May 6, 2008

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.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show