. His dialogue was so accurate that some critics accused him of carrying around a tape recorder and transcribing conversations.

He went on to become one of the most popular serious writers of his lifetime, writing many best-selling novels, including Appointment in Samarra (1934) and A Rage to Live (1949). Most critics consider his best work to be his short stories, which were published as the Collected Stories of John O'Hara (1984). He holds the record for the greatest number of short stories published by a single author in The New Yorker magazine.

He said, "I want to get it all down on paper while I can. ... I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty."

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was an engineering student at Harvard when he was drafted into the Army in 1944, and he served in the Philippines and Japan until 1946. After his discharge, he moved to New York City and spent 15 months writing a novel about the war called The Naked and the Dead (1948).

That book became the definitive literary novel about World War II, and it made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. It begins, "Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach. ... All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead."

His next two novels flopped, and critics said that he had failed to live up to his promise as a writer. He was depressed by the bad reviews he had gotten, and he decided that he would take a break from trying to write the great American novel. Instead he wrote one of the most confessional books that had been published up to that time, Advertisements for Myself (1959), about his own ambitions and fears. He wrote, "Like many another vain, empty and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind. ... The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." Norman Mailer died in 2007.



The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skin bleached
  blonde
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
  De man I loves has
  Gone and done me wrong...

While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.

"Lincoln Theatre" by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. © Vintage Classics, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, (books by this author) born in Macon, North Carolina (1933). He once described his birthplace as, "a town of 227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression." On the day Price was born, he and his mother almost died from complications. In his memoir Clear Pictures (1989), he wrote that his father, who was a hard-drinking salesman, "fled the house in the freezing dawn, went out to the woodshed; and there he sealed a bargain with God, as stark and unbreakable as any blood pact in Genesis - if Elizabeth lived, and the child, he'd never drink again." Reynolds grew up feeling like the anchor that held his family together. His most recent book is Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith (2006).

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, (books by this author) born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). He became obsessed with the poetry of William Butler Yeats in college when his roommate, the poet W. S. Merwin, woke him up one night and read Yeats to him until dawn. After that night, Kinnell devoted himself to writing poetry in the style of Yeats. He eventually found his own voice as a poet, but he named all of his children after important figures in Yeats's work.

He said, "To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment."

It's the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark, (books by this author) born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). When she was growing up, she liked to write love letters to herself that she signed with men's names and hid in the sofa cushions in the hope of shocking her mother. During World War II, she got a job writing false news stories for the British Political Intelligence Department, with the goal of demoralizing the German people. In one such story she wrote that a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler had succeeded in blowing off his trousers.

She was almost 40 years old when she published her first work of fiction, The Comforters (1957), but she then went on to write many more dark satirical novels. She's best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), about a strange teacher at a girls' school.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, (books by this author) born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His father divorced his mother and moved to Mexico when Hughes was just a baby. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, but after high school he went to Mexico to get to know his father for the first time. He was disgusted when he found that his father was obsessed with money and more racist than most white men Hughes had ever known.

He went to Columbia University for a year, but then he decided that he wanted to learn from the world rather than books. He quit college, hopped a boat to Africa, and as soon as the boat left New York Harbor, he threw all his college books overboard. He took odd jobs on ships and made his way from Africa to France, Holland, Italy, and finally back to the United States.

He got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel, and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

He got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and started to write poetry influenced by the music he heard in jazz and blues clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street... [songs that] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

Hughes was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), he said, "[I want to write for] the people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round."

In his poem "Laughers," he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, /Rounders,/ Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses - / Dream-singers all."

It's the birthday of humorist S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He wrote essays for The New Yorker magazine for years, and he's the author of the collections The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966). He was famous for his bizarre, absurdist humor. One of his essays begins, "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

Perelman said of himself, "Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor is S.J. Perelman ...that he owns one of the rare mouths in which butter has never melted [is a] legend treasured by every schoolboy."



Strings in the earth and air
  Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
  The willows meet.

There's music along the river
  For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
  Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
  With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
  Upon an instrument.

