The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people's faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children,
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don't have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

"The Bad Old Days" by Kenneth Rexroth, from Selected Poems. © New Directions, 1984. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Karl Marx, (books by this author) born in Trier, Germany (1818), the son of a lawyer. Marx went to university to study law but was not a very dedicated student and became president of the Trier Tavern Drinking Society. When he transferred to a school in another city, he became a more serious student. He married Jenny von Westphalen, his childhood sweetheart and the daughter of a Prussian Baron, in 1843. They would have seven children together, only three of whom would survive to become adults. Nonetheless they had a tender and generally happy marriage, and Marx once wrote to his wife, "There are actually many females in the world, and some among them are beautiful. But where could I find again a face whose every feature, even every wrinkle, is a reminder of the greatest and sweetest memories of my life?"

In 1848, he published The Communist Manifesto, which begins, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." The next year, he and other journalists for a radical newspaper were banished from Germany. He fled to Paris, but he was forced from there also and a month later, when he was 31 years old, fled to England, where the prime minister was a proponent of free speech.

Marx spent the rest of his life in London, and in poverty. He spent his days in the British Museum's Reading Room, where he read old issues of the Economist. Friedrich Engels supported Marx's family, working in Germany and mailing money to Marx. The two exchanged several letters a week for 20 years.

The family was constantly poor and was evicted from one flat for not paying rent, and forced to find a cheaper place to live. His wife and daughter helped him with his work. In 1855, his son Edgar died from tuberculosis. It was their third child to have died, and it was particularly devastating to Marx. The eight-year-old son who often cheered up his parents by singing silly songs had died in his father's arms.

His wife's health declined. In her 40s, she gave birth to a stillborn child and also got smallpox, from which she became deaf. Marx suffered from terrible boils that were so bad that he sometimes had to write standing up at his desk because it was too painful to sit on his afflicted rump. He told Engels that "such a lousy life is not worth living" — though Marx also wrote that he derived some consolation in that "it was a truly proletarian disease." Marx's writing reflected the consciousness of his disease at some points; he once wrote, "At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember the carbuncles until their dying day. What swine they are!"

He said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. "

Today is Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday in Mexico that celebrates the Battle of Puebla, 1862, in which Mexican forces defeated French invaders against overwhelming odds. What began with a demand by the government of France for payment on bonds turned into a war of conquest. The French commander was sure of victory, but 2,000 troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza carried the day instead. The French ultimately won the war, installing Maximilian of Austria as ruler of Mexico, but the victory at Puebla gave the Mexicans the confidence to depose him and declare independence, five years later. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with fiestas, parades, battle reenactments, and often a combate de flores, a battle of flowers. The site of General Zaragoza's birthplace, in Goliad, Texas, was designated a state park in 1960.

It's the birthday of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, (books by this author) born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). His father — a pious Lutheran wool merchant who was 57 when Soren was born — had made a fortune early in life and then retired, at 40, devoting himself to intellectual pursuits. The house was filled with professors, clergymen, and writers. Soren, the youngest of seven children, was slightly deformed, sickly and frail, yet highly gifted. In bad weather his father took him for imaginary walks up and down his study, commenting on many make-believe sights, helping the boy develop an inexhaustible imagination.

He thought about becoming a Lutheran minister but decided against it, and he ended up living on an inheritance and publishing philosophical books with his own money. He argued that truth is subjective, and that it's not enough to believe in something if you don't live by your beliefs. He was almost unknown outside of Denmark in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century he was rediscovered by European writers and philosophers, and he had a huge impact on writers like Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus.

Kierkegaard said, "Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man's struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."

Into the darkness and the hush of night
     Slowly the landscape sinks, and fades away,
     And with it fade the phantoms of the day,
     The ghosts of men and things, that haunt the
The crowd, the clamor, the pursuit, the flight,
     The unprofitable splendor and display,
     The agitations, and the cares that prey
     Upon our hearts, all vanish out of sight.
The better life begins; the world no more
      Molests us; all its records we erase
     From the dull common-place book of our lives,
That like a palimpsest is written o'er
     With trivial incidents of time and place,
     And lo! the ideal, hidden beneath, revives.

