Nov. 24, 2004

Gathering Leaves

by Robert Frost


Poem: "Gathering Leaves" by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost © Holt Rinehart Winston. Reprinted with permission.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the children's book author Frances Hodgson Burnett, born in Manchester, England (1849). She was a successful author of books for adults in her lifetime, but today she's remembered for a book she wrote for children: The Secret Garden (1896). She wrote, "I can't help making up things. If I didn't, I don't believe I could live. I'm sure I couldn't live here."

It's the birthday of one of the pioneers of the self-help industry, Dale Carnegie, born in Maryville, Missouri (1888). He started out teaching night classes on public speaking at the 125th Street YMCA in Harlem. The YMCA didn't have much faith that people would pay for a public speaking class, so Carnegie made them a deal. If his classes didn't make a profit, the Y didn't have to give him anything, but if they did make a profit, he got half. After a few years, he was making forty or fifty dollars per class.

He said, "People came to my classes because they wanted to be able to stand up on their feet and say a few words at a business meeting without fainting from fright. Salesmen wanted to be able to call on a tough customer without having to walk around the block three times to get up courage."

He saved up enough money to rent out an office in Times Square and began teaching his own classes and printing his own instructional pamphlets. He eventually published his pamphlets in the book Public Speaking; A Practical Course for Business Men (1926), which became a standard public speaking textbook.

For the next few years, Carnegie began studying biographies of prominent men, paying special attention to what made them successful. He claimed to have read more than 100 biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone. He began incorporating anecdotes about these famous people into his classes and his public lectures.

One day, a publishing executive who took one of his classes suggested that he write a book based on his lectures. He didn't want to, but he finally worked with a secretary to pull a book together and it was published in 1936 as How To Win Friends and Influence People.

The first printing of the book was 5,000 copies, but within a few months of its publication, it was selling 5,000 copies a day. It broke all the sales records for non-fiction, and has since sold more than 15 million copies.

When asked where he got his ideas, Dale Carnegie said, "I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book. If you don't like their rules, whose would you use?"

It's the birthday of the mathematician and philosopher Benedict Spinoza, born in Amsterdam (1632). He came from a family of Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. His father found refuge in Amsterdam, where there was a vibrant community of Jewish merchants and intellectuals.

Spinoza was a brilliant scholar, but he got himself excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the existence of miracles. So, he supported himself making lenses for spectacles, telescopes and microscopes. In his spare time, he studied mathematics, philosophy and theology and began to write. He was offered a professorship in Germany near the end of his life, but he turned it down because he thought it would take up too much time.

He published only three books in his lifetime, and only his first book, Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes (1663) named him as the author. He was afraid that if he published his ideas, he would be branded a heretic by both Jews and Christians. But after his death, his friends secretly published most of his writings.

His most important idea was that everything in the universe is made of a single substance, and that everything in the universe is subject to natural laws. He also argued that the soul and the body are not really separate, but two parts of the same thing. He believed that God did not stand outside the universe, but rather that the universe itself was God, and that everything in the universe was perfect and divine.

Spinoza said, "I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused."

It's the birthday of the novelist Lawrence Sterne, born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713). His father was a professional soldier. The year Sterne was born his father's salary was cut in half, and Sterne's earliest memories were of his father moving the family from one Army barracks to another. When he was ten years old, his father left him with an uncle and went off to Jamaica. Sterne never saw his father again.

Sterne's great grandfather had been the arch bishop of York, and Sterne decided to go into the church as well. He received a scholarship that had been established by his great grandfather for the benefit of the poor. He was ordained as a priest, with the help of his uncle, and he soon learned that his uncle expected political favors in return for his post. He did his best, writing articles for political causes his uncle supported, but he finally gave up and lost any chances he had for moving up in the church hierarchy.

He had to support himself and his wife by doing double duty in two different parishes, as well as substitute preaching at a third parish. He did all this preaching despite the fact that he was skeptical about the existence of God.

He knew he wanted to try writing fiction, but his friends kept telling him to put it off until he got promoted to higher office. He finally decided he couldn't wait any more, and began to write what became one of the most revolutionary novels in English literature: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760).

Like many novels of its era, Tristram Shandy pretends to be a sort of autobiography, but it becomes the story of the narrator being unable to tell his own story. He is constantly side-tracked by various absurd digressions on all sorts of subjects, questioning received ideas in ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics. The book is also filled with black pages, excerpts of obscure theological debates, and a graphic representation of its own plotline.

It begins, "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing...Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me."

His description of his own conception is interrupted by his mother asking his father, "Pray, my dear...have you not forgot to wind up the clock?"

Sterne participated in all the details of the Tristram Shandy's marketing campaign, even specifying the dimensions of the book to make sure it could fit into a gentleman's coat pocket. His efforts paid off and the book made him famous. But people were shocked to learn that the author was actually a priest, because so many passages in the book were vulgar or anti-religious. One critic at the time wrote, "[Sterne's] own character as a clergyman seems much impeached by printing such gross and vulgar tales, as no decent mind can endure without extreme disgust!"

But Thomas Jefferson said, "The writings of Sterne...form the best course of morality that was ever written." The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "[Sterne is] the most liberated spirit of all time."

Sterne's work influenced many writers of the 20th century, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. Italo Calvino said, "[Sterne] was the undoubted progenitor of all the avant-garde novels of our century."

Laurence Sterne said, "I am persuaded that every time a man smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this fragment of life."

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