"I" by James Joyce, from Collected Poems. © Viking. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of James Joyce, (books by this author) born in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin (1882). He only wrote four books of fiction in his life, but they're all considered masterpieces: Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939).

He was born into a middle-class family, but his father was a heavy drinker and couldn't hold a job. They moved from house to house in Dublin, each one smaller and cheaper than the last, until by the time James was a teenager they were almost living in poverty. He went to Catholic schools, and he considered becoming a priest, but decided instead to go to college to study languages and literature.

Joyce almost became a professional singer. He came from a musical family and learned piano as a child. Whenever he went to social gatherings in Dublin, he would entertain the guests by singing traditional Irish ballads, and he even sang in a few local concerts. When he was 21 years old, he still wasn't sure what to do with his life, and he entered a national tenor competition in Dublin. He pawned some books so he could pay the entrance fee, and then spent weeks taking voice lessons and learning songs. He ended up getting third place in the competition, and the judge recommended that he study music seriously. Joyce considered taking lessons from the best teacher in Dublin, but he finally decided that if he was going to be spending most of his time alone in a room, he would rather be writing stories than doing voice exercises.

Joyce thought that to become a truly great writer he would have to escape Ireland, which was still under British control at the time. He went to live on the Continent, first in Paris and then in Trieste. He wrote: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile, and cunning. ... I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too."

His first work of fiction was the book of short stories Dubliners (1914). After he finished that he started writing the autobiographical novel that would become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). The process took 10 years, but the novel established Joyce as one of the best writers of his generation. It tells the story of the childhood and adolescence of Stephen Dedalus, who rejects an offer to become a priest so that he can try to become a writer. The book was revolutionary for its style: When Stephen is a small child, Joyce uses short simple sentences, and as Stephen grows older the language becomes more complex to reflect his growing maturity.

Joyce spent seven years writing his next novel, Ulysses, which many people consider to be his greatest work. He wrote most of it in Zurich during World War I. He would stay out late at night at cafés and bars, sleep late into the morning, and then spend the day writing and giving English lessons. He gathered the material for Ulysses from his own life. He based most of his characters on his friends and family members, and the story's action takes place in real places in Dublin. During the years he was writing Ulysses, friends would get angry with him because he always directed conversations toward the topic he happened to be writing about that day, hoping to steal their ideas. He carried around dozens of small slips of paper in his wallet, and he would make tiny notes on them throughout the day. The next morning, he would decipher his notes with a magnifying glass, and then decide where to include them in the novel.

Ulysses is about a day in the life of two Dublin men - Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish man whose wife is cheating on him. The two men go about their daily business and finally meet each other at the end of the day. One of the climactic moments comes when Bloom and Dedalus urinate together in Bloom's backyard. Joyce used Homer's Odyssey to come up with the elaborate structure for the novel, and he envisioned Bloom as a modern-day Odysseus - but instead of being lost at sea for 10 years and returning home to a faithful wife, Bloom wanders around Dublin for a day and returns home to an unfaithful wife.

Ulysses is famous for being one of the first works of fiction to make extensive use of internal monologue. Many chapters consist almost entirely of a character's thoughts, with no narrator to help the reader make sense of them. At one point, Bloom is sitting drinking wine in a restaurant and remembers one of the first times he kissed his wife, who he knows is now having an affair with another man:

"Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. ... Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. ...Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling. ...She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me. Me. And me now."

Joyce set the action of Ulysses on June 16, 1904 as a tribute to the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, since it was on that day that they had their first date. Joyce had first seen Nora 10 days earlier, walking down a Dublin street. She was tall and beautiful, and Joyce approached her and asked her out on a date. They were supposed to meet on June 14, but she stood him up. Joyce wrote her a note that said, "I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected." She agreed to go on a walk with him two days later, on June 16, 1904. Today, June 16 is known in Ireland as Bloomsday, and thousands of people come to Dublin every year to celebrate Joyce and visit the sites mentioned in Ulysses.



Dear Captain Kangaroo,

It's all so quiet now
until I hear the news.
Then eulogies begin.
To think we never knew
how long you were in pain—
and no one wrote to you
to say that we are grown
and busy in our lives—
raising children too.