"Night" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain.

On this day in 1862, Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis. (books by this author) He was 44. His aunt asked him if he was at peace with God. Thoreau said, "I was not aware that we had quarreled." The last clear thing he said was, "Now comes good sailing," and then two words: "moose" and "Indian."

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, (books by this author) born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. During World War II he worked as a control tower operator, and he wrote about war in his books of poetry, collections Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). In Losses, he wrote:

We read our mail and counted up our missions —
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we have learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us
medals; When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."

On this day in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration to provide jobs for unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. More than 8.5 million people were paid an average monthly salary of $41.57 to build roads, paint murals, and record American folklore. Republicans called the WPA "We Pick Apples" or "We Piddle Around." When people asked why the government would give jobs to artists, Harry Hopkins, the man in charge of the program, said, "Hell! They've got to eat just like other people." Citizens were grateful for the work. A poem sent to Roosevelt read, "I THINK THAT WE SHALL NEVER SEE / A PRESIDENT LIKE UNTO THEE … POEMS ARE MADE BY FOOLS LIKE ME, / BUT GOD, I THINK, MADE FRANKLIN D."

It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud, (books by this author) born in Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out as a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, studying the anatomy of eels. He developed a laboratory technique that involved staining tissue samples so that they could be seen more easily under the microscope, and he also made breakthroughs in the use of anesthetic for surgery. One of his superiors in the medical community, however, told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish.

So Freud decided to go into the less crowded field of psychology, where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He was particularly interested in the mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. Hysterics were given a variety of treatments, including isolation, electrocution, and in the case of women, surgical removal of the uterus.

Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to see the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then, one of Freud's colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling "the talking cure."

Freud saw her talking cure as a groundbreaking technique for the treatment of mental illness. He thought that maybe all the symptoms of the hysterics he was treating were the result of stories they hadn't ever been able to tell anyone about their lives. He took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of looking at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn't just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself. When he came out with The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, it read like a partial autobiography, because many of the dreams in it were his own. He was suggesting that no one can easily understand his or her unconscious mind, not even the doctor who invented the concept.

Freud went on to write many more books, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Many of them were read by the general public, in part because of their scandalous frankness about sexuality. Freud was also a great fan of literature, and he filled his books with references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology.

Scholars have questioned whether psychoanalysis is really a science, and today his ideas are no longer part of modern psychology. Many critics mocked his obsession with sex, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who referred to him as "Dr. Fraud" and said, "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." But Freud had a tremendous impact on Western culture. The idea that people were driven by unconscious desires had a huge impact on literature. It was after Freud's writings became widespread that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside their characters' minds. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.

Most mammals like caresses, in the sense in which we
usually take the word, whereas other creatures, even tame
snakes, prefer giving to receiving them.
          -- From a Natural-History Book

The pensive gnu, the staid aardvark,
Accept caresses in the dark;
The bear, equipped with paw and snout;
Would rather take than dish it out.

But snakes, both poisonous and garter,
In love are never known to barter;
The worm, though dank, is sensitive:
His noble nature bids him give.

But you, my dearest, have a soul
Encompassing fish, flesh, and fowl.
When amorous arts we would pursue,
You can, with pleasure, bill or coo.
You are, in truth, one in a million,
At once mammalian and reptilian.

"For An Amorous Lady" by Theodore Roethke, from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke © Doubleday, 1966. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg (1833), the son of a seamstress and the town musician. He took piano lessons from the age of seven and began studying theory and composition at the age of 13. He remained in northern Germany for the first half of his life, failing to fulfill his ambition of gaining an official conducting position. He met composer Robert Schumann and fell in love with Schumann's wife, Clara, who was 14 years Brahms' elder. He wrote to Schumann, who was in a sanatorium, "How long the separation from your wife seemed to me! I had grown so used to her uplifting presence and had spent such a magnificent summer with her. I had grown to admire and love her so much that everything else seemed empty to me, and I could only long to see her again."

He moved to Vienna, which was at the time under liberal influence, and there found work as a conductor. When his parents separated in 1864, Brahms tried to reunite them. The theme of reconciliation is large in his choral German Requiem (1868) — which premiered in Bremen and featured a full orchestra and a chorus and solo voices — as well as in his later work. He also wrote cantatas, sting quartets, and several symphonies. He wrote no operas. While he composed his famous lullaby, he took naps at the piano.

He often traveled, spending summers in Italy composing. He cleared his head by taking long walks in fresh air. In 1889, one of inventor Thomas Edison's representatives visited Brahms in Vienna and Brahms played a Hungarian dance on the piano for an experimental recording, the earliest recording ever made by a famous composer.

His motto in life was "Frei Aber Froh" — "Free but Happy" — a revision of Romanticist Joseph Joachim's "Free but Lonely."

It's the birthday of English poet Robert Browning, (books by this author) born in Camberwell, south London (1812). Growing up, he had access to his father's enormous library, which had more than 6,000 volumes and contained works in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian. When he was 12, he was given a book of Shelley poems, and he became such a fan that he asked for the complete collection for his 13th birthday, and mimicked Shelly by becoming an atheist and vegetarian. He read a collection of poems by Elizabeth Barrett and began exchanging letters with her. The two met in 1845 and married the next year. Before they were married, Elizabeth wrote 44 secret love poems for Robert, which were compiled in Sonnets from the Portuguese. One of them is the poem that begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. "

A number of Browning Societies were established during his lifetime, and he often made appearances at their meetings. Today, Browning Societies still exist in several major cities, including London, where the society aims "to widen the appreciation and understanding of the poetry of the Brownings … and to collect items of literary and biographical interest." The members arrange lectures and visits, and they publish a Browning journal. The New York Browning Society also celebrates the work of both Robert and Elizabeth and always follows its monthly meetings with tea. It also supports a high school poetry contest.

The readers of several other authors have formed notable clubs, including ones dedicated to James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and C.S. Lewis.

The James Joyce Society of New York first met in 1947 at Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street and continues to meet there. There are two groups who are reading Finnegan's Wake — a general one, open to everyone, which gets through two to six pages per monthly meeting, and a special subgroup by invitation only, which averages less than 10 pages a year.

Novelist Christopher Morley founded, in 1934, the Baker Street Irregulars to celebrate the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and today there are many groups of Sherlockians, including the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, who developed in protest to the men-only Baker Street Irregulars. Both of those groups now admit members of both sexes. The London Sherlock Holmes Society, which began in its current incarnation in 1951, has an annual dinner and regular meetings, and produces a Sherlock Holmes Journal twice a year. There are also occasional mock trials, trivia challenges, pub nights, London walks, and cricket matches against the P.G. Wodehouse Society.

After the biopsy,
after the bonescan,
after the consult and the crying,

for a few hours no one could find them,
not even my sister,
because it turns out

they'd gone to the movies.
Something tragic was playing,
something epic,

and so they went to the comedy
with their popcorn
and their cokes—

the old wife whispering everything twice,
the old husband
cupping a palm to his ear,

as the late sun lit up an orchard
behind the strip mall,
and they sat in the dark holding hands.

""Matinee" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © University of Georgia Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Pynchon, (books by this author) born in Glen Cove, New York (1937), the author of large books of fiction, including Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Mason and Dixon (1997), and the 1,085-page Against the Day (2006). He studied physics engineering at Cornell, left to serve in the Navy, and then returned to study literature, where fellow students report that he attended lectures given by Vladimir Nabokov. He applied to Berkeley's graduate school of math, but his application was rejected.

He is well known for his reclusiveness and elusiveness. After his first novel, V., was published in 1963 and Time magazine sent a photographer to his home in Mexico City, Pynchon reportedly evaded the reporter by jumping out his window, riding a bus to the mountains, and staying there while he grew a beard — and when he returned natives called him Pancho Villa. In 1997, a CNN crew stalked Pynchon in his Manhattan neighborhood and was able to capture him on film. He became upset, called the station, and asked that he not be pointed out to viewers in any of the footage. He said, "Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed." When they asked him about his reclusiveness, he said, "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'"

When he received the National Book Award in 1974 for Gravity's Rainbow, he sent comedian Irwin Corey to the ceremony to accept the prize.

He has, however, made two cameo appearances on the animated television series The Simpsons. In one of them, Marge has become an author and Pynchon provides a blurb for her book. Pynchon appears on the show and says, "Here's your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!" Then he yells at cars passing by, "Hey, over here, have your picture taken with a reclusive author! Today only, we'll throw in a free autograph!"

He lived for a period in Los Angeles, now resides in New York City, in Manhattan's Upper West Side. He is married to his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, and the couple has a son, who was born in 1991.

It's the birthday of novelist and critic Edmund Wilson, (books by this author) born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1895), the son of an attorney who succumbed to mental illness and a woman who went deaf shortly thereafter. He went to Princeton and then worked for The New York Evening Sun, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. Wilson wrote all sorts of opinions about major writers of his day. He was an early appreciator of Hemingway, and he said in 1922 that "F. Scott Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn't know quite what to do with." He wrote that Yeats, Proust, and Joyce "break down the walls of the present and wake us to the hope and exaltation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art."

He said that "Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals" and that "No two persons ever read the same book."

It's the birthday of Gary Snyder, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1930). He started out as one of the Beat writers of the 1950s and he's had a long steady career as a poet, an environmental activist, a Zen Buddhist, and a hero to the counterculture. He's one of first American poets since Henry Thoreau to think so much about how a person ought to live — and to make his own life a model. His book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975.

While he was a student, he spent his summers working as a forest ranger, a logger, and a seaman, and in 1955 he worked at Yosemite National Park on the trail crew. He said, "I had given up on poetry. … Then I got out there and started writing these poems about the rocks and blue jays. I looked at them. They didn't look like any poems that I had ever written before. So I said, these must be my own poems." They became his first book, Riprap (1959).

In 1956, he left the San Francisco Beat scene and went to Japan. He spent most of the next 12 years in a monastery studying Buddhism. He went to India too, where he and Allen Ginsberg and others had a conversation about hallucinogens with the Dalai Lama. His friend Alan Watts wrote, "He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart."

He said, "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe."

And he said, "True affluence is not needing anything."

Busts of the great composers glimmered in niches,
Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,
Calling the time out in that hushed falsetto?
(How early we begin to grasp what kitsch is!)
But when she loomed above us like an alp,
We little towns below could feel her shadow.
Somehow her nods of approval seemed to matter
More than the stray flakes drifting from her scalp.
Her etchings of ruins, her mass-production Mings
Were our first culture: she put us in awe of things.
And once, with her help, I composed a waltz,
Too innocent to be completely false,
Perhaps, but full of marvelous clichés.
She beamed and softened then.
                                    Ah, those were the days.

"Mrs. Snow" by Donald Justice from Collected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Charles Simic, (books by this author) born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). He described the war years when he was a child in Yugoslavia as "pure hell." He said, "Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom, boom, and then they would go boom, boom. Even after the war was over, I went on playing war. My imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in Belgrade."

When he was 15, his family moved to Paris. "My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin," he said. "Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life."

The next year, he and his mother reunited with his father by joining him in New York. "If you came to New York in 1954, it was incredible. Europe was still gray; there were still ruins. New York was just dazzling. When I was a little kid in Yugoslavia I loved jazz, I loved movies, so this was paradise," he said.

The family moved to a suburb outside of Chicago, and Simic attended the same high school in Oak Park that Hemingway did. He learned English when he was 15 and began writing poetry in English only a few years after he started learning the language. At his high school, he found some students who were writing poetry. "They would show it to one another, and I started writing in reaction to what they had done. I didn't know English as well as Serbo-Croatian at the time, but a poem of maybe 10 lines was possible. It was a challenge: It was ambitious for me, but I could probably handle it better than I could have handled prose in English."

He told an interviewer that he was inspired to write "when I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems." He was 21 years old when his first poems were published in The Chicago Review — just five years after he came to the U.S.

He started going to school at the University of Chicago and spent nights working as a proofreader of advertisements, which he said was good training for a poet who has "an obsession with economy, the effort to say less and less to mean more and more." He was drafted into the army and served as an MP in West Germany and France in the early 1960s. Upon returning to the States, he went to NYU and also worked in New York selling books and shirts and working as a bookkeeper while he wrote and translated poetry.

He was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2007. When asked by an interviewer what advice he'd give to people looking to be happy, he said, "For starters, learn how to cook."

On this day in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a birth control pill. Margaret Sanger had campaigned for more than 40 years for a contraceptive that would be inexpensive and widely available. She raised $3 million from her friend Katherine McCormick to fund the research of doctors John Rock and Gregory Pincus, who began working together on the project in 1952.

The first oral contraceptive pill was called Enovid-10 and was a 10-mg combination of synthetic hormones norethynodrel and mestranol. It was approved first in 1957 for treating menstrual disorders. Then, on this day, the FDA announced that it would approve the pill for the use of birth control. The pill prevents pregnancy because its synthetic hormones block the ovaries from releasing eggs that can be fertilized.

It wasn't until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, however, that the pill became available in all states to married women. With Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, the pill became available as well to unmarried women in all states. In 2000, more than 16 million American women were taking the pill.

The truth is
that I fall in love

so easily because
it's easy. It happens

a dozen times some days.           lovely women in the world,
I've lived whole lives,                 but because each time,

had children,                            dying in their arms
grown old, and died                  I call your name.

in the arms of other women
in no more time

than it takes the 2-train
to get from City Hall

to Brooklyn,
which always brings me

back to you:
the only one

I fall in love with
at least once every day—

not because
there are no other

"Falling" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © University of Georgia Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz, in Omaha, Nebraska (1899). He made dancing look effortless on screen and stage, and the writer John O'Hara called him the "living symbol of all that is the best of show business."

He started dancing when he was four, and when he was six, he formed an act with his sister, Adele, that became a popular vaudeville attraction on Broadway. When Adele retired in 1932, Astaire made a screen test. The movie executive wrote, "Can't act, can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Still, Astaire got a part in Dancing Lady (1933). It starred Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Three Stooges.

He's famous for the movies he made with his dancing partner Ginger Rogers: classics like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936). They rubbed off on each another. People said she gave him sex appeal, and he gave her class. Their only on-screen kiss came in the movie Carefree (1938), in a dream sequence.

He was a perfectionist who sometimes worked 18 hours a day. He said, "The only way I know to get a good show is to practice, sweat, rehearse, and worry." He demanded the same of his partners. One scene in Swing Time took 47 takes to film, and by the end, Ginger's feet were bleeding. In the film, she says, "I've danced with you. I'm never going to dance again."

In one routine, Astaire had to toss an umbrella across a room, into an umbrella stand. He said, "I did it 45 times, and it always hit the edge. So I said, 'That's it! Tomorrow morning, first thing, I'm coming back, and I'm going to get [it] … I came back next morning fresh as a daisy, and that umbrella went into the stand on the first take."

He kept dancing until late in his life. At age 50, he said, "How do I keep going? What do I do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I don't eat health foods. I never dance unless I have to. I don't work out in a gym. Vitamin pills? Never! Who needs 'em?" He said, "Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young."

He said, "The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style."

It's the birthday of Karl Barth, (books by this author) born in Basel, Switzerland (1886), one of the most influential theologians of this century. He said, "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God."

It's the birthday of Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, (books by this author) born in Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island (1843). He was called the greatest Spanish novelist since Miguel de Cervantes. He wrote 77 novels and 21 plays.

It's the birthday of British romance writer Barbara Taylor Bradford, (books by this author) born in Leeds, England (1933). She writes books about strong women driven by work and by love. Her first novel, A Woman of Substance (1979), sold over 19 million copies. It's a rags-to-riches story about Emma Harte, who builds a clothing store empire and gets revenge on the family of a man who seduced and abandoned her when she was a girl. She said, "If anyone asks me whether I like being a popular writer, I ask them whether they think I'd rather be an unpopular writer."

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

"Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare. Public Domain.

It's the second Sunday in May, which is Mother's Day here in the United States. It's Mother's Day in other countries, too, including Denmark, Italy, Venezuela, Turkey, Australia, and Japan. It's the biggest day of the year for long-distance telephone calls.

A woman named Anna Jarvis was the person behind the official establishment of Mother's Day. Her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, had a similar idea, and in 1905 the daughter swore at her mother's grave to dedicate her life to the project. She campaigned tirelessly for the holiday. In 1907, she passed out 500 white carnations at her mother's church, St. Andrew's Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia — one for each mother in the congregation. In 1912, West Virginia became the first state to adopt an official Mother's Day, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday.

Anna Jarvis became increasingly concerned over the commercialization of Mother's Day. She said, "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She was against the selling of flowers, and she called greeting cards "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write." Nevertheless, Mother's Day has become one of the best days of the year for florists. When Anna Jarvis lived the last years of her life in nursing home without a penny to her name, her bills were paid, unbeknownst to her, by the Florist's Exchange.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde wrote: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

It's the birthday of painter Salvador Dali, born in Figueras, Spain (1904). In 1929, he joined the surrealist movement. He was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, and he made what he called "hand-painted dream photographs": images of distorted human figures, limp pocket watches, and burning giraffes. He made the most of his fame; he was a born performer who relished an audience. He found that audience in America. He moved here in 1940, and made public appearances in Hollywood, on Broadway, and in the stores on New York's Fifth Avenue. He was an unmistakable figure; he had a perfectly waxed, upturned mustache, and a large collection of canes. Once, when he was asked to give a lecture, he showed up in a diving bell, and insisted on speaking from inside it


He said, "Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure — that of being Salvador Dali." At the end of his life there were reports that his assistants did much of his painting. When asked about it, he said, "Let my enemies devour each other."

He wrote two autobiographies: The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) and Diary of a Genius (1966). In Diary of a Genius, he wrote, "the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous."

It's the birthday of Stanley Elkin, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1930), during the Great Depression. His father, Philip, was a successful traveling salesman especially after the family moved to Chicago when Stanley was three. Philip told Stanley about his trips through the plains states, selling costume jewelry to stores.

In many of Elkin's novels, the heroes are pitchmen: the department store owner, Leo Feldman, in A Bad Man (1967); the disk jokey in The Dick Gibson Show (1971); politician Bob Druff of The MacGuffin (1991). The Franchiser (1976) is about Ben Flesh, a man who is so successful in building a nationwide empire of franchises that by the end of the novel, he can't tell which state is which.

In 1972, Elkin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It didn't keep him from writing. He went on to write some of his best books: The Living End (1979), about heaven, hell, and the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; and George Mills (1982), about 40 generations of blue-collar men with the name George Mills.

Stanley Elkin, who said, "Life's tallest order is to keep the feelings up, to make two dollars' worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can't do that. So fiction does."



  • “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