Your memory survives.

In the storage shed,
in corduroy once red,
by the ears he hangs—
his spectacles askew—
that bunny from the past
I once hung out to dry.

From the corner of my eye
I see him now and then,
remembering our days—
the carrot-colored sun—
our future all ablaze.

Now that day is done.

"My Captain" by Maxine Cassin. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It's the birthday of novelist Paul Auster, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). He's the author of The Book of Illusions (2002), Timbuktu (2000), and many other novels. After he graduated from college, he got a job on an oil tanker, saved all the money he made, and then went off to Paris to become a writer. He started out translating French poetry and writing his own poems. After 10 years, he had published a few collections of poetry, but he barely had enough money to pay for food. For a year, he quit writing and started looking for other ways to make money. He even invented a card game and pitched it to toy companies.

Then, in December 1978, he had an epiphany while watching a dance recital in New York City. He later said, "The simple fact of watching men and women moving through space filled me with something close to euphoria." The next day, he started writing again, but instead of writing poetry he wrote fiction. His first novel, City of Glass (1985), was published six years later. It's the first novel in his "New York Trilogy," which also includes Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1987).

It's the birthday of novelist James A. Michener, (books by this author) born in New York City (1907). He's best known for his epic historical novels such as Hawaii (1959), The Covenant (1980), and Poland (1983). His parents abandoned him soon after he was born, and he was raised by a poor widow named Mabel Michener. They moved from house to house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, sometimes in the middle of the night on just a few minutes' notice. His foster mother read him Dickens and Balzac, and he grew to love their thick, old-fashioned novels.

Michener worked at a series of teaching and editing jobs until he was 36 years old. Then, in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy, and the next year he was sent to the South Pacific. One night, after he almost crashed his plane, he couldn't sleep and went for a walk along the airstrip of his ship. It was then that he decided that if he made it back home, he was going to quit his job as an editor and become a writer. He later remembered thinking, "When this is over, I'm not going to be the same guy. I'm going to live as if I were a great man."

He came up with the idea for a series of stories about the war called Tales of the South Pacific (1947). He said he wanted to show young men what life in the military was really like. He stayed up late at night and typed it out on old envelopes and the backs of old letters from home. When he got back to the States, he gave the papers to a publisher at Random House without retyping it. They published it, and Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Two years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein made it into the musical South Pacific, and it made so much money that Michener was able to devote the rest of his life to writing.

Michener sold more than 75 million books in his lifetime. He has written novels about Israel, Colorado, Spain, Maryland's Eastern Shore, South Africa, Poland, Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Most of his stories unfold across decades or even centuries, and include several pages of historical detail.

Michener said, "I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains.

It's the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). When she was 30 years old she moved to Paris, and lived there for almost the rest of her life. She once said, "America is my country and Paris is my hometown." She covered the walls of her house in Paris with paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, and others. Her house became known as "The Salon," and writers and artists came from all over to get advice and encouragement from her. Ernest Hemingway once said, "Gertrude was always right."

She would hold dinner parties and then stay up afterward to work on her own novels and essays. But she wasn't very well known as a writer until she published her autobiography, which she called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in 1933. It was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly and became a huge best seller in the United States. Stein became a household name, and the next year she returned to America for the first time in over 30 years, to go on a lecture tour.

Stein said, "Everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really."

It's the birthday of philosopher Simone Weil, (books by this author) born in Paris (1909). T.S. Eliot called her "a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints." After getting a degree in philosophy, she worked in fields and factories, so she could write about what it was like for manual laborers. She gave most of her money to the unemployed, living on as little as possible. She wrote essays on political, social, and religious issues, but not many of them were published during her lifetime. During World War II, she fled to the United States and then to England. There, she was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and she refused to eat more than she thought an average French person was getting on wartime rations. When she died soon afterward, it was ruled a suicide. After her death, her essays were published in Gravity and Grace (1947) and Waiting for God (1950).

Weil said, "Whenever, in life, one is actively involved in something, or one suffers violently, one cannot think about oneself."



«

»

  • “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
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning